As Baltimore County prepared for a major shift in education to take effect this school year, Superintendent Dallas Dance promised that the system's 53,000 elementary students would be taught with a "world-class" curriculum.
But the initial multimillion-dollar effort to develop course plans for language arts collapsed as complaints flew in both directions between school officials and a Washington-based company hired for the project, according to email and other documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun in a public records request.
School officials severed the contract with edCount LLC after criticizing the company for missing deadlines, not giving the project adequate staffing and refusing to communicate with key employees. The company, meanwhile, argued that school staffers were "abusive," imposing unrealistic deadlines and making changes that required extra work.
Even though school officials described the work as "unsatisfactory" in an email, they continued to pay the company — a bill that rose to $2.1 million by the time contractual ties were cut in June. For its money, the school system got the first six weeks of the elementary language arts curriculum, an outline of a second six-week unit and an unfinished digital platform.
When Baltimore County students arrived back in classrooms in August, the language arts curriculum for the new Common Core standards was in disarray in elementary schools. Teachers said the material was poorly written and so difficult to access online that they had to work long hours after school; their union filed a grievance over the issue. Dance apologized to teachers for the problems.
"The outcry was almost immediate," recalled Stephanie Foy, a fifth-grade teacher at Villa Cresta Elementary in Parkville. Over the year, the curriculum has improved slightly, Foy said, but "the lack of a coherent curriculum has put the kids in a situation of not necessarily feeling successful at the end."
The story of what went wrong last spring was never explained to teachers or the public, but documents obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request provide a detailed look at problems that derailed the project.
As part of their settlement, school system and edCount officials signed a nondisparagement agreement, which prohibits them from making statements "that might be construed to be derogatory or critical or negative toward the other party."
"We are very proud of the work we did," edCount President Ellen Forte said in a recent interview. "They chose to take another path, and we wish them well."
Dance declined to be interviewed for this article, and no other school officials were made available to discuss the issue.
"Six months later, the foundation provided by edCount continues to give us the core best practices for our own BCPS teachers to write curriculum and develop digital platforms that are specific to our needs," Verletta White, the school system's chief academic officer, said in a statement. "Our team of writers has been very successful."
The edCount contract arose out of a commitment made by Maryland — and most states — to use the Common Core education standards. The state school board required local districts to have a curriculum in place to match the standards by fall 2013.
The new standards list dozens of skills that students should master in English and math by the end of each grade. For example, one language arts standard says students at the end of second grade should be able to describe "how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges." Localities create the curriculum and lesson plans used to teach those skills.
Baltimore County was behind other school districts from the start, due in part to a change in leadership. When Dance took over as superintendent in mid-2012, he had one year to plan the conversion to the new standards. Baltimore City, by contrast, had begun writing its curriculum in 2010 and worked with an alliance of urban districts, including Los Angeles, Denver and Washington.
For elementary language arts, Dance decided that Baltimore County's school system would hire a company to write the curriculum. He told teachers they would have a "world-class" curriculum in their hands by June 2013, enough time to plan lessons for the fall.
From the beginning, the project moved quickly. Kate Foley, county supervisor of liberal arts, was asked in late 2012 to write the document detailing what contractors should bid on. She had less than week to do it.
Four contractors responded, and two — Pearson and edCount — received the highest ratings from a county panel of teachers and administrators. School district documents show that Pearson received a slightly higher rating, but edCount said it could do the work for about half the cost: $5.4 million vs. Pearson's estimate of $10 million.
Some on the panel that reviewed the proposals wondered whether edCount had the experience to handle such a project, according to panel member Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. Much of edCount's work was focused on students with disabilities and those learning English as a second language, but company officials noted they also had worked with Puerto Rico's Education Department to assess whether its curriculum was aligned with Common Core standards.
Dance brought the edCount contract before the board on Jan. 8, 2013, and it was approved.