Best use for county school funds?

Dubious priorities for more than $17 million in Race to the Top money

November 03, 2010|By Laurie Taylor-Mitchell

Baltimore County Public Schools has presented how it would like to spend the "Race to the Top" funds granted to the county — about $17.4 million. Its priorities are extremely disappointing and do not address the tremendous need for improved technology in many poorly performing schools.

Within one category of $5 million, the BCPS proposals include another major expenditure on virtual learning at Chesapeake High School. Didn't this school receive a multimillion-dollar virtual learning center last year? Why is so much money being spent on one poorly performing school when many others deserve help, such as Loch Raven Academy and Woodlawn High School?

Moreover, why are thousands of other dollars being spent on developing a virtual high school and games? In a BCPS communication last year on the Chesapeake virtual reality center, Superintendent Joe Hairston said, "the most natural way to learn is by doing ..." But "doing" in virtual reality is not out in the real world. According to an article in e-school news last year on the system at Chesapeake High, David Peloff, program director of emerging technologies at Johns Hopkins' Center for Technology in Education, said, "There's not a lot of research that says this [i.e. gaming and simulation technology] directly improves student achievement. We have a hunch that it does," he said. "But we do know that it improves student involvement."

How is student "involvement" in virtual reality related to achievement? What is the hard data there? Should BCPS be spending millions more on a hunch? How will a virtual high school and games help students compete effectively? Will a virtual high school and games improve student achievement and close the achievement gap, as specified in item No. 3 of the Scope of Work Plan, the guidelines from the state, for applying for these funds?

Why has BCPS not applied for funds to develop programs that get students out into the real world — physically active, interacting with real people — instead of spending millions on a small number of students at one school, in front of big computer screens? The system might instead have looked into developing programs to establish internships for high school students, linking classes with businesses, foundations, and so on, across Baltimore County and the state — things that could lead directly to a job after high school or college.

Where is Superintendent Hairston on the issue of field trips for biology and ecosystems in action around schools? Why isn't he developing outreach programs that could get county kids exposed to the arts, sciences and commerce in Baltimore City?

Other options abound. My son's high school, Loch Raven, for example, has no language lab for students. A state-of-the-art language lab could cost about $150,000, but many less-expensive options — some as low as $15,000 ($500 a seat) — are also available. This grant could fund labs at several schools. Language labs develop actual speaking skills for use in the real world. More than 700,000 people in the U.S. work for French multinational companies, and just consider the importance of Spanish in our country today. Where is the BCPS on foreign languages?

Part of the $5 million would be spent to develop a data tracking system. Data tracking systems exist all over the country; why are they spending millions on this at the local level? Who is going to get this huge amount of money — what BCPS department or office?

This year, Cheryl Bost, head of the Teachers' Association of Baltimore County, gave a comprehensive demonstration of the entire tracking system of student performance available in BCPS right now to a joint legislative session in Annapolis. Why has the Board of Education not requested a similar presentation from her, or taken Ms. Bost up on her offer to present this information? Why spend nearly $2 million on "alternative evaluation methods"?

The budget description in the board agenda exhibit has just a few lines for how the $17.4 million is to be spent. Again, according to the General Criteria for Review in the Scope of Work Plan, plans for funds are to be collaborative and should include the full range of stakeholders. What stakeholders were included in the process by BCPS? The projects were devised, we are told, with "input from the community." Who exactly within the "community" gave input? Were they parents, students or teachers? What did they say?

Finally, it appears from the meeting agenda that BCPS is proposing to spend $460,000 to pay a director and fiscal assistant to manage spending these funds. According to a story in The Baltimore Sun by Liz Bowie, not a single board member asked a question about how these funds were to be spent.

These proposals will be submitted to the State Department of Education on Wednesday. I hope that, given the information above, they will be reviewed accordingly.

Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, a Towson resident, is an advocate for public education and the parent of a child at Loch Raven High School. Her e-mail is ltmitch@juno.com.

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