Staff editorial: where technology goes, ethics must follow

As Baltimore County administrators have embraced the screen revolution sweeping classrooms across the nation, it is difficult to tell if our district’s leaders are innovative educational advocates or Silicon Valley’s newest tech promoters. The school board is prepared to vote on a $140 million laptop contract without adequate proof that the pricey initiative has enhanced educational outcomes.

According to The Baltimore Sun, the county has spent more than $200 million since 2014 on HP laptops and millions more on educational apps and software. This technology transformation never had a clear focus in mind, with former superintendent Dallas Dance justifying the initiative as a way to eliminate the socio-economic achievement gap, improve test scores through increased engagement and prepare students to be globally competitive graduates. But the Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT) program, granted still in its infancy, has not truly fulfilled any of its ill-defined goals and recent studies do not bode well for the future.

A 2015 report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development examined the impact of school technology on international test results in more than 70 countries. The study found that students who use computers frequently at school perform worse on tests and that high-achieving education systems in places like Japan and South Korea have some of the lowest levels of computer use. The most startling finding is that the socio-economic divide is even slightly amplified by the increased presence of technology in schools.

So why is the county so dedicated to a pointless initiative? Perhaps it is the 5-star treatment of district officials who have been flown by tech organizations to conferences at resorts, or the celebrity status BCPS has received as a district at the forefront education technology? The article “How Silicon Valley Plans to Conquer the Classroom” published by The New York Times in November seems to support these notions, clearly articulating an increasingly inappropriate relationship between BCPS and tech companies.

During his tenure as superintendent, Dance took dozens of all-expense paid trips sponsored by tech companies, many of which were school vendors. He, and current interim superintendent Verletta White, even acted as paid consultants for private businesses representing tech companies that ultimately won multi-million-dollar contracts from our school district.

It is absolutely astounding that our school board has been so negligent to let obvious conflicts of interest occur. Students are addicted enough as it is to technology for their school officials to be courted by Silicon Valley, forcing laptops into our classrooms. In a time of great distrust in public institutions, the board needs to recommit itself to transparency and the more pressing needs of our school system.