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Baltimore County curriculum contract ended amid feuding

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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."

Hiring edCount

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.

Little more than a month later, edCount executives complained that there was still no signed contract.

Michael Kane, edCount's project director, emailed the school system's chief operating officer on Feb. 11: "We are burning at a rate of about $14K a day and will need to stop work if we do not get further authorization to expend by noon tomorrow. We need $75K for this week, but I would prefer to have the contract in place so that we can focus our attention on the massive substantive work at hand."

He said that the delay put the county at risk of not having the curriculum done in time.

The contract was eventually signed in February.

Problems and blame

By the end of April, Foley expressed concern that the school system was not seeing "drafts of units or developed learning experiences until they are complete."

When school staff members did see the work, they asked for revisions. The work began to fall behind schedule, and each side blamed the other.

Forte of edCount wrote on May 1 that "there have been changes to the concepts, processes and activities edCount proposed when we began this work, mostly at BCPS's direct instructions or in association with them."

Foley, meanwhile, complained that edCount had not employed as many people as the contract required. "It is our belief that the delays in writing are due to lack of initial capacity of the writers and the lack of a complete writing team," she wrote to Forte.

The company and school officials had several exchanges about delaying the dates when a draft and completed curriculum were due. The school system agreed to move back some dates but did not agree to edCount's proposed timeline.

Forte wrote to Elizabeth Aitken, a senior executive director of academics for the county and Foley's boss, on May 1: "Although you now assert otherwise, I informed you and you agreed that it would not be possible to get all of the quarter one materials in the hands of your teachers before mid-June."

Although county officials criticized edCount's work, they continued to pay the company on dates outlined in the contract, according to invoices.

In early May, email between the company and the school system became increasingly strident. By May 18, Kane wrote that Foley and other Baltimore County staffers were being "abusive" and demanding to be significantly involved in the curriculum writing.

"Unfounded BCPS concerns about receiving a quality product," Kane wrote, led to a process ensuring that the schools would not get the curriculum on time. In another email, he said edCount would no longer communicate with Foley.

At 9 p.m. May 18, Aitken wrote to Kane and Forte of edCount, saying that the county would dissolve the contract.

"A project cannot succeed when the contractor is unwilling to speak to the customer directly, to receive feedback, and to make adjustments on work that is considered unsatisfactory by the customer," Aitken wrote. Calling the relationship with edCount "contentious," she added: "I do believe that edCount entered this contract in good faith [but] the lack of expertise of the edCount curriculum team has significantly affected the pace and quality of the work: and ultimately, that is what the contract requires."

Interviewed this month, Kane said the project was an ambitious undertaking. Besides writing the curriculum, he said, the county wanted it loaded onto a digital platform, the equivalent of an online version, with accompanying materials for each lesson. In addition, the school system wanted the company to train teachers to use it.

Grant Wiggins, a consultant brought into the project by edCount at the county's request, said the school system's expectations were unrealistic.

"They were expecting to hit the ground running [in the fall] with an entirely new curriculum with a digital interface that some second-grade teacher" was going to understand how to teach, said Wiggins, president of Authentic Education, a research and consulting organization in New Jersey. "That was crazy. ... There were way too many moving parts and too many cooks in the broth and way too little time to do it."

Despite the county's contention that there were not enough curriculum writers, Forte said in an interview, "We believe we provided adequate personnel for the job. We know we provided high-quality people who were very adept at what they do."

Missing pieces

When school opened in August, teachers used an existing online platform for the language arts curriculum — one not designed for that purpose — and teachers said it was one of the stumbling blocks in accessing the new materials. School officials said in a statement Friday that the unfinished edCount digital platform had "informed the work" of creating a digital platform called BCPS One.

When the edCount contract was dissolved, the county had little time to finish the curriculum for the start of the school year.

The county decided not to look to other localities for help. A number of Eastern Shore districts had pooled their talents to write a new curriculum, and Montgomery County collaborated with Pearson to write one. New York state had a model Common Core curriculum available on its website for free; Massachusetts also had produced a curriculum framework that was available online.

Instead, county officials said in Friday's statement that they decided to continue the tradition of writing their own curriculum to "reflect the local needs of students living in Maryland." They noted that issues of local concern, including the science of the Chesapeake Bay, would not be in a New York or Massachusetts curriculum. A team of teachers used edCount's work as the basis for the first six weeks of curriculum.

(The transition to a Common Core math curriculum had begun in the fall of 2012, a full year before, and was handled by the county.)

School system leaders did not tell principals and teachers the predicament they faced.

Foley, who chose to resign from the county school system in July, said she and other administrators presented an outline of the first unit of the language arts curriculum to principals in June.

"I walked out when principals started asking questions about the development and delivery of subsequent units and the digital platform," she said. "BCPS leadership was not being transparent in their responses to [the principals'] questions and concerns, and I wouldn't stand by and lie to them."

In retrospect, she said she wishes she had informed Dance about the problems.

How closely Dance was following the development of the curriculum is unclear. His name does not appear on email between the school system and edCount, except toward the end, when the contract was being dissolved.

After the trouble with the curriculum arose in the fall, Dance said that edCount's work had been acceptable, but the school system had decided to use its own curriculum writers.

During the current school year, those writers have stayed just one step ahead of teachers. Teachers did not see the first unit until just before they began teaching in August.

"The first two units were an absolute nightmare," said Beytin of the teachers union. "Pieces were missing and they didn't fit together."

Now, as the school year comes to a close, Foy still has worries about the language arts curriculum, which was hurriedly written by the county.

"There is nothing in the new curriculum about grammar. There is nothing about spelling and nothing about handwriting," the fifth-grade teacher said. "How can you teach kids without those basic ingredients?"

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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