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The bond between business and education

In a recent commentary, former state schools superintendent Nancy Grasmick concludes that "our goal should be for the education community to work hand-in-hand with businesses to deliver 'personalized' learning opportunities" ("An inextricable bond between education, business," Jan. 15).

Yet to our dismay, the relationship between business and the public schools is lauded without a single mention of the policies and ethics that must underlie such "conversations" and "bonds."

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A key issue is conflict of interest in the business-educational technology relationship: How much are our school leaders allowing themselves to be influenced by corporate concerns, particularly in the field of educational technology, rather than focusing on the needs of students, teachers and schools?

Consider an example from the field of medicine, where there is wide recognition of the unwarranted influence business interests can have. Influence by pharmaceutical companies makes it more likely for a physician to prescribe a medication manufactured by those companies. Consequently, both of our state's medical schools and policy-making organizations at the state and federal level have very strict rules about such interactions.

The issue in our public schools is not that different when one considers the increasingly cozy relationship between educational technology companies and school administrations. As technology proliferates in school settings, an increasing number of companies vie to gain influence over its use.

The primary motive of business is to make a profit; the primary goal of public education is to serve the public good.

This doesn't mean that business and education cannot work together. But in contrast to Ms. Grasmick's view, the ultimate purpose of education is not to further success in the global marketplace.

Education technology is big business; with the ed-tech market totaling more than $8 billion in 2012-2013 and investors flocking to the K-12 market, according to a recent article in the Atlantic. Ms. Grasmick argues that the use of "computers, the Internet and social media" should be at the forefront of education. Technology as a learning tool certainly has its place, but the positive and negative consequences of "using a wide array of technology to deliver academic content" have yet to be thoroughly researched, both in terms of educational and even health outcomes. The costs of such programs should also be considered.  For example, Baltimore County Public Schools is spending over $270 million on tablet-style computers and personalized learning, and the district is planning to spend $40 million on classroom projectors.  The opportunity costs (a concept any supporter of business should understand) here are considerable; imagine what such money could buy in terms of smaller class sizes and safer school buildings.

Within the Baltimore County Public Schools system, the STAT (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow) initiative is now pressing ahead with a 1-to-1 computer environment in elementary classrooms, with a focus on online educational programs and "personalized learning" to achieve the goals of which Ms. Grasmick writes.  School administrators, whose official role is to educate 110,000 children, have been participating in speaking engagements, technology tradeshows, and even advisory committees that connect them closely with the very same companies contracting with their schools. They have received awards from technology organizations backed by those same technology companies. The annual BCPS State of the Schools program is also sponsored by companies with a financial interest in selling to the system; this includes the supplier of computers for the 1-to-1 program. Are we "hand-in-hand with business to deliver 'personalized' learning opportunities" or have we already crossed directly into conflict of interest?

Ethical boundaries are necessary in leadership, in both education and business, to maintain both objectivity and clarity of purpose. Breaking down such essential barriers by blurring the lines between the needs of the market and the purpose of education will shortchange our children.

Cynthia Boyd and Leslie Weber, Baltimore

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