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Opinion: No proof that BCPS’ expensive STAT program helps students

Ann Miller

Submitted by Baltimore County Board of Education member Ann Miller: 

What is the opportunity cost of the STAT program? STAT is a digital conversion initiative by Baltimore County Public Schools that puts expensive HP EliteBook laptops in the hands of each of the system’s 112,000 students, beginning in kindergarten.

With the initial “Lighthouse School” rollout started in fall 2014, we are now over half way through our third year of implementation with more than $275 million already invested, plus annual projected costs of $60 million. To put it in perspective, the opportunity cost of $60 million per year is 1,200 teacher salaries.

This is the most expensive and experimental program in our school system history.

While the Lighthouse Schools were a way to “start this transition,” Superintendent Dallas Dance has stated he never intended to pilot the initiative. While the Lighthouse Schools have the appearance of a pilot, they do not serve the purpose of a pilot, which is to implement the program on a small scale, measure results, then decide whether to proceed. The implementation was rolled out in such a way that there were no control groups to compare results to, and the board did not receive nor require metrics on student outcomes before proceeding with expansion of the program.

This is the most expensive and experimental program in our school system history.

To date, no quantifiable evidence shows STAT, which stands for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, is improving student educational outcomes.

Although the rollout didn’t include any measures by which student success would be evaluated, we do have indicators that STAT is hurting our school system:

  • PARCC scores have dropped
  • MAP scores are below the average in our state
  • MSA scores peaked in 2012 and have declined every year since, most substantially since 2014
  • NAEP scores have declined
  • SAT scores have declined starting in 2014
  • Teachers are overwhelmed and leaving the system
  • Through thousands of stakeholder emails and testimony, we know our school system is suffering in almost every department

The superintendent made cuts to over 300 out of 500 system programs to pay for STAT, but the board voted against my motion to require him to release information about the cuts. This valuable information would give us a quantifiable measure of the opportunity cost of STAT.

There are three ways to consider opportunity cost: how STAT impacts pedagogy; the 300 programs cut; and the basic educational needs of the system that remain unmet because the funding and resource priority is on STAT rather than on these essential needs.

First, STAT’s impact on pedagogy. What are we losing when instruction is delivered more through devices and less through teachers?  The initiative was touted as being adaptive and differentiated — “student-centered” is the catch phrase. But teachers make nuanced changes in the way they deliver instruction to their class and to individual students constantly through real-time interaction and by personally knowing their students and their needs.

Second, there is opportunity cost in the programs already cut to pay for STAT.  The timing of certain cuts suggest they could have been part of the reductions:

  • Elimination of magnet program at Lutherville Lab
  • Central office appropriation of school budgets
  • Reduction of budgets for textbooks even when digital curriculum not available
  • Transportation
  • Grounds and building maintenance
  • Print management consolidation
  • Reduction of teachers through attrition
  • Overuse of long-term subs (at lower salary)
  • Delay in hiring for unfilled positions
  • Curriculum development
  • Athletic budgets
  • Use of paraeducators as teachers (at lower salary)
  • Excessing of paraeducators
  • Using retread tires instead of new tires on buses
  • Bus route changes to reduce bus drivers
  • Bus capacity based on three to a seat instead of two
  • Reduction of assistant principals
  • Elimination of seven period day schedule
  • Elimination of tech teachers
  • Fewer teachers getting reimbursement for advanced degrees
  • Reduction of GT classes in elementary schools
  • Consolidation of Offices of Library Media Services and Instructional Technology under the Office of Digital Learning
  • Paid parent helpers (at lower salary) rather than special education teachers or paraeducators in fulfilling special education service hours on student IEPs
  • Reduction in teacher insurance benefits

Think of this list as continuing on for over 300 programs, and you get the impact on the system of paying for STAT.

Third, there is opportunity cost in areas that may not have been part of the previous cuts, but are being neglected due to lack of funding or other resources. Facilities, curriculum, transportation, special education, magnet programs, Gifted & Talented, safety and discipline, teacher and principal retention, support staff, grading, and reducing class sizes, to name a few.

While the below real-life scenarios are not in every classroom, the issues have been brought to my attention by multiple parents and teachers across the county.

Scenario One:  To pay for STAT, we sacrificed funding for basic educational needs, such as teachers.  As a result, overwhelmed teachers are unable to manage their excessive class sizes and discipline problems take an inordinate amount of their instructional time.  At the same time, falling student outcomes have the central office pushing principals to raise their positive numbers like attendance, graduation, suspensions, and grades.  So teachers are not getting the support they need with discipline issues from their school level administration who don’t want to suspend students.  While teachers deal with growing discipline problems in the classroom, they use the devices as babysitters to occupy kids who would otherwise be learning.  These kids are abusing the devices — as there is inadequate supervision — to surf the net inappropriately or play games.

Scenario Two:  To pay for STAT, bus routes were rerouted, which reduced the number of bus drivers.  Drivers’ daily routes were increased, and bus capacity was changed to be based on three students per seat instead of two.  The result has been very long bus rides for some kids, including special needs students, up to one-and-a-half hours each way.  Some buses are so overcrowded that kids are standing or sitting in the aisle.  Students have been made to wait at the bus stop in winter weather for an hour or two after their regular pickup time, or in some cases the bus never shows at all.  Factor in that children are waiting at the bus stop in the morning, after their parents have left for work, carrying a $1,200 laptop in their backpacks.  These are significant safety issues.

I don’t even think it is sustainable right now when we consider the devastating impact it is having on our system.

Despite assurances from the superintendent and his staff — the superintendent has stated he “would stake [his] career on STAT” — I don’t believe that STAT is fiscally sustainable over time.  I don’t even think it is sustainable right now when we consider the devastating impact it is having on our system.  At the February 7th board meeting, I made a motion for a one-year freeze on further expansion of STAT until it can be thoroughly evaluated for success and justified.  The motion was voted down 9-2.

The Baltimore County Board of Education has a legal and moral obligation to provide oversight and direction of our superintendent and school system.  At every step of the way, we have had the ability to change direction.  Let’s have a reason for moving forward with a technology program before we plow forward blindly at the expense of students who have one shot to get a proper education. 

We owe it to our students, the taxpayers, our teachers, the parents, and to those who will come after us picking up the pieces of what we leave behind.

I write as an individual, not as a spokesman for the Baltimore County Board of Education.

Ann Miller, At Large Member
Board of Education of Baltimore County
amiller2@bcps.org

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16 Comments on "Opinion: No proof that BCPS’ expensive STAT program helps students"

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Joanne C. Simpson
On another note, Why the Money Matters: Every dollar spent (overspent? misspent?) on STAT or troubled BCPS pilots–nearly $4 million on ScholarChip student IDs, and counting–is a dollar not spent on the many needs that deeply concern parents: For example: What could $13.6 million annually pay for? That’s how much the administration admits could be redirected to other needs if elementary students simply had one device for every three children, a 1:3 ratio recommended by the Maryland State Department of Education and followed by many digital-minded school systems to meet both fiscal responsibility goals and developmentally appropriate teaching/screen safety measures among our youngest learners (let alone more reasonably priced devices oft-used in another districts): Here are a few more specifics on needs that frustrate parents and educators, as noted frequently on Facebook and other social media: BCPS should pay highly certified teachers and not rely on long-term subs; ensure sufficient staffing for small class sizes and efficient bus routes; allow more school discretionary funds for updated classroom books and supplies; hire actual teachers for the math Head & Shoulders and other advanced programs; set aside money to meet nutritional needs (free breakfasts would go a long way for those who arrive at school hungry and struggle to concentrate); provide pupil personnel workers to help serve the many students facing poverty; ensure the essential environmental basics of proper heat and AC; pay drivers a competitive wage and keep retread tires off children’s school buses… the list goes on. Parents, also compare… Read more »
Andrew B
Thanks for being the voice of reason, but I fail to understand why your rational motion was turned down. Dallas Dance should have been fired ages ago, because of his reckless use of school budgets and inappropriate choices. His blatant favoritism that marks his administration has hurt far too many schools, and his gag order to all employees is far from Constitutional. These poor decisions have led to many disasters within our schools, one in particular was especially egregious! The Woodlawn High School has had a long reputation for violence, gang activity, illegal drug use, and teenage pregnancies within the school. The turnover in teaching personnel has consistently been 40% or more, and the graduation rate deplorable (with far too many students leaving with an undeserved diploma.) In order to make an example of turning around this school, and stroke his own ego, Superintendent Dance hired Principal Sykes (who spent 2 years there, and then left to become a Superintendent in the Atlanta Georgia area.) The graduation rate was inflated both years by grade changing to make this seem like a complete turnaround, except that the teachers noticed these changes and approached the BCPS Board through their Union in complaint. Sykes fled to Georgia (without being extradited to face the charges) and the Senior’s Assistant Principal was made the scapegoat. Where is the justice for this crime of passing students that never learned enough to earn their diploma? It is criminal to have sent these students out into the world… Read more »
Community Member
Thank you Andrew for stating so clearly so much of what is wrong with the current leadership in BCPS. Of particluar interest to me is your reference to the “gag order”. As seen by the comments here, teachers and parents dare not use their real names. There is no place for healthy discussion and disagreement in BCPS. Recently at a professional deveopment meeting a group of teachers were specifically told not to raise questions or concerns on social media about their profession or the policies and practices of BCPS. In one case that I am aware of, a teacher was admonished for expressing an opinion on social media about an issue of concern to many stakeholders. I am sure this was not an isolated incident and wonder how central office employees have the time to monitor, censor and chastise those who do not agree with the party line. Further, an opinion expressed by a well-educated professional who is also a taxpayer should never result in censure. Also of great irony is the fact that these same central office employees strongly encourage teachers to use social media to educate the children, and to promote schools and programs. Shame on them for their hyprocisy. As to the Board of Education, it is clear that most members are openly hostile to member Ann Miller, and that their emotion has gotten in the way of all logic. You can blame Dallas Dance, but the real blame goes to the BOE for looking away, even… Read more »
Balt Co parent
Thank you to Ann Miller for focussing on outcomes of STAT and the opportunity costs. STAT continues to be expanded with no data to support it. The JHU report highlighted some concerning aspects for the younger kids spending time on tablets throughout their school days and the BOE just keeps saying they don’t need to look at the data. Well, as a tax payer and a parent, I want them to look at outcome data before expanding it. Kids don’t need more time staring at screens, 6 year olds don’t need their very own tablet. The system has so many needs that should take precedence over an unfounded expensive computer focus. Kids need human beings to interact with to learn well- more teachers, more support staff and smaller class sizes. The resources being used on the computers is taking away from what should be priorities. Focusing on the “equity” piece is crazy-kids have plenty of screens in their lives no matter their financial status, the kids who need teachers and support the most are those living in poverty. Let’s help all students learn by making sure they have a safe environment to learn in with plenty of well trained people and the basics- like food and clean clothes. When kids don’t have their basic needs met, computers will not help them in the least. No matter how computer savvy you think kids should be, a 6 year old can share a tablet so that the system can thrive and so… Read more »
Another Concerned Citizen
Another Concerned Citizen

Poorly written? Maybe anon (a BCPS employee?) just doesn’t agree with Ms. Miller’s argument. STAT definitely has opportunity costs. The FY18 draft operating budget included no hiring of social workers, guidance counselors, or pupil personnel workers despite the fact that almost half of BCPS students live in poverty and that student behavior/teacher assaults are TABCO’s prime concern. Thank goodness citizens called this to the Board of Education’s attention and some support personnel hiring was added to the budget.

anon

Ann, this is a poorly written and disjointed article not based on supporting facts. Fully disputing the entire article would be as long as your original fiction, but let me point out a few key flaws.
SAT dropping since 2014? How is that the fault of STAT, when devices didn’t even hit high schools until 2016? Your other testing numbers have the same basic flaw: STAT was not in place long enough to explain numbers dropping since 2012, or others that have been trending down before STAT started, much less was widespread.
$275M spent so far? Prove it. That number is thrown around as the cost of STAT over several years, and the $60M / year in leases that you claim is included, not additional.
The list of items you claim are tied to STAT are mind boggling. Your assumption that everything is tied to one program, and has no logical reason to happen without STAT, is foolish and misguided.
Perhaps your would be granted more respect and credence if you did not act so paranoid and participated in a more reasonable manner in public forums. Your belief that you are the only one who cares about the children in BCPS insults the other members of the board and the thousands of BCPS employees.

Community Member

Anon, your comment is hostile in nature and brings no new facts to light. Since you felt Ann’s article was long I will keep it short and civil. STAT is an expensive and untested educational initiative that has the capacity to rob students of the educational foundation they need for success in life, while eroding public trust in the mission of the public school system.

Bcps teachers telling the tru
Bcps teachers telling the tru

As a teacher in the system, you are so off base you might as well be living in Canada. The system is failing. My students lack any problem solving skills and it is common knowledge the stat program is a failure. Teachers with principals loyal to dance have not spoken out bc they are routinely let go in a smoke and mirror act of deception.

Balt Co parent

I disagree with your assessments- although I may disagree with Ann Miller’s political leanings, she bravely functions as one of only two members on the board with the best interest of students and teachers in mind. Kids don’t need more time staring at screens, 6 year olds don’t need their very own tablet. The system has so many needs that should take precedence over an unfounded expensive computer focus. Kids need human beings to interact with to learn well- more teachers, more support staff and smaller class sizes. The resources being used on the computers is taking away from what should be priorities. Focusing on the “equity” piece is crazy-kids have plenty of screens in their lives no matter their financial status, the kids who need teachers and support the most are those living in poverty. Let’s help all students learn by making sure they have a safe environment to learn in with plenty of well trained people and the basics- like food and clean clothes. When kids don’t have their basic needs met, computers will not help them in the least. No matter how computer savvy you think kids should be, a 6 year old can share a tablet so that the system can thrive and so can that child.

parent

I do not think Ann Miller thinks she’s the only person who cares about BCPS students. She does ask questions that need to be asked; i wish more factual answers were provided in response. We shouldn’t be spending this much money without asking hard questions. It is right to be asking questions.

Ann Miller

Anon, looking at the results for various tests is valid as a reflection on STAT because, as the op-ed points out, STAT effects all aspects of our system. So high school students who received devices in 2016 were already effected in 2014 by numerous other effects of paying for STAT such as teacher shortages, curriculum issues, and the list in the article. Even if STAT was not the only factor in falling test results, it certainly shows STAT hasn’t been helping student outcomes.

Joanne C. Simpson

And the costs are actually much higher than cited here, partly because various expenditures–such as tens of millions of dollars in digital curricula and software license fees–are mostly not counted in the administration’s dollar figures. Financially sustainable when the program has yet to expand fully? Not likely.

So what’s the price being paid in the end? The real goal? For this “digital initiative” to be instituted by 2018, just so BCPS leaders can say they did it and then move on, replicating a flawed model around the nation?

For more on the many financial burdens of STAT, see this op-ed pulled together after the recent release of the 2017-18 schools budget. There are other ways to incorporate tech options that would truly benefit our children–and not the bottom line of education technology companies in the end.

https://statusbcps.wordpress.com/2017/01/22/whats-the-status-of-stat-costs-in-a-dozen-years-that-could-be-a-billion-dollar-question/

A Concerned Citizen
Much has been discussed regarding funding for STAT — but almost all of the discussion has occurred outside of the school system. Much has also been discussed about how stakeholders (here) were won over (including the BOE and elected officials) – again, all discussed outside of the school system, across the country, and to audiences filled with other school officials who are following BCPS’ lead. Yet, getting questions and concerns answered –as a BCPS parent in Baltimore County — is nearly impossible. Fortunately for us, though, it has been discovered that much can be learned by seeing what BCPS officials are saying about STAT and BCPS, while speaking to OTHERS across the country. For instance: At a 2014 Discovery Education/ Future@Now conference presentation panel called “Planning Your Transition: A Panel of Experts” (link below), Dr. Dance stated the following about funding for STAT: “I build a case. We will either pay for it now or we pay for it later. And what we can do — and school systems do this — is find the money for things we want to find money for. But we have to be…I think the best superintendents are salesman and saleswomen, because if we can build a case for… unless we invest money on the front-end for our students, then we’re not building more prisons later on, and we’re making a better investment on the front-end that will drive the economic engine of our state or of our county. But the other thing, too,… Read more »
Elementary Teacher

Student centers have been replaced with computer programs. Children are expected to spend 20 minutes each on a math and a Language Arts program. Ridiculous.

BCPS Teacher

As a high school teacher I can assure you that the switch from 7 period days to 8 period A/B days has hurt students. It has however saved the county money to pay for the devices as each high school teacher has picked up an additional class. I now teach over 180 students in six sections.

Another teacher

Exactly what our kids need in this day and age…more time staring at a screen. They are unable to listen to a teacher give directions for 5 minutes,read anywhere near grade level, or conduct themselves like students in a class, but lets spend bunches of our budget accommodating this ineptitude….

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