A group of parents in Baltimore County was very unhappy with their high-flying Superintendent, Dallas Dance. Dance planned a huge investment in technology, and the parents didn’t see the evidence for it. They worried that the schools were investing in a pipe dream…or worse. Dance planned to spend at least $272 million so that every student would have his or her own laptop. Where he saw technological salvation, the parents saw expensive snake oil.

Dance wanted to become a national leader in introducing “personalized” (depersonalized) learning in his schools, and he spent freely for technology to make his dream come true.

Some parents in the county saw what was happening and they criticized it, again and again, in their own blog, as a massive waste of taxpayers’ money and a waste of students’ instructional time.

Dance abruptly resigned last spring, and he is now former superintendent of Baltimore County public schools. He is now under criminal investigation by the Maryland State Prosecutor’s Office.

The parent blog, written in this instance by Joanne C. Simpson, reports on Dance’s problems:

Among issues apparently under review: Dance’s “involvement with SUPES Academy,” which did business with BCPS and for which Dance consulted at the time. “In 2014, school system ethics officials ruled that Dance had violated ethics rules by taking a part time job with SUPES after the company got an $875,000 contract with the school system,” the Sun noted. For other info on SUPES and various linkages to Dance, read also this post.

Dance offered no comment to news of a current state prosecutor investigation, but this very recent video by the resigned superintendent speaks volumes.

Other details: The investigative news story on SUPES, which revealed Dance’s consulting job, was first broken in 2013 by The Chicago Reporter and then followed by the Sun. Dance agreed to drop the outside job.

Former chief of Chicago Public Schools Barbara Byrd-Bennett, once named as a favorite mentor by Dance, was among those embroiled in the SUPES scandal and convicted this year of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks and sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison.

Dance, who promised not to consult again after the ethics finding on SUPES, has been cited for other ethics violations and criticized for various “appearances of conflict of interest,” as well as costly taxpayer-funded travel to numerous edtech conferences and events, among other issues. His limited liability corporation Deliberate Excellence Consulting LLC was listed as Active and “Not In Good Standing” a few months ago, as also reported in this blog—a status which remains.

Many related concerns–including promotional videos Dance did for school system vendors, such as Hewlett-Packard–were first brought up in this op-ed in April 2016.

According to revised financial disclosure forms filed “under penalty of perjury” after the last ethics findings, Dance reported no personal income from his LLC, which according to charter records was formed “to consult and partner with school systems, businesses and organizations around best practices to obtain maximum organizational outcomes.”

Dance unexpectedly announced his resignation in April, partly saying he wanted to spend more time with family. Meanwhile, a few of his post-BCPS consulting positions are no longer listed on those firms’ sites nor on Dance’s LinkedIn profile page, including “Partner, Strategos Group,” and a full-time senior vice president position he announced with MGT Consulting Group when he left the superintendent position on June 30.

Parents who watched carefully were concerned about student privacy, data mining, and balanced use of technology. They worried that Dance had gone overboard. They were right to worry.

More:

“Despite Dance’s departure, STAT [Dance’s program] is still being pursued and expanded under current Interim Superintendent Verletta White, who pressed for a nearly $4 million expansion of just two software contracts, iReady and DreamBox Math, this year (see postscript below), despite questions by school board members about the programs’ high costs and lack of objective evidence of benefits. Via the software programs, elementary school children as young as 6 watch math or English language videos, and do gaming-style lessons, or play video games as “rewards” on the devices during the school day.”

The spending on technology with no evidence of its value goes forward:

“As first reported here in The Baltimore Post: The company e.Republic (which backs the Center for Digital Education) works with over 700 companies – from “Fortune 500s to startups” – to help executives ‘power their public sector sales and marketing success.’ Among those listed: Intel, IBM, Blackboard, Microsoft, Aerohive, Apple, Samsung, Dell and Google.” Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, and other companies are familiar entities at BCPS.

“Also, among a litany of mostly no-bid digital curricula contracts recently implemented at the county’s public school district: the reading/English language software program iReady, which had a $1.2 million BCPS contract spending authority expanded in July to $3.2 million for fewer than 5 years, as approved by the Board of Education and requested by interim superintendent White.
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iReady by Curriculum Associates:
http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AMQQSX6AC551/$file/061317%20JMI-618-14%20Modification%20-%20Teaching%20Resource%20for%20English%20Language%20Arts.pdf
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https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/012015_JMI-618-14%208%20Mod%20Teach%20Resource%20English%20Language.docx
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“DreamBox Math, meanwhile, jumped nearly $2 million more to $3.2 million for just three more years.
If contacts don’t link, can copy and paste this lengthy link: http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AMQQTE6AD435/$file/061317%20JNI-778-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Mathematics%20Supplemental%20Resources.pdf
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“Such price tags total a whopping more than $6 million for two software programs alone in a cash-strapped school system with many pressing needs.

“In the end, many would agree digital technology has a place as a modern tool of learning. But analyses are required when children’s minds and futures are involved. Consider this objective 2017 National Education Policy Center report on “blended and virtual learning,” and a recent Business Insider story on DreamBox, which also questions the tenets of the “personalized-learning” computer-based approach, and points out just how many data points are collected on children–50,000 per hour per student just by DreamBox. There’s also the widespread industry marketing campaigns and venture capitalist profit-margins behind it all.”

There is a moral to this story: Pay attention to ethics rules. Don’t seek or accept outside money from corporations who want to sell stuff or services to your district. Be satisfied with your salary or look for a different job.

There is another moral: the tech companies view the schools as a market, and they are taking taxpayers’ money because they can.

Every school board, every superintendent has a duty to review these contracts carefully and reject those that are unproven. Don’t take the word of the salesmen.