PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Teachers and staff say it's hurting, rather than helping, students.
It's called EdTech, educational technology. The digital curriculum platforms and student assessment tools are designed to turn traditional classrooms into a high-tech learning environments. Across the country, school districts, including Pittsburgh Public, are buying, even though critics say EdTech isn't making any measurable impact on student achievement.
"These EdTech companies are selling their product to districts as a sort of a magic bullet, and when you look at the results, you're not getting a whole lot of bang for your buck," literacy expert Sarah Scott said.
A KDKA investigation has found that under Superintendent Anthony Hamlet, the Pittsburgh Public Schools have been on a technological spending spree. In addition to costing millions of dollars, it appears to have hurt rather than help student performance.
In the past three years, the district has entered into more than 50 new high-priced contracts with EdTech companies at a cost of more than $14 million, though with associated costs and automatic renewals, that number could be much higher.
KDKA also found no evidence these contracts were bid out competitively. Instead, many have gone to vendors that Hamlet or top administrators have used in the past or to friends, like Barrington Irving of the Flying Classroom with whom they traveled to Cuba.
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Most importantly, instead of improving educational outcomes, a dozen teachers and staff who spoke to KDKA on the condition of anonymity say all this buying has hurt their ability to educate kids and complain that they're getting snowed under by the sheer number of tech tools.
KDKA's investigation found that before Hamlet's arrival, Pittsburgh Public school teachers had two student computer assessment tools to measure student progress. Now, they have six. In interview, teachers say the programs are pretty much the same and go largely unused.
"Teachers don't need an another assessment system on their plate. Their plate is full of assessments. So if you're asking them to do one more assessment, it's just one more data point, one more piece that's added to their already very full plate," Scott said.
Teachers and staff say they've been shut out of the contract selection process or when they can weigh in, they're overridden -- in one case to disastrous effect.
A teacher advisory committee recommended against using an elementary school reading tool called ReadyGen, but Hamlet and the district purchased it anyway from Pearson Education for $4.4 million.
Teachers says the program lacks a foundation in phonics and is failing to improve reading scores in some all African American schools, where more than 80% of the students aren't reading proficiently.
"We have a lot of kids in the public schools who can't read, and instead of addressing that problem, we're worried about making sure that favored contractors get the right contract. That's really not the way to run a school district," Michael Lamb, the city controller, said.
As KDKA has reported in the past, the superintendent takes frequent trips out of state to attend various conferences, where he engages with vendors.
In October, he appeared at a conference in Chicago sponsored by the EdTech company ReThink Ed. Just last month, the Pittsburgh School Board approved a $135,000 contract with the company, which immediately issued a press release in which Hamlet praised the program.
Most of these contracts have been approved by the board without objection, until this January.
After showing a slick video supplied by the vendor, the administration asked for the approval of a $5.8 million EdTech curriculum contract with Discovery Education, whose products were used extensively in Hamlet's old school district of Palm Beach County in Florida. But board members Sala Udin and Veronica Edwards finally raised objections.
"We have requested further information. For example, where the program was working, what model we were modeling after, where do we go to see the benefits of it before we pay the money?" Edwards said at the time.
Still, the board did approve a $934,000 pilot program with Discovery.
KDKA's Andy Sheehan requested an interview with Hamlet or one of his top administrators to discuss these contracts, but his request was turned down. The district has since said they would not be commenting on the matter.
Lamb has referred KDKA's findings to State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
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