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Ed-Tech Companies, Administrators Push Back at Parent and Teacher Advocacy on Schools’ Digital Learning Programs

With the increase in parent and teacher advocacy against a nationwide push for digital curriculum programs for students from Kindergarten to 12th grade, some school system vendors are pushing back — filing lawsuits and deploying attorneys to serve cease-and-desist letters to temper public dissent in defense of their for-profit clients.

Charlotte, North Carolina

In North Carolina, two such companies took a legal route which aimed to stymie advocates’ calls for transparency into the procurement processes that led to lucrative contracts for educational technology software programs.

In July, after reporting on his blog about a paper trail leading to an about face on a digital reading program originally approved by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI), teacher and advocate, Justin Parmenter, was served a cease-and-desist letter from an attorney for Istation, a digital curriculum company for reading and math that measures student growth with computer-adaptive diagnostic and screening programs.

Istation, which did not originally win the contract with DPI, was later approved for a three-year, $8 million award after Parmenter and others said a new committee – formed at the request of the department’s superintendent – convened to undermine a previous committee’s recommendation that the award should go to New York-based Amplify for its product, mClass.

Istation’s attorneys accused Parmenter of “tortuous interference” and “defamation” of their client’s work with the state’s school system.

“We have become aware that you have been making demonstrably false, misleading, and defamatory public statements about Istation, its agents, its products, and the process by which Istation was awarded the (contract)…” stated a “Cease and Desist Demand & Preservation Notice” from Shanahan Law Group.

If this has the impact to silence people, it is not good for society.”

Parmenter told The Gunpowder Gazette, “The impact of the threat of litigation is that it can intimidate people on issues that concern us all. The broader implication  is on our ability to hold our elected officials to account or to speak up.  If this has the impact to silence people, it is not good for society,” he said.

Istation did not respond to requests for comment or interview.

Mark Johnson, an attorney and DPI’s superintendent who oversees 1,556,141 students in the district’s 2,455 schools, defended the program in a public document, stating, “Istation is the best reading diagnostic tool for North Carolina… using Istation will yield quality data that will better support success for our students, meeting students where they are and helping them grow, while also reducing the time teachers must spend testing students.”

But advocates like Parmenter, who teaches English Language Arts at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte, questioned the process that led to the selection of the program, as well as the merits of its educational benefits.

On his blog, Notes from the Chalkboard,  Parmenter pointed out that research shared by Istation even showed that Istation is an inadequate substitute for human teachers.

Parmenter cited a response Durham school psychologist, Dr. Chelsea Bartel, received after she asked Istation for supportive research of its e-learning program.

Bartell found that the fine print included within one study they sent concluded on the relationship between technology and early student literacy, that Istation “can serve as a more knowledgeable ‘other’ as students develop some early literacy skills; however, teachers are still needed to provide complete literacy instruction for young students.”

On his blog, Parmenter further pointed out the difference between the sudden selection of the Istation program over DPI’s first committee recommendation of mClass, stating, “One key difference between the two products is that mClass requires one-on-one interaction between student and teacher, while Istation has young children sit and work alone on a computer.”

Bartell and a member of the original committee that voted for mClass – and not Istation – have since also been served with cease-and-desist demands from Istation’s attorneys.

Cary, North Carolina

This is an epic case of David vs Goliath in the realm of free speech regarding ALL our children’s public education.”

In an unrelated matter, in July, a North Carolina father of three was served with a lawsuit by Utah-based math curriculum vendor, Mathematics Vision Product (MVP), for “making defamatory statements” and causing “intentional interference” with MVP’s business with the Wake County school district.

Blain Dillard, whose children attend schools in the school district, has been outspoken about the program due to what he says is an inferior methodology which places students in groups to figure out the math problems, while a teacher facilitates.

Dillard joined others with similar criticisms about the mathematics program in his district.  On a website, Dillard stated, “My son was a 10th grader taking MVP Math 2 in 2018 when I noticed his grades suddenly declining. He went from being an A-B math student to a D-F math student almost instantly. I later found that this was largely related to the nature of how MVP is taught,” he said.

“It is considered a ‘discovery methodology’ where students work in groups to try to figure out the math while the teacher facilitates. MVP is strongly supportive of Common Core math standards…I soon found that my son was not alone. Many other parents in our county were complaining about MVP,” Dillard said. “This is an epic case of David vs Goliath in the realm of free speech regarding ALL our children’s public education.”

On a GoFundMe page set up for Dillard, which has received roughly $16,000 to assist with his legal fees, Dillard stated, “This is an attempt at intimidation and bullying to silence my and other parents’ free speech advocating for our children’s education.”

A request for comment or interview, intended for MVP, was answered on Thursday by Open Up Resources, a non-profit education technology organization which partnered with MVP which writes some of its mathematics curriculum.

A spokesperson for Open Up told The Gunpowder Gazette on Thursday, “The lawsuit between the parent in Wake County, N.C. and MVP is extremely unfortunate. Open Up Resources had no previous knowledge of the suit, was never a party to it, nor has had any involvement in the lawsuit or dispute.”

The lawsuit, cease-and-desist and preservation orders are all currently pending. Parmenter and others have been ordered to save all emails, texts and social media messages that involve the companies.

Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey

In response to a New Jersey parent’s advocacy in 2016,  Bruce Friend, the chief operating officer for the Virginia-based International Association for K-12 Online and Blended Learning (INACOL), opted for a direct attack instead of the legal route in an effort to discredit one parent.

Friend, who also works as a consultant for an education technology consulting company, took to the road, utilizing industry presentations as a platform to express upset over a Lacey Township parent whose testimony at a school board meeting in 2015 ended a contract with his client, Edgenuity, an educational software company which uses guided computer presentations and virtual teachers to teach lessons to students who are seated in classrooms in a school building with teachers during the virtual presentations.

Friend arranged for the Edgenuity contract with a school system in Lacey Township, New Jersey, presented at conferences across the country in which he cautioned education conference attendees to obtain parent “buy in” when introducing education technology at school districts.

The consequence, Friend said, was “uninformed” parents speaking up at school board meetings.

Friend did not respond to requests for comment or interview.

Using his experience with the Lacey Township parent as a “cautionary tale,” Friend told conference attendees that parent, Heather Hicks, was misinformed about the value of the science program offered through Edgenuity and that her child did not do well with the program because he was “unmotivated.”

At some presentations, Friend made direct references about Hicks and her son, utilizing her parent advocacy and criticism of his client as content, for nearly his entire presentation, displaying a life-sized image of Hicks on a screen behind him.

Friend said the parent’s dissatisfaction with the software program almost led to the end of nearly “three-and-a-half years of work.”

“We were pretty upset about that,” he said during one recorded presentation.

In actuality, the school system’s contract had ended by the time Friend took to conferences to air his frustrations about Hicks. The Lacey Township school board and superintendent heeded Hicks’ concerns and did not renew the Edgenuity contract.

Out-of-state parents who attended the February 10, 2016 CITE Pearson conference virtually, where Friend gave his first of two known presentations on Hicks and her son, called ” Gaining Stakeholder Buy-in for Your Online/Blended Learning Program,” were upset by the disclosure of the mother’s personal details which included references to academic performance of her son. Those parents were able to identify and locate Hicks, based on details provided by Friend during his presentation, within minutes.

Once alerted about Friend’s presentations, Hicks hired an attorney who served Friend with a cease-and-desist demand of her own.  Pearson, who Hicks’ attorney also contacted, later deleted the video recording of the presentation.

But before Pearson removed Friend’s presentation, Hicks captured Friend’s remarks and created a video response.

Irvington, New York

Over the course of a year, parent, advocate and former bank security technologist, Della Marie Lenz, filed numerous Public Information Act requests with the Irvington Union Free School District in New York, while scouring social media and documenting the school system’s director of technology’s travel to education technology conferences.

Lenz found that that director, Jesse Lubinsky, taught sessions at conferences for Google partner, EdTech, an Irvington Schools’ vendor.

Lenz contacted the media after months of requesting public information from the district.

Jesse Lubinsky.  Source: Twitter

After a subsequent four-month investigation by The Journal News into the travel and relationship, Lubinsky abruptly resigned from the school district days before tax news reporter, David McKay Wilson, reported on his findings in January.

Wilson found that EdTech paid Lubinsky to teach the sessions while also attending the conferences to earn teaching credential credits needed to maintain his teaching certification.

Wilson also found that the Irvington school district’s Google purchases almost quadrupled after Lubinsky became director of technology during that time.

But after Lubinsky resigned, he filed a $6 million lawsuit against parent advocate, Lenz, for libel and defamation. An investigation into Lubinsky’s purported conflict of interest has been referred to district attorney for investigation.

A GoFundMe page, set up to offset Lenz legal costs, has to-date collected over $4,000.  Details of the fundraiser highlight Lenz’s one-year investigation prior to referring her research to the news outlet.

“Over the course of a year, parent Della Lenz uncovered what appears to be serious misconduct by school-district administrators in the Irvington Union Free School District: theft of time and services, discrepancies in district records, budgetary inconsistencies, and violations of (law).”

“Della’s investigation of Mr Lubinsky’s district work schedule was painstaking and thorough. She pieced the story together by (filing numerous Freedom of Information Act requests), in which she sought ‘district attendance records and approvals of professional development workshops…then comparing dates with those of Mr. Lubinsky’s postings to social media accounts. She spent a year of her life trying to find reasons for Mr. Lubinsky’s absences from work. Only then did she contact the press.”

Baltimore County, Maryland 

In an unrelated matter in Baltimore County, Maryland, some members of the school board were accused of intimidation and harassment for their method of questioning procurement practices, as reported in April by WYPR.

In one instance, procurement practices were brought into question after the school system awarded a contract to evaluate the effectiveness of a Middlebury reading software program after a similar contract had already been awarded to another vendor for the same purpose.

It remains unclear why the district sought to have the same program’s performance evaluated twice.

The allegations by one board member questioned whether the second contract was obtained in a manner consistent with state law since it had been procured as a cooperative agreement – also known as “piggyback” contract – on a dissimilar contract first obtained by Chicago Public Schools.

Prior to the complaints made against board members, reports published last year in The Baltimore Post and Baltimore Sun also questioned the $750,000 American Institute of Research (AIR) contract which had ties to the system’s former superintendent, Dallas Dance, who had been paid by AIR for a speaking engagement at the time. AIR has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Dance spent four months in prison last year – one month for each of four perjury counts – for withholding payments – including $1,500 paid by AIR – on his financial disclosure statements in which he did not list $147,000 he earned from organizations and another school system vendor, The SUPES Academy, for consulting work he performed while leading the school system between 2012 to 2017.

Before his fall, Dance and the school district received numerous awards for its pioneering push for equity using technology in the classroom in which computer software was promised to address students’ individual needs through personalized programs, meeting students at their specific levels regardless of income, educational or familial disadvantage, or zip code.

But Baltimore County Public Schools – once hailed as a national model for its educational technology program which provides each K-12 student with a laptop, called STAT (for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow) – has shown little progress in educational improvement since implementing the program in 2014, according to state assessment scores, as reported by The Baltimore Sun and Wall Street Journal.

The district spent over half a billion dollars on the program which consists of leased laptops for 115,000 students and over 10,000 teachers and staff members.

Earlier this year, the district downsized its laptop program, increasing computer-to-student ratios for first to third graders from 1:1 to 2:1 in some elementary grades.

The Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI)

In at least half a dozen districts across the country, some school leaders have been criticized for their work as paid consultants for Chicago-based Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI), whose education technology clients pay ERDI for an opportunity to meet with education leaders that ERDI, in turn, pays.

ERDI maintains that the out-of-state quarterly meetings at resorts and hotels are set up to provide their clients an opportunity to hear valuable feedback which could improve their clients’ products and services.

But some education leaders have been criticized for the connection in which vendors are seen as paying ERDI for their clients’ unrestricted access to superintendents and other high-level administrators, while given opportunity to pitch their products and services at the meetings and social events.

In Baltimore County, for instance, email records show that former Superintendent Dallas Dance was asked to decline any invitations for dinner or social events by ERDI clients who had not paid ERDI to meet with the former educator at the three-day event.

While not all states require financial disclosure, in some school districts whose states require it – including districts in Nashville, Tn., Pittsburgh, Pa., and Baltimore County, Md..– some school administrators have been called out publicly for failing to disclose income earned from the for-profit company on required financial disclosure statements, including Nashville Metro, Youngstown, Oh and Chicago Public Schools.

The omission of Dance’s side work on his financial statements, which is required in Maryland – and which failed to include work he performed for the two school system vendors and others, while he touted Baltimore County schools’ educational technology program – is what ultimately landed Dance the stint in prison.

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