This is a guest post from a Baltimore area educator who wishes to remain anonymous:
Our local school system, Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), is undertaking a 270 million dollar technology initiative (once entitled the Instructional Digital Conversion, but rebranded as the catchier STAT, “Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow”), with the goal of setting up a one-to-one computer tablet and online learning program for its 110,000 students. The program reaches from first grade to twelfth, though the complete rollout has occurred only in the elementary grades thus far; the middle school and high school program has been slowed due to implementation issues. Its stated goal is to offer “personalized learning” for every student and to “equip every student with the critical 21st century skills to be globally competitive.” As attractive as this sounds, however, there is limited evidence about the effectiveness of a system-wide one-to-one tablet program; no input has been garnered from parents, and the expectation is that teachers will fully embrace the program without question (not only were technology teachers left out of the conversation, their positions were eliminated from the BCPS system altogether). This is taking place in a school district that is in desperate need of improvements to infrastructure, transportation, class size reduction, and social programs, issues that have been financially pushed to the side in favor of STAT.
A series of Baltimore County Public Schools blog posts, press releases, and promotional videos preceded the rollout of the STAT program, which officially began in August 2014 in a small number of test schools; anecdotal evidence of the benefits to students of a one-to-one computer program was emphasized throughout, and numerous “partnerships” were quickly established with educational technology companies. The school superintendent and other key administrative personnel participated in several speaking opportunities and conference appearances, often sponsored by those same technology companies; almost immediately the STAT program received praise, starting with awards from online media organizations, also backed by corporate interests. The program had been in place for less than a full school year and was still in a limited testing phase, yet was getting national and even international attention, with the superintendent traveling to a technology symposium in South Korea to discuss the implementation.
While a certain level of promotion of an initiative can be expected, the close relationship between school system administrators and the technology vendors that serve the system raises questions of conflict of interest. Two vendors have produced infomercial-style videos at two of the test schools, praising the hardware and software that the school has adopted. The superintendent also sits on the advisory committee for the Education Research and Development Institute, with a mission to “provide a forum for dialogue between outstanding educational leaders and committed corporate partners,” many of which are vendors for the system. Shortly before the beginning of the technology push, the superintendent also repurposed the Baltimore County Public Schools Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that had typically handled donations to local schools from area businesses. The new mission was to focus on “system-based projects,” including the STAT program and associated curriculum. In organizing the annual “State of the Schools” event for BCPS, the Educational Foundation has received sponsorships from numerous vendors of both hardware and software for the system, including a $50,000 sponsorship from Advance Path Academics.
A preliminary analysis of publically available data from the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) indicates that the test schools for the STAT program are performing below their non-STAT counterparts on the PARCC assessments; official outcome data will not be evaluated by the school system until the third year of the program, at which point many multi-year contracts for technology services will already be in place.
The STAT initiative comes at a critical time of need for infrastructure and program improvements across the school system. Fifty-two county schools lack air conditioning, and district-wide closures due to excessive heat have become an issue with a school year that begins in August and ends in mid June. Enrollment and class size have been steadily growing, with school construction lagging far behind. The bus transportation system suffers from too few drivers running too many routes. A rapidly rising number of impoverished students lack the simple basics of enough food (47 percent of school population is eligible for the Free and Reduced-Price Meals program). Technology, however, is being presented to constituents as the solution to close the equity gap in education and to sufficiently prepare students for college or a career. Children do need to appropriately use technology as a learning tool as they move through high school and towards graduation; however, elementary and middle school students can make use of technology through shared devices. The ongoing investment of money and personnel in an unproven one-to-one computer tablet program shifts resources away from the basic necessities of comfort, safety, food, and meaningful human interaction.
Bloggers (Morna’s) note: For more on how what we are experiencing in Baltimore is connected to national and global initiatives read: