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The edtech takeover of BCPS

Op-ed: A Baltimore County parent digs into the financials of the school system's technology efforts.

In a Martin's West hall festooned with student art at Baltimore County's State of the Schools' event, a few high-dollar donor tables featured education tech reps doing their own artful work.

Daly Computers — which is supplying up to 120,000 laptops to Baltimore County Public Schools under a multi-year $205 million contract — garnered a primo spot as a $30,000-level sponsor.

Other contributors to the annual SOS fundraiser included McGraw-Hill Education/Engrade, Pearson, Microsoft, Discovery Education and other tech or edtech companies doing business with BCPS.

The March 23 party — which featured salmon filet and red velvet cake and showcased students' dance ensembles — was an elaborate affair. Recent SOS events have cost more than $100,000, according to The Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools' federal 990 tax forms.

That's a lot of red velvet.

The scene is also emblematic of an apparent edtech takeover of the county's public school system, which is pursuing a laptop-per-student (1:1) initiative with projected "total costs" approaching $285 million in the first seven years alone, including related infrastructure "to support STAT" (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow), various documents show.

Daly's $30,000 table was a fruitful thank-you gesture. Presumably, BCPS plans to subsequently pay $58 million in device leasing costs every year to the Montgomery County-based IT company, a close affiliate of Hewlett-Packard.

In 2014, BCPS opted for the HP EliteBook Revolve 810 G2, a pricey $1,400 laptop/tablet hybrid with a webcam. Students in grades one through three and in selected test schools now play math games or watch videos on the devices in school. BCPS plans to expand STAT to all grades.

Nationwide, providers of computer software, wireless, devices and online curricula are becoming entrenched in education. New tech tools are essential. Yet who is watching for conflicts of interest, student data mining, screen-caused student vision problems or other potential pitfalls? Our boards of education should be.

An even bigger question: Who is making money off children in this vast educational experiment?

Consider this trend: Since the SOS event began four years ago — months after superintendent Dallas Dance was hired — the foundation that once raised money from the community for playground equipment has been nearly co-opted by edtech interests. (An aside: the director of the nonprofit foundation is Deborah Phelps, mother of renowned Olympian Michael Phelps.)

In 2014, about one-fifth of 50 event contributors in the $1,000-$50,000 range were tech-related firms, according to the foundation's website. The largest donor, AdvancePath Academics, at $50,000, is a BCPS' partner providing tech-based courses.

By early 2015 nearly half of about 50 donors in a similar range were tech-based companies, including Daly, Infinite Campus, Apex Learning, Hewlett-Packard (HP), ScholarChip and Ascend Math. Many also contributed in 2016; their company logos and social media links are advertised on sponsor "thank you" pages.

According to foundation literature, the non-profit's goals include: funding STAT, scholarships, school-based projects or instructional initiatives. It's not necessarily a bad thing that private companies contribute to schools. Donations funded about $42,000 worth of projects in 2014-2105, including a sensory garden and STEM clubs. Yet such initiatives are increasingly tech-oriented, such as the testing of DreamBox Learning's math video game in kindergarten classrooms.

What do tech companies expect in return for their generosity? And, if such donors help fund STAT and digital curricula, aren't they in turn funding themselves?

McGraw-Hill Education alone has been awarded a whopping $15.6 million, 10-year contract to provide elementary language arts curricula, using print and multimedia sources up through 2023, records show. The edtech industry, at more than $8 billion nationwide, is already accessing tomorrow's dollars today, in vendor contracts and "free" user feedback that aids in software development. The industry rakes in these taxpayer dollars as schools "transform" education under the latest fad known as "personalized learning." As one education watcher noted, that often translates to "depersonalized machine-based learning," because students can spend more time on screens, with the role of teachers minimized.

Among other issues: Superintendent Dance has done promotional videos for HP, AdvancePath and ScholarChip, and he has apparently presented at more than 25 edtech-related events, according to event resources. As a featured speaker, he often promotes STAT — though there's no clear quantitative evidence of success, and standardized PARCC exam scores in BCPS test schools have actually trended downward.

In Nov. 2014, Superintendent Dance attended the Global Symposium on ICT in Education in Gyeongju, Korea, to talk about digital conversions — just a few weeks after the first BCPS students received the laptops.

On Monday, five BCPS staffers — including Mr. Dance and digital czar Ryan Imbriale, plan to present at an edtech investors' summit in San Diego, Calif., run in part by GSV, Global Silicon Valley.

Is BCPS seeking full-out corporate grants for STAT? If so, how deep would that get us? And who is paying for such trips, videos and presentations? BCPS referred these and related questions to the schools' Public Information Act (PIA) office, and I have since filed an information request. We'll see what comes back.

In the meantime, let's forego the annual hype-and-hoopla and pose a few more higher-order questions. Contrary to the edtech lingo touted by BCPS leaders, we cannot just "ask Siri."

Joanne C. Simpson is a BCPS parent, a former reporter at The Miami Herald and a freelance writer based in Baltimore. She can be reached at jcscribe@yahoo.com.

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