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Was Baltimore County’s move to a digital learning platform ever about academic achievement?
Apparently not, according to interim Superintendent Verletta White’s statement that Baltimore County Public Schools’ (BCPS) digital curriculum overhaul, called STAT, was not designed to improve academic achievement, leaving county residents wondering what the staggering expense and forced implementation was all about.
“It has never been about laptops increasing achievement,” Ms. White was quoted as saying in an article published by The Baltimore Sun last week. [12/13/18 Baltimore Sun article: Four years in, Baltimore County schools’ $147M laptop program has produced little change in student achievement.].
But the claim runs contrary to the program’s goals, as determined by Johns Hopkins University (JHU) researchers who were hired in 2014 to evaluate the laptop program. After JHU’s first-year evaluation, researchers included in their 2014-2015 report, “Leadership must understand and communicate that S.T.A.T. is not just technology; it is using technology to support the goal of increasing higher-order, student-centered learning to improve academic achievement.”
Yet, while it is also true that BCPS hired those researchers to actually evaluate the academic results of the STAT program, starting no sooner than Year 3 or 4 into the digital overhaul, it has been clear that the speed used to get the program going in all 174 schools has been the the primary goal and intended measure of achievement all along. Speed irrespective of student achievement or results from any type of Johns Hopkins study – much less an achievement-based one.
Those who have been paying attention all five years may recall that the JHU studies were often “unavailable” while key votes in support of the program were being made. In two cases, former board member David Uhlfelder went as far as to say that he didn’t even “need data to vote” to further fund the program.
After all, the program is called STAT, a pun-laden acronym which stands for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow. If speed is a measure of success – and not academic achievement – then we think the mission has been accomplished.
And last April is when it happened, back when a second multi-million dollar contract – totaling $140 million – completed former Superintendent Dallas Dance’s Five-Year Strategic Plan to successfully implement his signature STAT laptop program into all Baltimore County Public Schools.
During a budget vote, staff members – wearing matching lime green shirts, who had been organized to champion the laptop program in front of school board members voting on the contract – erupted into cheers and applause when the $140 million dollar Hewlett Packard and Daly Computers deal was approved.
The school board’s 7-to-4 vote symbolized completion – a touchdown, if you will – which was to successfully implement STAT into what district officials have called an “irreversible” transformation of the school system.
That was the goal. That was the achievement. That was the cause for celebration. Not academics.
But hugs, high-fives and handshakes followed the board meeting, nonetheless. And at least three district employees, who championed STAT along with the green shirts, resigned from the school system soon thereafter, scurrying off to work for none other than BCPS connections in the ed tech industry.
But while Mr. Dance was no longer employed by BCPS to witness the fruits of his labor that night, having been convicted of criminal misdemeanors stemming from perjury charges, approval of 130,000 new HP laptops signaled completion of his Five-Year STAT Strategic Plan. It was the last stage of implementation and brought the remaining high schools on board – absent data from any pilots – while locking the district for the next seven years into four staggered four-year contracts.
Yet, it was that contract that was cause for the district’s celebration, while occasion for “student achievement’ was not and has not been.
Even the district’s education technology vendors have focused on non-academics for reason to celebrate the program’s success. Leading up to April’s contract vote, vendors celebrated each milestone of STAT’s implementation. But, strangely, never celebrated were milestones related to academics. Not even by the district’s own digital curriculum vendors.
The Baltimore Sun, for instance, reported in November 2015 that Intel named BCPS’s executive director of innovative learning as one of 40 “visionary leaders.” This was only one year after first-through-third-graders in 10 elementary STAT “Lighthouse” schools had tried out the new laptops and curriculum.
Yet, only two months after those very students received their devices for the very first time, the school system’s Hewlett Packard sales representative, Gus Schmedlen, appeared before the school board to talk about STAT’s “unbelievable success.” Evidence of that claim Schmedlen gave was that the United Nations General Assembly, Rwanda, Oman, Paris, the World Economic Forum, Croatia and Ireland were given BCPS’s STAT strategic plan. And, to that point, Shemedlen said that what was happening in Baltimore County classrooms should be held as a “gold standard for the world.” The world!
But who can forget the questionable vendor/employee ties that led to statewide calls for a financial audit of the school system? DreamBox Learning, for instance, a video-game-based mathematics program for elementary students, was among the clients with whom Mr. Dance met when he worked as a consultant for the Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI). ERDI pairs its paying clients – like DreamBox – with education leaders that ERDI, in turn, then pays.
As a paid ERDI consultant, Mr. Dance met with DreamBox mere months before BCPS more than doubled its contract (now $3.2 million) with the technology vendor, The New York Times reported last year.
The same two JHU researchers evaluating STAT, also evaluated DreamBox Learning from 2015 to 2016. The researchers studied the “efficacy of DreamBox Learning Math” for $80,000, records show.
But despite the investment in technology and the studies that should capture its actual impact, recent PARCC scores across multiple grades are concerning, and show the school district is in 21st place in mathematics, out of the state’s 24 school districts. DreamBox is part of the district’s overall elementary math curriculum, and teachers are required to have students use the software during the school day – as well as for practice at home.
Was academic achievement ever the goal of STAT? Perhaps not. But what is clear is that – all told – Baltimore County Public Schools has now invested well over than $300 million into what is purported to be a 21st century, “globally competitive” program; and one that taxpayers, students and teachers are locked into for years to come.
Considering the huge investment, if STAT is not about academic achievement, then what exactly is the point?