At the Feb. 6 Board of Education meeting of the Baltimore County Public Schools, before a vote was taken on the Fiscal Year 2018-2019 budget, several BOE members made motions to redirect funds. Attempts were made to take funds from line items, such as travel and conferences that benefit central office staff, and divert them toward hiring essential schoolhouse personnel; social workers, bus monitors and residency officers. Another motion was made to move laptops currently assigned to students in grades one and two to high school students in lieu of purchasing more laptops. In addition to attempts to slow spending, this motion also addressed parent concerns about young children and screen time.
Sadly, none of the motions passed. By the end of the meeting it seemed like business as usual with continued lavish spending — similar to the previous five years under former superintendent Dallas Dance’s leadership. (Mr. Dance was recently indicted on four counts of perjury; a hearing in his case is scheduled in Baltimore County Circuit Court on March 8). All attempts to slow spending on the digital initiative known as STAT had failed.
Before a vote was taken on each motion, much discussion ensued. Interim Superintendent Verletta White, who was adamant in her opinion that removing the laptops from the younger students would be a mistake, cautioned that this would be a hardship for the classroom teachers because they would “have to stop on a dime” to make adjustments in instruction.
Many teachers’ react to this remark with sheer incredulity. Classroom teachers have been stopping on a dime for the last five years as STAT has been rolled out with glitch after glitch. There are tales of malfunctioning laptops, keyboards with keys falling off and long wait times for repair, to name only a few obstacles in delivering the digital curriculum. Stopping on a dime is a regular classroom occurrence.
Classroom teachers contact me anonymously, and others who are acquaintances ask that their names not be used. They all tell similar stories. It is not popular or wise to disagree publicly in BCPS. Of all the aspects of teacher autonomy that have been lost, freedom to express an opinion or question leadership is the most disheartening. The current culture does not tolerate dissent. Were this not so, teachers critical of STAT would be expressing professional opinions at BOE meetings alongside those who sing its praises. One need not hesitate to speak in support of the party line, but who wants to speak out in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation?
One teacher in particular, when asked to identify the most challenging thing about STAT, sadly shook her head in silence and finally said there were so many difficult pieces she could not choose one. When pressed she responded, “The hardest thing is that I don’t believe in what we are doing anymore.”
Teachers say they could teach without the laptops and digital curriculum — particularly without Dreambox and iReady (two of BCPS’ most expensive contracts for online learning). Some people argue that the newer teachers, the ones hired within the past five years, would be at a loss because they have not had the experience of teaching without a digital curriculum. This sells teachers short. It is insulting to suggest that without the multi-million-dollar technology industry guiding them, teachers would not know what to do in a classroom.
Teachers are the ones with the training, the knowledge and the license to teach — and by teachers I mean the ones in the classrooms with 24 students or more on a daily basis. The technology salespeople and those who profit from it would love to have us believe that online learning is the only way to deliver instruction. This simply is not true. Genuine technology integration in education is a far cry from technology industry takeover of our public schools.
Recently, there has been a demand by many stakeholders for an independent audit of BCPS. Some elected officials support this, but others have expressed concerns about its cost, suggesting that the money could be better spent on the students.
An audit could shed more light on the exact nature of the relationship between the technology companies and BCPS school leaders. If there is nothing unethical to report, then there is no harm done. The public’s trust would be restored. Compared to the $200 million (and counting) that BCPS is expected to spend on an unproven educational initiative (STAT), an audit would cost mere nickels and dimes. It would be worth it to find out once and for all.
Anne Spigelmire Groth is a retired teacher. She blogs at teachingafter60.wordpress.com.