Baltimore County education officials are set to expand student use of laptops this month as part of one of the nation’s largest digital overhauls of a school district, just as critics are intensifying calls for proof that the costly computer initiative has improved learning.
Companies seeking to supply laptops to more than 100,000 county students and teachers have until Friday to submit sealed bids for a contract that will replace a deal awarded four years ago to provide 150,000 devices. The district has spent about $147 million since then to give all elementary and middle school students Hewlett Packard computers.
The winner of the new contract, to be awarded by the school board, will be required to distribute new computers to all high school students by next winter and to begin to replace existing devices, which Hewlett Packard no longer manufactures.
But the Board of Education will begin contemplating a new contract while it is being besieged with questions about how the district has awarded dozens of other contracts related to the four-year-old computer initiative.
A state lawmaker has called on Maryland education officials to audit district technology contracts after a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed that school leaders have worked as paid consultants for a company that represents education technology firms, including some with district contracts.
Interim Superintendent Verletta White announced over the Thanksgiving weekend that she would no longer accept the type of work she performed since 2013 for Education Research & Development Institute. The Chicago company paid White and former superintendent Dallas Dance to meet with its technology company clients in private meetings to help them enhance products the firms try to sell to districts.
In addition to concerns about contracts, parents and teachers have expressed frustration with computers breaking down, students visiting unauthorized Web sites and the amount of time elementary students spend on devices.
One parents group has called on the school board to improve its oversight of district spending.
“When hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to lease a laptop for every student — all 113,000 of them — what is lost, especially in a County where nearly half of the students live in poverty?” members of the group Advocates for Baltimore County Schools asked in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “When every line item of the budget is raided to fund this as-yet-unproven initiative, what is left to address the most basic needs of students?”
National observers have praised the school district for the breadth of the rollout, known as Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, or STAT, and for its commitment to provide computers to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
“It was a district-wide initiative that took significant planning and leadership to pull off,” said Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise, an independent bipartisan nonprofit authorized by Congress in 2008 as the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies. “Baltimore County stands out as a well-planned districtwide implementation.”
Critics say they support equipping students and teachers with modern technology.
“I believe in the power of technology to engage students and transform learning,” said school board member Julie Henn. “I am supportive of STAT, but I think we have to look at how we do it.”
School officials say test scores show that the initiative is improving learning. Students who have had the devices the longest — especially in middle schools — scored better than other students on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a school system analysis shows.
Teaching “has become more flexible, responsive, and tailored” to each student’s needs, school officials said in a statement. “A student can choose from several digital resources to build their understanding of a topic including text, audio, video, and interactive tools.”
Abby Beytin, president of the county teachers union, says many elementary school teachers want to see STAT continue. Middle and high school teachers are less enthusiastic.
“The elementary school teachers think it has helped them tremendously,” Beytin said. But many are “very, very upset” about the difficulty they have accessing curriculum materials on the system’s website.
The rate at which devices have been broken, lost or stolen has been less than 3 percent — well within industry standards, school officials say. But parents complain their children have gone for weeks without their laptops. That makes completing homework more difficult, they say, and affects grades.
Kevin Mulligan, the father of a Dumbarton Middle School student, said repairs take too long. He said all schools should have replacement devices available.
Parent Daya Chaney Webb said she supports giving students access to technology.
But “a lot of parents just think it wasn’t tested enough,” Webb said. “It got rolled out so fast.”
On a recent visit to her her son’s middle school class, she said, she saw at least five out of 30 students looking at material on their computers that was not related to the lesson. She said her son spent more time looking at his device than listening to the teacher.
In addition, a group of middle school students in her neighborhood were found looking at pornography on their devices, she said.
Parents have reported to the school system that their children are able to hack through the district’s security system to access unauthorized sites, Webb said.
The Johns Hopkins University Center for Research and Reform in Education, which has studied STAT for the district, reported in July that teachers have witnessed the same abuses.
The district has awarded the center $711,330 since 2014 under a contract to evaluate STAT.
“Over three quarters of teachers surveyed indicated inappropriate use of technology occurred at least occasionally,” the center reported. “Most frequently, elementary, middle, and high school students were mentioned playing games, visiting various unapproved websites, or using programs on their devices such as the camera.”
Students have found workarounds to bypass the school district’s firewall, the center reported, and downloaded Psiphon, a program that allows the user to have open access to the Internet.
Teachers at all levels told the Johns Hopkins researchers that they were feeling “overwhelmed and not supported with technology integration.”
“Many teachers feel that too much is happening too quickly, and consequently, they need more time to digest, plan, and perfect what is already on their plates,” the center reported.
Still, the center said, the program “seems to be meeting and often exceeding expectations” based on the support and positive reactions expressed by teachers and students.
School board member David Uhlfelder said the initiative has gone well.
“We were so far ahead of the curve and we were very innovative,” Uhlfelder said.
But other board members want the board to consider less expensive devices for elementary schools.
“We need to evaluate the total cost of the program,” said board member Kathleen Causey.
The board, she added, needs to determine if supplying a laptop to all students is as critical as other needs, such as reducing high school class sizes.
Board member Ann Miller said her colleagues need to move more slowly as they consider the new contract.
“Not only do we need to look at student outcomes, but we have a duty to the public to watch how we spend taxpayer dollars,” Miller said.