In a carefully reported article on the front page of The New York Times on Saturday, November 4th, reporters Natasha Singer and Danielle Ivory dissected the clever (and effective) strategies that big tech companies like Apple, Dell and HP are using to capture a huge chuck of public school dollars.  As the Times put it, “Silicon Valley is going all out to own America’s school computer-and-software market, projected to reach $21 billion in sales by 2020.”  As Singer and Ivory make clear, these tech companies are not doing it the old fashioned way (quality products, proof of effectiveness and those other passé concepts); no, they’re using good old greenback dollar bills to gain influence and, at the end of the day, win lucrative contracts.  Sometimes the money is paid directly to educators and school board members, and at other times it comes in the form of fancy trips, speaking engagements, and consulting gigs.

It’s a breathtaking story of greed, but what’s only hinted at around the edges in the Times story is the harsh truth that this would never happen if educators, politicians and policy makers were not worshipping at the altar of standardized test scores. Tech is selling–and educators are willing buyers–a fantasy: “Buy our fancy software and hardware packages, and your test scores will soar.”  

The reporters use Baltimore County (MD) public schools as their poster child, and surely (now former) Superintendent Dallas Dance has a lot of ‘splaining to do, given the coziness of his relationship with HP and other providers.   Under Dance’s leadership, his system signed a $200 MILLION contract with HP in 2014 and was also on the hook for many millions more in related contracts.   In the district’s own evaluations, the HP device scored third out of the four devices tested, with only 27 points out of a possible 46, but the County signed with HP anyway.

(The device, the Elitebook Revolve, has been plagued with problems and has been discontinued by HP, and Superintendent Dance abruptly resigned in April, no reason cited.)

While the reporters for The Times do not come right out and call the public school people in Baltimore County and elsewhere ‘crooks’ or ‘prostitutes,’ they come pretty close, as in these paragraphs:

In some significant ways, the industry’s efforts to push laptops and apps in schools resemble influence techniques pioneered by drug makers. The pharmaceutical industry has long cultivated physicians as experts and financed organizations, like patient advocacy groups, to promote its products.

Studies have found that strategies like these work, and even a free $20 meal from a drug maker can influence a doctor’s prescribing practices. That is one reason the government today maintains a database of drug maker payments, including meals, to many physicians.

“If benefits are flowing in both directions, with payments from schools to vendors,” said Rob Reich, a political-science professor at Stanford University, “and dinner and travel going to the school leaders, it’s a pay-for-play arrangement.”

Sadly, this isn’t a new story. Apple sold an expensive bill of goods to Los Angeles County Public Schools years ago, and Joel Klein’s Amplify signed some lucrative contracts, deals that went south when some of the machines burst into flames.  I write about those deals and other stupidities in my new book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.” (The New Press, 2017)

I devote an entire chapter to what is the 8th step of my 12-step program, “Embrace Technology (Carefully).”  Here’s an excerpt:

Because most educators have failed to recognize how technology has transformed learning, I believe that much of that money is being wasted. Unfortunately for students (and creative teachers), many districts are buying prepackaged, computer-based curricula that lead students to predetermined answers. Designed to control learning and often advertised as being “Common Core ready,” they are catnip to beleaguered school boards under pressure to raise test scores.

Education’s decision-makers also have to be wary of supposedly free stuff. The big boys—Google and Amazon—are making offers that schools and teachers will find it difficult to refuse: free tools for writing, editing, and more from Google, and free curriculum materials from Amazon.  But nothing is free, so schools must realize that using these materials gives the provider all sorts of information about its users. Google knows me inside and out, and I guess that’s okay because I’m on the exit ramp. Should Google, Amazon, Facebook, et alia know everything about your third grader? I’m not so sure about that.

Values come first, technology second, and that’s where citizens must hold the feet of educators to the fire. Children swimming in a sea of information need to learn how to sift through the flood so they can distinguish truths from half-truths and fiction. Learning how to formulate tough questions and search for answers should be central to their curriculum, not absorbing and regurgitating facts.

Unfortunately, unsophisticated school districts have tended to buy first and plan later. The poster child for this approach is the Los Angeles public schools, which signed a $1.3 billion contract with Apple and Pearson in 2012, seemingly guaranteeing that 650,000 students would get iPads. However, when the rollout began at forty-seven schools that fall, problems arose immediately.  …..

Before it cancelled the contract, the Los Angeles school district had spent more than $100 million on 120,000 iPads and 18,000 laptops, teacher training, and technical labor. (In late 2015 the district received a refund of $4.2 million from Apple and $2.2 million in credit from the computer company Lenovo.) The debacle cost Superintendent John Deasy his job and led to an ongoing FBI investigation into whether Deasy and others colluded to make it virtually impossible for vendors other than Apple and Pearson to qualify for the contract. Deasy has denied the allegations.

Los Angeles is not alone, not by a long shot. Unfortunately for students and taxpayers, “buy first, plan later” is a common modus operandi. For example, twenty-six school districts in Texas bought 81,000 iPads and 10,000 other tablets for students in just one year.  …..

Disasters abound. Guilford County, North Carolina, first shut down and later canceled its 1-to-1 program when 1,500 of the 15,000 Amplify tablets it had purchased developed problems, including broken screens and overheating battery chargers, within a few weeks. Some Amplify tablets even caught fire.  …..

Even with a full load of technology, many schools continue to conduct business as usual, with teachers doing most of the talking. According to Stanford’s Larry Cuban, “Even in computer-based classes, teacher-centered instruction with a mix of student-centered practice was the norm.”  In short, the problem goes beyond naiveté. The deeper problem is that those running public education have, for the most part, failed to recognize how technology, and particularly the Internet, have already transformed learning outside of school—just not school-based learning.

It bears repeating: Technology is fundamentally value-free. Just as an old-fashioned pencil and the coolest smartphone can be used to stay in touch with loved ones or to plan terrorist attacks, schools can use computers for “drill and kill” or for exploring new ideas. How our schools are using—and failing to use—technology reveals a great deal about what we value.

Despite having access to all the world’s knowledge on their smartphones, most students in most classrooms are expected to learn and then spit back conventional knowledge: state capitals, the periodic table, how a bill becomes law, and the like.

For me, the bottom line is clear: NO school district should EVER buy ANY pre-packaged software!  Districts need to plan first, and that process must include the early adopters among the teaching staff.  If those teachers are not on board and involved, the money is going to be wasted.  Further, the goals of any technology adoption plan CANNOT be ‘improved student achievement,’ because that’s more test score idolatry.

21st Century schools must look at each child and ask ‘How is she intelligent?’ and act accordingly.  Regurgitation education is doing more damage to public education than Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has ever contemplated, even in her wildest fantasies.

The rumor mill has DeVos resigning soon, but that won’t rescue public education.  Only a progressive reinvention will save our schools, our children, their teachers, and our future.

The Silicon Vally assault must be turned away, not because they’re bad people but because they are peddling snake oil.  If this argument resonates, please take a look at “Addicted to Reform.”  Thanks…


12 thoughts on “GREED (TECH + SCHOOLS) = A FIASCO

  1. Great post. Nothing has really changed. Pearson spent ka-zillions of dollars to fly superintendents off to visit Finland ( while pitching their furshlugginer standardized assessments. Salaries aren’t great in ed-world and there is great allure in the shiny toys and perks that come with them. Building a better firewall will only go so far. Making the teaching profession a better place to spend a career will probably go further. Getting over our testing obsession would be a great start.


  2. My favorite cite from your post: “Children swimming in a sea of information need to learn how to sift through the flood so they can distinguish truths from half-truths and fiction. Learning how to formulate tough questions and search for answers should be central to their curriculum, not absorbing and regurgitating facts.” You just described “critical thinking”– an art which is neither prized in CCSS [& its myriad other-name twins, i.e., state tweaking-re-branding], nor taught by following its bite-sized skills agenda, nor tested in its aligned assessments.

    I was so fortunate to have been taught critical thinking 7th-12th & college [’60-’70]: I am a lifelong student & autodidact, filling in gaps in my formal ed, informing my teaching/ personal finance/ civic activity– all done on internet today w/healthy skepticism, seeking out multiple inputs & synthesizing.

    My children [K12 ’92-2010] were thankfully schooled the same way, pre-CCSS/ annual testing. Early in digital era we shepherded them around video games via home network/ ed games. As internet developed, they instinctively used it as a tool rather than an authority. They were there at the inception, & the critical skills ingrained in pubsch made them very aware of the incursion of adv/ PR warp on content, the advent of ‘viral’ opinions, etc. – young adults now, they were onto Russian-sold fakenews FB pp before I was.

    I wholeheartedly support everything you say & imply about too-early intro of tech into pubschlg, & worse, pre-packaged software geared to ‘raise scores.’ Just injecting a positive note here: as a free-lance “special” [for-langs], I make the rounds of every kind of PreK/ daycare in central NJ. I can report that the great majority, from chi-chi privates to commercial chains to the govt-subsidized eschew internet completely, & minimize any sort of ‘screen-time’.


    • Thank you. I hope you will read my book, because it provides the steps we need to take (IMHO) to right this ship, get away from test madness, and focus on individual children. It’s doable…


  3. Here’s more about Dallas Dance, from the Baltimore Sun (and thanks to Arnold Packer for calling this to my attention):

    “Dance left his position as superintendent on June 30, with three years remaining on his $287,000-a year contract, saying the job was wearing on him. When he resigned, The Sun later reported, he was under investigation by the Maryland State Prosecutor’s office for his relationship with SUPES Academy, a company that had a contract with the school system.

    The investigation is ongoing, according to sources.

    The Sun reported last month that Dance while serving as superintendent, Dance traveled extensively to conferences across the country, including some sponsored by ERDI and one of its clients, Discovery Education. Dance spent more than a third of the school days in 2016 traveling to out-of-state conferences and billed the school system tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to cover travel expenses associated with some of them, The Sun found.”


    “The intersecting relationships appear ethically questionable and “clubbish” to Diane Swanson, founding chairwoman of the Business Ethics Education Initiative at Kansas State University. School boards and ethics officials should be monitoring such interactions more closely, she said.

    “At a minimum there’s an appearance of conflict of interest,” Swanson said. “Obviously, the private sector has the goal of more profit and that goal is not the same, I hope, as the educational system in the public sector.”

    Swanson said she is especially bothered that the Baltimore County school system has awarded no-bid contracts to ERDI client companies as Dance and White were paid by ERDI. She questioned the school board’s monitoring of its administrators.

    “The whole situation points to the question: ‘Where is the oversight?’ ” Swanson said. “Why have a board at all?””


    Liked by 2 people

    • One other detail: before 2014 (and up until 2018) the Baltimore County Board was appointed by the Governor. As retired superintendent who worked for 29 years overseen by ELECTED Boards, I am an advocate for that form of governance. The elected Boards I worked for in New England, New York, and Maryland were vigilant on spending practices and especially vigilant on multi-year contracts of any kind. My response to Ms. Swanson would be: if you want oversight by the Board, make sure it is elected by the voters.


  4. Thank you, John, for this post. I’ve re-blogged it onto a collection of articles related to Educational Psychology and Technology here: You might also be interested in the shared roots of Global Silicon Valley Asset Management with the privatization agenda described in this panel discussion at the NPE national conference last month. The GSV mentioned toward the middle documents a $6.4 trillion global education market being targeted for takeover. There’s a lot worth digging through in the links beneath the video as well: Thanks again for covering these issues!


  5. Reblogged this on Network Schools – Wayne Gersen and commented:
    John Merrow hits the nail on the head when he links these tech purchases to our obsession with standardized testing… and also right in his comment at the end about the lack of oversight by the Baltimore County board… one other detail on the Baltimore County Board: before legislation was passed in 2014 the Baltimore Board was appointed, not elected…


    • I appreciate your commenting, but your excerpt is misleading because it suggests that I am calling them bad people. I’m not. Here’s the full graf: “The Silicon Vally assault must be turned away, not because they’re bad people but because they are peddling snake oil. If this argument resonates, please take a look at “Addicted to Reform.” Thanks…”


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