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I wish that all those who appreciate the wonders of technology would frankly admit its limitations. I wish they would speak out when hucksters and naifs claim that technology will close the achievement gap between rich and poor or that learning by machine is “personalized learning.” Personalized learning is what happens when humans beings interact, face to face, when a teacher who knows you is engaged in helping you learn. An interaction with a machine is impersonalized learning.
Baltimore County Public Schools system has bought the hoax: under the leadership of its superintendent, Dallas Dance, the school board has agreed to invest at least $270 million so that every student will have his or her own computer. It is a decisive move towards a fully digitized schooling, with everyone wired, including 5-year-olds. Some parents are very unhappy with this decision. They would prefer to see money invested in reducing class sizes, arts programs, and capital improvements. Some worry that the evidence for the benefits of going digital does not exist. Some argue that the program does more for big business than for children. Some think the program should be pilot-tested before it is implemented across the district. Some worry about the potential health effects of a fully digital classroom.
One parent wrote:
The real overall costs of STAT are now projected at $272.1 million for the “BCPS Proposed 6 Year Instructional Digital Conversion Plan.” That’s nearly $70 million higher than previously discussed.
And, breaking news to most: On top of that, $63 million or more would be required every year thereafter — with 92 percent (!) going to the laptop leases alone, according to officials and budget proposal documents released in early January.
That means in one decade BCPS would spend at least $630 million to lease laptops, which schools would turn over every four years, amid other costs. Ten new state-of-the art schools could be funded at that price, likely with some snazzy new tech options, too. Operating vs. Capital Expenditures aside (day-to-day vs. buildings), money is money.
My own view is that it is far too soon to adopt technology as the primary vehicle for education because there is no evidence that it improves learning or that it reduces achievement gaps or that it is especially beneficial to children from low-income homes. Last fall, the OECD released a study concluding that some technology use in the classroom is good, but too much technology is not. This was the conclusion: Overall, students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely. But students who use computers very frequently at school do much worse, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.
Was the Baltimore County school board aware of that study before it committed $270 million to provide a computer for every student?
We saw the disaster unfold in Los Angeles when former Superintendent John Deasy decided that every student and staff member in the LAUSD should have an iPad; worse, he sold this idea as a matter of “civil rights.” Frankly, it cheapens the meaning of civil rights (the right to vote, the right to be treated the same as others, the right to equality of educational opportunity, the right to serve on a jury, etc.) when “the right to an iPad” is called a “civil right.” It would make more sense to talk about the right to a job with a decent living wage, the right to good housing, the right to medical care, and the right to sound nutrition, than to turn the ownership of an iPad into a “civil right.” As we know, the $1 billion-plus transaction turned into a fiasco when questions were raised about favoritism shown to Apple and Pearson, and the whole deal was canceled.
Many of us still remember the story in the New York Times in 2011 about the Waldorf School in Silicon Valley that has no computers; its students include the children of high-tech executives who believe their children will have plenty of time for technology in the future. Instead of working online, they are learning through physical activity, creative play, hands-on projects, and reading. While other schools in the region brag about their wired classrooms, the Waldorf school embraces a simple, retro look — blackboards with colorful chalk, bookshelves with encyclopedias, wooden desks filled with workbooks and No. 2 pencils.
The Baltimore County school board not only approved STAT but renewed Superintendent Dance’s contract, which will run until 2020. When he was first hired as superintendent in 2012 (at the age of 30), he needed a waiver, because he had only two years of teaching experience and state law requires three years of teaching experience for superintendents. He also ran into trouble when he became involved with SUPES Academy, the same company that had hired disgraced Chicago CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. A local reporter wrote: Dance was heavily criticized — and admonished by the school board — for accepting a position in the company in August 2013 without informing the board. The board had approved a three-year $875,000 contract with SUPES to train personnel in December 2012. Dance ended up resigning the SUPES position in 2013.
Maine blogger Emily Talmage recently criticized Superintendent Dance. She wrote:
Meanwhile, as the corporate-driven personalized, digital learning craze sweeps the country, Dance has jumped in headfirst and is bringing his district along with him.
As a keynote speaker at the 2015 International Association for K-12 Online Learning, Dance called himself a “pioneer.”
He also said that teachers were “talking too much,” and that students should be assessed at any time.
“In order to personalize learning for young people, we should be able to assess students at any moment to figure out what level they’re on, what standards they’ve mastered, so they can move along the continuum,” he said….
“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 teacher wrote.
“Personalized learning is being presented to constituents as the solution to close the equity gap in education,” said the Baltimore teacher, “[but] no input has been garnered from parents, and the expectation is that teachers will fully embrace the program without question.”
It would be nice if a school board asked for evidence of effectiveness before blowing away nearly $300 million on the fad of the moment. Technology will change rapidly, and BCPS will be left with obsolete machines unless they make an annual commitment to buy or lease new equipment. This is money that will not be spent on teachers, programs, and maintenance of buildings.