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Technology as Teacher: Consulting Firm with Ties to Baltimore County Had Big Plans
Posted by Ann Costantino on 3rd February 2018

—– By: Ann Costantino —–

If there ever were any doubt about the Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI) and its promotion of educational technology to school systems, a July 2011 ERDI Innovation Conference makes it abundantly clear.

One conference presenter in particular had a very specific message at the Atlanta event for education leaders and their school systems: that computer-centered learning for kindergarten through 12th grade was coming, and those in the audience would be making the changes – very soon.

“I want to give you a quick and conceptual look at why I think the pivot to ‘personalized digital learning’ is a really big deal, like one of the three or four of the most important things happening in the world,” said Tom Vander Ark, an author, speaker and investor in more than 70 technology companies.  “Secondly, I’m going to talk about how that’s going to happen in most of your schools,” he said.

In the audience, along with other education leaders, was former Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) superintendent, Dr. Joe Hairston.  Hairston, who reported the trip to his education board, immediately preceded Dr. S. Dallas Dance, who left the school system in June.

Dance, who was indicted last week on four counts of perjury for failing to disclose $147,000 of income he made as a consultant and speaker for almost a dozen companies and organizations, also withheld disclosure of a payment amounting to more than $4,000 from ERDI that the indictment said he received in 2015.

ERDI, an education consulting company based in Illinois, which pays education leaders to meet with its education product and services clients, says it provides a unique opportunity for superintendents to provide valuable feedback on its clients’ products.   But the unique access vendors are given to school system leaders, such as Dance, has been questioned in school systems as far as California, Chicago, Ohio, Iowa and even B.C. Canada.  Namely, concerns have been raised about potential conflicts of interest.  Especially troubling are contracts awarded to ERDI’s technology clients by the very school leaders who met with them.

In a November Op-Ed posted in the Towson Flyer, Joanne C. Simpson wrote that in Baltimore County there have been “about a dozen clients that have been awarded high-dollar contracts with BCPS.”  Included: “Discovery Education ($10 million); Code to the Future ($987,000); NWEA, MAP-testing provider ($3.9 million); McGraw Hill ($15.6 million);  Curriculum Associates/iReady ($3.2 million); DreamBox Learning ($3.2 million); and other for-profit companies whose multi-million dollar ‘contract spending authorities’ were approved by the Baltimore County Board of Education over the past five years—under the tenure of former superintendent Dallas Dance. The contracts are currently in place.”

Balt. County Taxpayers Funding Multi-Million Dollar Tech Program

S.T.A.T., BCPS’s laptop-for-every-student program, has so far cost Baltimore County taxpayers roughly $260 million.  But the amount does not include licensing fees and other related expenses, which are in the tens of millions of dollars.

Despite the multi-million dollar investment, the Baltimore Sun reported last year that results on the state’s Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam showed that Baltimore County students scored below the state average.

“The pass rate in Baltimore County went down in elementary and middle school math by 1.6 percentage points, with 30.3 percent of students passing. In English, passing rates improved by 1.4 percentage points to 36.5 percent.”

BCPS administration has said that the drop in scores is due to the difference between taking tests online as opposed to on paper.

On Feb 6, the school board will be vote on BCPS’s FY 2019 operating budget.  If approved as is, $10 million that has been earmarked for S.T.A.T.’s expansion will allow the program to expand to all BCPS high schools in the 2018-2019 school year.

Yet ERDI maintains it pairs its clients with school system leaders for the purpose of improving education products and services.  Its clients – which are comprised largely of education technology vendors – pay ERDI $13,000 to $66,000 in membership fees according to a rate card published in November by The New York Times.

Superintendents are then paid $500-$2,000 by ERDI to sit on panels with ERDI’s clients.

The result, some say, are new or increased contracts in school systems awarded after district leaders met with vendors.

The New York Times reported in November, for instance, that Dance met with two ERDI vendors in February of last year.  DreamBox, which provides game-based math software, and Curriculum Associates (iReady) sells reading software.  Five months after Dance met with each company, Baltimore County’s school board increased the school system’s spending authority with the vendors by $1.8 million and $2 million, respectively.

But while critics say ERDI provides opportunities for clients to sell to superintendents, the 2011 ERDI Innovation Conference provided more than just that.

Presenter Vander Ark told the audience at the Discovery Education-sponsored event to start “piloting upper division, online courses.”  He said, “Stop offering (Advanced Placement) AP courses” in the classroom.  Instead, “offer those online.  You can offer all 32 (classes) at consistent quality for less money than you’re currently doing it,” he said.  (BCPS has a $10 million contract with Discovery Education, a provider of digital curriculum.)

Previous Superintendent Hairston, who also served as chair for ERDI’s Superintendents Board of Directors starting in 2007, would leave BCPS one year after the conference. Hairston retired after 12 years serving as BCPS’s superintendent.  His last day was June 30, 2012.

The following day, the energetic and visionary, Dr. S. Dallas Dance, would take the helm, only to announce a system-wide personalized learning technology initiative eight months later.

Changes to curriculum, grading policies, Advanced Placement (AP), Special Education, language instruction, and the school system’s Gifted and Talented program would quickly follow Dance’s 2013 announcement. And a five-year strategic plan for S.T.A.T., the district’s laptop-for-every-child digital curriculum initiative, would roll-out full steam ahead.  (S.T.A.T. stands for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow.)

Then in 2014, Baltimore County’s education board would commit $205 million to the program and, later that year, Dance’s S.T.A.T. program would debut in 10 Baltimore County Public Schools as the system’s “S.T.A.T. Lighthouse Schools.”

The young superintendent, who was 30 when he took the job in Baltimore County, would also start his paid consulting work with ERDI’s clients in 2015 and 2016, according to two ERDI documents which list ERDI advisory members.

But years prior, at that July ERDI 2011 event, Vander Ark presented his plan for school systems when he gave his talk he called “Designing Digital Districts.”

He instructed the education leaders that, starting that upcoming 2011-2012 school year, it was time to get started with their school districts’ digital and virtual learning programs.

“Online assessment is coming in the next three years to most states and it’s a great opportunity to put a stake in the ground to build a three or four phase plan, starting next month,” he said.

Vander Ark — who was also Executive Director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and, despite lacking prior teaching experience, also served as superintendent of Washington State’s Federal Way Public Schools – told the education leaders that they should “be launching in September (2011), a Blended 6-10 math program” and “have a team of teachers work with two to three to 400 students” virtually and online.

“You ought to be piloting special services online.  Speech therapies have had big developments in the last year and can deliver better and cheaper and faster speech therapy online,” he said.

Vander Ark, who mentioned the cost savings of using technology in place of teachers several times during his presentation, also said he started the first kindergarten to 12th grade online school in the country, but that “this stuff has not made enough of a difference as it should.”

Nonetheless, the Ed-Tech mogul told the audience of education leaders that the reason the 2011 push was different was because, in addition to providing students with a computer-based environment in order to “improve learning,” changing staffing was also now seen as imperative.

Vander Ark told the audience of education leaders that the reduction in teachers would “improve productivity.”

“It means a different staffing model which costs less and works better,” he said. “It means a tough set of conversations…”



Mr. Vander Ark and executives at ERDI were not immediately available for comment.  To watch Mr. Vander Ark’s full presentation and the other presentations given at the 2011 ERDI Innovation Conference, click here.  (Link supported by Google Chrome). For the conference agenda, click here.

Clarification:  An earlier version of this story credited The Baltimore Sun’s Jan. 25 article regarding the increased contracted spending authority for DreamBox and Curriculum Associates after former Superintendent Dance met with the vendors at an ERDI conference five months before.  It was actually the The New York Times that first broke that part of the story in its November 3rd article called How Silicon Valley Plans to Conquer the Classroom.




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