School board faces questions over digital learning

The Board of Education is set to vote March 21 on digital learning but board Chairman Leslie Moriarty notes several questions remain.— Ken Borsuk photo

The Board of Education is set to vote March 21 on digital learning but board Chairman Leslie Moriarty notes several questions remain.
— Ken Borsuk photo

A vote is looming but the Board of Education says much remains unclear about the new proposal for digital learning in Greenwich Public Schools.

The board is scheduled to vote on the proposal at its March 21 meeting at Western Middle School, and individual board members have expressed their support of the concept of the program being pushed forward by Superintendent of Schools William McKersie. However, at a board work session on March 7, board members also expressed uncertainty about how the program should be advanced and when, citing concerns about cost and effectiveness.

Currently there is a $1,214,597 budget line in place for the program in 2013-14, and that jumps in 2014-15 to $6.2 million and more than $4 million in both 2015-16 and 2016-17.

“I’m worried this is going to be a pilot doomed to success because there’s going to be such a big dollar amount for this pilot,” board Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill said at the meeting. “Will we be able to be very objective and say at the end of this pilot that after all this money is spent that this doesn’t work? Will we almost be committed to this before we even know if it works or not?”

One of the biggest questions left open after the meeting was where the program would be launched as a pilot. Under the current plan, it would begin for the 2013-14 school year in sixth grade in all three of the district’s middle schools. Board members asked if it would make more sense to have it in only one class to start and then phase it in to the others once more is known.

“I am very worried about the risk,” board member Peter Sherr said. “There’s a lot of change here and a lot of things that have to go right. We’re talking about kids, and if we blow a year with a kid, it’s really hard to get it back.”

The fact that Dr. McKersie’s evidence of the effectiveness of digital learning programs comes from Pearson Digital Learning, a private company, was also a concern. Ms. O’Neill said she wanted to make sure checks were in place to make sure the program was effective and having an impact on student learning.

“Pearson isn’t exactly objective,” Ms. O’Neill said. “They’re trying to sell us something.”

Dr. McKersie said that nothing had been agreed to, and while Pearson serves as a broker for all digital learning systems with the exception of ones made by Apple, there was no obligation to buy Pearson products. He acknowledged that Ms. O’Neill’s point was a good one but said the digital learning programs out there that were failing were doing so because they had “raced toward devices” and not taken the more measured approach Greenwich was now pursuing. He said it would be a “very rigorous pilot” and the district would be constantly checking where it was going on this and how it was going, with adjustments made as needed.

“We have to make this work,” Dr. McKersie said. “But if we wait for all the evidence, we’re going to end up falling further behind.”

Dr. McKersie admitted there were benchmarks that still needed to be figured out, such as how to measure the impact on student learning, and that they would emerge through the results of the pilot program.

“As an administration we’ve said this is an ongoing process,” Dr. McKersie said. “We’re not going to get the perfect plan. We’re going to get a good plan, and I believe a good plan will get us moving and we will have an accountability timeline with key checkmarks to see how we are doing in the plan.”

He later added, “If we wait for the perfect plan, we’re not going to end up doing anything.”

Support for the proposal seems to remain strong overall, despite the expressed concerns. In anticipation of the March 21 vote, board Chairman Leslie Moriarty said she wanted to have this discussion to make sure the board’s goals and expectations were aligned with Dr. McKersie’s and to ensure the mission was identified, the path to get there was identified and the resources needed were understood.

“I think the board and administration are already in agreement that whatever we determine to do, we want to make sure we do it well,” Ms. Moriarty said. “We’re not looking to do this fast and not well thought out. And we’re not looking to do it slow and taking too much time either. We have to do it well.”

Ms. Moriarty stressed that whatever plan is adopted she wants it to be implemented well, and she was among several board members who expressed questions about whether a plan this big could be implemented effectively in a year.

Dr. McKersie has made digital learning a priority almost since taking office, and while the plan has been revised over the last few months to reflect the wishes of teachers and administrators to not jump right into buying the electronic devices, its central theme remains. He has spoken often about the transformative effects of digital learning and the need to bring that to Greenwich, especially after a recent upgrade that addressed some issues but made clear more had to be done.

“Technology in this district is, frankly, and this is not a comment on anybody, an embarrassment,” Dr. McKersie said. “I’m known for leading with the positive … but we owe it to them to acknowledge that teachers have to create two lesson plans because the Internet may or may not be up. That is not right. Prior to Jan. 31 teachers had given up using the Internet because they were not guaranteed access to it. That is not good. We have so much creativity and ingenuity in this town, and digital learning is already out there all over the place.”

Dr. McKersie said the PTAs have compared it to having the “Wild West out there” with 1,500 devices in use daily at Greenwich High School and pilots already under way with no central plan.

“The issue has run away from us, and it’s the point teachers flag as one of their major complaints,” Dr. McKersie said.

The digital devices themselves are supposed to come later during the deployment of the plan. Dr. McKersie said most districts rush into the purchase and Greenwich was poised to do the same, but “fortunately we are a district that is very self-critical, tough on itself and challenges itself” and there was pushback from teachers that this wasn’t the best idea.

“There is come cynicism among teachers about technology, but that’s because there hasn’t been a central plan and people have just gone off and worked on this,” Dr. McKersie said. “We do have some organized pilots from the coordinators that have told us a lot. People are no longer racing toward the iPad. Pearson has said that. But our teachers have also said that. [GHS Headmaster] Chris Winters has said that. Our students have said that. We need to be very careful about which devices we pick.”


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