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—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Baltimore County, Md. – They call it “second order change.”
After a deferred vote last week, Baltimore County Public Schools’ education board will vote on March 20 for an additional $140 million Daly Computers contract to continue S.T.A.T., the district’s laptop-for-every student program, by leasing 133,000 laptops for its 113,000 students, teachers and staff.
The vote, which is expected to pass in spite of increasing community opposition, will complete former Superintendent S. Dallas Dance’s mission to transform teaching and learning in Baltimore County through a laptop-for-every student program he says students named “Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow.”
While concerned parents and advocacy groups are seeking a more responsible use of technology in the classroom, some school officials have created an “all or none” scenario, and have planned a rally warning the board of education that unless the Daly contract goes forward, teachers and students will be left without any options to move forward – at all.
Both Dance and Ryan Imbriale, the executive director for the school system’s Department of Innovative Learning, call it “second order change,” and it is a topic about which each spoke in detail to audiences within and outside of the school system.
“What we spent a lot of time talking to our principals about was not the technology. We spent a lot of time talking to them about the leadership that is required for second order change,” Dance said. “When you do a second order change, we can’t go back to business as usual. This is really letting our guards down creating this culture of innovation and risk-taking and that is what professional development looked like from a leadership perspective,” he said at a 2016 talk he gave for the Learning Counsel.
Imbriale, who trained school system staff members on STAT and the conversion to software and online-based lessons, explained the changes that would be occurring in Baltimore County.
On a slide from a July 2013 presentation, there was little doubt what was meant. “First-order change is doing something we have been doing but with adjustments. First order change is always reversible. Second order change is doing something so significantly and fundamentally different that it is irreversible. Once begun, it is impossible to return to what you were doing before.”
The contract discussion also leaves no room for change.
Without apparent room for negotiation or input, several parents expressed frustration about the school system’s laptop expansion at last week’s school board meeting.
But to ensure the school system has a voice at the March 20 meeting, Imbriale is summoning the power of numbers, by organizing a large rally of principals, teachers and parents to help demonstrate to the district’s education board that there is significant demand for the continuation of the system’s STAT program.
It’s a tactic that some parents and teachers see as a way to “stuff the speakers’ box” and drown out growing parental concern.
And it is not the first time it has happened.
During a public hearing two years ago to discuss former Superintendent Dance’s contract renewal and two unrelated topics, young students gripping laptops, school principals and over one hundred teachers rallied with claps, cheers and colorful signs to show support for the STAT program.
The January 2016 event, which brought a handful of critics who called former Superintendent Dance out on his frequent travel and questionable relationship with education consulting company, SUPES Academy, would later be nicknamed “Statapalooza,” after what some parents and teachers called an orchestrated ambush of a meeting intended for other purposes.
The majority of the board later voted to continue Dance’s contract.
Dance, who left the school system a year into that contract, had been under an unknown criminal investigation at the time he resigned. He was indicted in January and pleaded guilty last week for lying on his financial disclosure forms about roughly $147,000 he earned for delivering keynote speeches throughout the country and consulting work he did for companies, including $90,000 for SUPES Academy and an affiliated company.
Anticipated to be “Statapalooza 2.0,” sources have told The Baltimore Post that March 20’s organized rally is “expecting a big turnout to support the computer contract,” and that Imbriale and employees from the Department of Innovative Learning “are making teachers think they will not have computers next year unless the contract is approved.”
In a public blog post, called “Take a Stand, BCPS Stakeholders,” Nick Schiner, who works for Imbriale in the school system’s Department of Innovative Learning, wrote last week, “I want to put this bluntly. If the Baltimore County Public Schools’ Board of Education votes ‘NO’ on this new device contract, they are moving our district backwards,” he said. “A ‘NO’ vote means teaching tools come out of the hands of our gifted educators and, equally as important, out of the hands of our students.”
Abby Beytin from the Teachers Association for Baltimore County – or TABCO – admonished board members and asked them to give a ‘yes’ vote, despite what she said was a diversity of opinions about the laptop program for students.
“As you wrestle with the topic of devices for staff and students, I will tell you that my teachers are of differing opinions when it comes to the student devices. There are those that think they are wonderful and have added depth in capabilities to reach students in their classrooms. There are those who think they should not have a device for each child. And there are some that feel we need to be somewhere in between,” Beytin said.
But, “if this contract is delayed,” she continued, “the teachers will not have the device in time and the master agreement will be broken. If the contract does not go forward at all, the teachers will have no devices to use next year because the current devices, which are leased, will have to be returned… Teachers cannot do their work without their devices,” Beytin said. “They will not be able to answer emails, access curriculum, work on the grade book and the list goes on and on.”
Catonsville’s Pete Fitzpatrick, who is running for the Board of Education’s District One slot in this year’s first ever school board election, weighed in on his campaign page about the topic. He said he received an email from a mom in the school system whose child “came home in a full-on panic…”
Fitzpatrick said the child was “stirred up over having his device taken away at the end of the school year if the Board of Education doesn’t approve the contract. He said, “His mom is furious that he seem to have been sent home with what seems to be a targeted message.”
“This technology contract issue is a discussion between parties that differ in beliefs, but absolutely share a desire to see done what’s best for education,” Fitzpatrick said. “We can’t share such a desire, and use the kids as a fulcrum to lever an agenda.”
Several parents voiced concerns at last week’s board meeting, asking the school system to slow down and reassess.
Christina Pumphrey, president of Pine Grove Middle School’s Parent, Teacher and Student Association (PTSA) wants a delay until the program is reanalyzed. “Before approving this contract, a new analysis of the STAT program should be completed, in addition to the completion of an outside audit,” Pumphrey said.
Pumphrey, who said as PTSA president she is receiving feedback about the STAT program, said “It is obvious that a majority of parents know that the implementation of STAT, as it is now, was a huge mistake. The program needs to be reanalyzed before approval of a $140 million contract,” she said. “Our voices weren’t heard when the initiative first began and our voices are not being heard now, and that is extremely frustrating.”
Pumphrey then warned the board, “If this contract is approved without further analysis of STAT, I will fight with all I have to inform parents of the numerous problems and the waste of money that STAT involves. I encourage parents to refuse to sign paperwork at the beginning of the year for the devices.” She said, “I will continue to push this initiative on social media and through any means I can to make sure our voices are finally heard.”
A parent of a first grader with concerns then spoke to the board. She expressed concerns about her six year-old son’s access to the internet at school through his device and asked the board who was responsible for her child’s safety. The parent said that when she asked her child’s school, she was told that it was “my first grader’s job to stay on task and to only click on what is instructed.”
The mother said that through her child’s device she was able to find an article about reality star, Kim Kardashian, performing a sexual act on someone. The mother said the search box auto-filled the request after she typed “Kim,” which is the result of apparent widespread internet searches on the subject outside of the school system. She said that even the IT professional at the school was unaware that it was a possibility.
“Who is protecting my child from the harmful content that doesn’t quite register as porn?” the mother asked.
In contrast, a kindergarten teacher from Randallstown Elementary in favor of the devices said that in her school, “technology at home is not always prevalent, so it’s important to have them in our classrooms.”
The teacher spoke of her students who are learning to speak English and that it is a tool to promote English proficiency because she does not speak their native language.
The teacher said for her other students the devices are a “good motivator,” especially for “fine motor skills which is what I focus on in my classroom. We do research projects, animal projects and using tools such as PebbleGo and BrainPop is wonderful because for students who cannot necessarily read, it reads to them,” she said. “And having that research tool is so important to prepare them for college and career readiness, even at the age of five.”
A Towson-based middle school teacher told the Board last week that he was in favor of the devices because he said his students “are able to work together to solve a real life problem in project work teams,” on them.
Furthermore, the teacher said, it “mirrors the world of work.” He said that through the devices, his students can “see more of the world around them and they’re figuring out how to change that world and make it better.”
Eight months on the job with Baltimore County schools, in April 2013, Dance announced his vision for a laptop-for-every-student program at his first State of Schools address. Dance later told a group of Catonsville High School students in a recorded interview that he came up with the idea after visiting schools within the system and seeing inequities between them.
Dance told the students “Baltimore County is a very large county, very diverse county, you would go into some schools and there would be technology where it was still in boxes, so much that folks couldn’t use it. Then there were some that did not have any. And so we said, ‘let’s go ahead and level the playing field and make sure that we actually allow students to access every single thing that we wanted them to have through a mobile learning device.’”
Two advocacy groups that each acknowledge the benefits of technology in the classroom, yet have concerns about STAT’s implementation and curriculum delivery, have been pushing for House Bill 1110. The legislation, if passed, would direct the Department of Health, in consultation with the Department of Education, to craft guidelines to ensure students in pre-K through high school use digital devices safely in class and at home for homework.
The PTA Council for Baltimore County, which represents over 30,000 members in more than 150 local PTA and PTSAs serving Baltimore County Public Schools, also acknowledges that technology can be a powerful learning tool for students, but believes that “devices must be integrated into classroom learning thoughtfully and appropriately, especially for very young students.”
Advocates for Baltimore County Public Schools – or ABC Schools, which runs a Facebook Group comprised of over twenty five hundred parents, teachers and education advocates, says the issue is not one of technology versus no technology; it is, instead, a matter of how the technology is used.
“Our advocacy group understands that there is a role for technology in schools for children, but it must be used safely, and in balance with everything children need to be healthy and learn,” the core members wrote in a letter to the House Ways and Means Committee in support of the bill.
ABC Schools also made an announcement today about retaliation some teachers are experiencing by Baltimore County schools’ central office staff. Some teachers have been confronted for speaking out on their observations about the STAT program.
It is unclear if Imbriale’s “second order change” allows for tweaking of the STAT program. He, nor his central office staff, responded to a request for comment.
Dance will be sentenced on April 20.