Recording Parent-Child Conversations in HCS

LENA Quotation

[UPDATE 2] I’ve  written much more about this contract under the next post entitled HCS Recording Children: Follow Up. You might want to check it out.

[UPDATE] I have been reminded that the board did have a presentation on February 19, 2015 concerning the LENA Foundation contract. At the conclusion of that presentation, there were in fact a a few questions asked by board members.

Mrs. Ferrell asked if we were really the first school district selected to participate in the LENA program and  if they had evidence that this program would help. The answers were yes, we’re first and no, they have no evidence. Mrs. Ferrell also asked how many families would be involved. 12-15 for this pilot.

Ms. McCaulley stated that “we need to assure the parents that   it won’t be recording what they say. You know, there’s a privacy thing, and it’s not recording ‘you look like your daddy’ or something like that.” Anthony Davidson responded, “it only counts the sound of the conversation.” Ms. McCaulley followed that up with the suggestion that it sounds like “Charlie Brown’s teacher? Wah Wah Wah,” to which Mr. Davidson stated, “yes.”

Again, this is not in agreement with the LENA website cited below. It was also contradicted by Mr. Davidson himself who said that the system is designed to get mothers to talk to their babies by “actually using words.” If they are tracking mothers who “actually use words” with their babies, then again, they are recording the actual words being used.

Mrs. Wilder asked if this would be like a pilot that would grow every year? The answer was yes. They are planning on expanding this program after this year.

I apologize to Mrs. Ferrell, Ms. McCaulley, and Mrs. Wilder for stating that they did not ask any questions about this plan. They didn’t ask any questions on the night they approved the plan, but they did ask a few questions a month earlier.

They did not, however, actually research the answers that they were given a month ago to see if the answers were accurate or not.

Ms. McCaulley, in an email to me tonight, claimed that she would follow up on these discrepancies. Sadly this follow up is occurring after the board has approved the contract.

I also apologize to my readers for not recalling this earlier presentation. The presentation did not, however, alter my understanding of the program as presented below. I remain convinced that this recording device will be recording actual conversations between parent and child. If not, a transcript would not be possible.

During the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education meeting last night, the board, without asking a single question last night, approved Dr. Wardynski’s recommendation for a 24 month contract with the LENA Foundation for $93,500.

For a two-year contract, this one is actually rather small, but it will have far-reaching implications. Basically what the LENA Foundation does is collect data on the amount of time parents spend speaking to their children in order to help reduce the language gap that typically exists between children born into poverty and those born into homes above the poverty line.

In order to collect this information, the district will be seeking parents of young children to give the district and the LENA Foundation the right to record every incident of conversation between the parent and the child.

Yes, you read that correctly.

The district, via this contract, is planning to record conversations between young parents and their young children in order, as Dr. Wardynski stated during the board meeting, to provide:

coaching of young parents to make sure that their interactions with their kids are going of a level where the kids are not going to suffer from a 30 million word gap. That they’ll arrive at school with a rich vocabulary . . .

The LENA Research Foundation is located in Boulder, CO and is headed by a person who until 2013 was working for Lockheed Martin.

According to Dr. Wardynski, this is the first time that the LENA Foundation has worked with a school district. He excitedly proclaimed that the district would be able to “work hand in glove, even before they get to school, to make sure kids are school ready.”

When the board president, Laurie McCaulley asked if the board members had any questions concerning this contract, not one member had a single question last night.

Ms. McCaulley did not ask for questions from the public last night.

Recording Parent-Child Conversations

The contract states that this program of getting young parents to record their children will begin in May 2015 and will have a “class” of at least 50 children.

The way the recording will work is not clear, however.

Under the “Legal” section of the LENA site, they claim that the recorder collects, “an entire day of audio (sound).”

They claim:

The LENA recorder cannot play back and is designed only to connect to a computer for processing. No one listens to the recording, and it is erased after the computer processes it. The computer processing does not recognize words or their meaning; it only counts them. The processed ‘count’ data is known as metadata and is used by us to produce reports that tell you how much you are talking to and with your baby. The reports include information on counts of words, conversational turns, and TV/electronic minutes.

They claim that, “no one listens to the recording,”  which doesn’t sound that terrible assuming that we can trust this Colorado corporation. If that were the final word on the matter, this plan to record parent/children conversations might not be as terrible as it sounded during the superintendent’s presentation last night. Sadly, that is not the final word on the matter even on LENA’s website. In the FAQ section of their website, in response to a question concerning transcriptions, the LENA Foundation states:

Q: Does LENA help with transcription?
A: Absolutely. The LENA software automatically segments and identifies the audio source (e.g., Key Child, Adult Male, Adult Female, Other Child). And when used with Transcriber, free software from http://sourceforge.net/projects/trans/files/transcriber/1.5.1/ it can help you substantially reduce your transcription time. The reports act as a roadmap and allow you to see where there is activity, saving you from having to listen and wait for something to happen. If you’re looking for specific content, the 5-minute view allows you to listen to the audio within the LENA software.

In other words, it would seem that the recorder records far more than just, “metadata” as their legal section claims. The recorder is in fact recording conversations and LENA will happily help anyone transcribe them for their record.

The district is going to start pushing young parents in the city to place a recording device on their child that will record, as Wardynski stated, both the “quantity and quality of their exchange of communication with young folks uh to help make sure they’re getting the simulation they need.”

Thus, this district approved program will be recording the actual words you say to your children should you choose to participate.

Data Is Not A Solution

Dr. Wardynski, a self-proclaimed engineer, loves data. He believes that data will save the world. He believes that data can actually replace humans. Thus, it is easy to see why this “solution” appeals to him.

First, it’s run by a former defense contractor. No one knows more about how to solve every problem known to humanity than a defense contractor.

Second, this is a program that brings in private companies and software to address a human problem. Computers are, after all, much cheaper than humans, and they don’t ask difficult questions.

What he fails to recognize, despite his “years” of educational experience, is that, while important, data is not in itself a solution. Simply recording how often a parent speaks to a child and then sending them a text message to speak a little more (which is the plan according to the LENA contract), will do little to address the 30 million word gap.

And honestly, the reason this 30 million word gap exists in the first place is not because parents don’t know that they should speak to their children.

The 30 million word gap exists because the parents of children born below the poverty line cannot afford to be at home with their children to talk to them.

Sending a text to these parents, or requiring them to attend a district sponsored class, isn’t going to address the problem of poverty one bit.

Unanswered Questions

So what do we know: 

  1. This contract calls for the recording of children/parent interactions beginning in May 2015.
  2. The program is designed to work with children from ages 24 to 48 months
  3. The district is working with “new parents and community sponsors” to send a text message to parents reminding them to talk to their new children.
  4. We do not know who all of these “community sponsors” actually are. [On February 19th, a few “community sponsors” named were Huntsville Hospital, Second Mile, and United Way. Dr. Wardynski claimed that these partners will provide things like diapers and baby formula when mom and dad come.]
  5. Helen Scott, Director of School Readiness, (the Pre-K program) will be overseeing this program.
  6. It seems, therefore, that the district will be encouraging our Pre-K children/parents to participate in this program. [On February 19th, Mr. Davidson stated that the district would be “recruiting” children of poverty in March and April who are younger than Pre-K age. The age range mentioned that night was birth to the age of 30 months. They will be targeting children younger than Pre-K, therefore. Mr. Davidson further claimed concerning talking to children that it’s not that parents don’t want to talk to their children, “it’s that they don’t know how to.”]
  7. Huntsville City Schools will be serving as a beta-test site for rolling out this program. Once again, the district is completely fine with using our children as guinea pigs for a start-up corporation’s benefit.

What we still do not know: 

  1. How will the district be “encouraging” parents to participate in such an intrusive/invasive program that records private conversations between children and parents, as well as any other background conversations in the home within range of the recorder? (The recording device is capable of recording television sounds and distinguishing them from human speech or even human singing.)
  2. Will the district attempt to require 50-60 parents who are already participating in the Pre-K program to also participate in this recording program as a part continuing to allow the child to remain in the Pre-K program? (Dr. Wardynski has regularly stated that attending Pre-K in this city is a privilege that can be taken away.)  
  3. Will the district attempt to require other students who receive, let’s say, Speech Therapy as a part of their IEP to also participate in this recording program?
  4. Since the LENA Foundation’s website is internally self-contradictory concerning what happens with the recordings, how will the district address parental concerns about being recorded in their own homes? (Perhaps a better phrasing of this question would be, “Will the district attempt to address parental privacy concerns at all?” They haven’t in the past.)
  5. And finally, what parents, in their right minds, would ever consent to allowing conversations with their child to be recorded?

To the final question, I have absolutely no answer. While addressing the 30 million word gap is certainly important, sending a text message to parents to remind them to talk to their children is a non-starter.

To the other questions, I also have no answer. You see, I am not a board member, and I was not asked during the board meeting last night if I had any questions.

And not one single board member asked a single question last night about this plan to record private conversations between parents and children either.

It’s so nice to know that they are looking out for us, isn’t it?

Once again, Dr. Wardynski has board approval to spy on our children.

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. Wardynski’s concern for “low income children” is touching. This sounds like a new and improved SAFe program to me.

  2. Since “The computer processing does not recognize words or their meaning; it only counts them,” the parent only has to say “All Hail Wardynski” 10 million times and all will be well.

  3. Serioulsy, Let’s unpack the al.com article, which will be a lot of people’s source for this. http://www.al.com/news/huntsville/index.ssf/2015/03/huntsville_boe_initiates_plan.html#comments

    If this program tracks conversation, it might be useful to remember that infants don’t talk. To converse generally implies not a monologue, right? Even by 2 most kids are not forming complete sentences.

    “LENA’s website says it is based on the research of Dr. Betty Hart and Dr. Todd Risley, who in their 1995 book, Meaningful Differences, identified the amount of talk in the first 24-36 months of life as the single most important determinant of language ability, IQ and school success. ”

    Talk is one thing. Exposure to language is quite another.

    “The study showed a child with ‘talkative’ parents heard 45 million words spoken to them during their early years, while a child with ‘taciturn’ parents heard 13 million words.”

    Again, talk is not the same as language.

    By the usual definitions of the words here, “talk” and “conversation,” reading to your kids would not apply. I believe firmly that reading to your kids matters. A lot. Chattering, nope.

  4. I’m guessing telling someone — a parent, teacher, child — to read for pleasure is not allowed.

  5. I recently read a very interesting article on speech development. And it indicated that the best outcomes were when parents speak 10,000 words a day with child. It needs to start well before the child is verbal, and it needs to be rich language – not just “look at the kitty” but “look at the kitty. doesn’t he have a big,bushy tail. look at how soft & fluffy his fur is.” Reading to your children is important, and need not be limited by a parent’s literacy skills. They can take a picture book and invent a story to it,describe the pictures, etc. And it need not be English – is a parent speaks a foreign language, then use that language.

    So it is an important element of childhood development. However, isn’t this what Head Start is for? So rather than spending money on setting up its own program, wouldn’t it be better for the school district to work with the local Head Start office to ensure Head Start is maximized in Huntsville? And any other pre-exisiting programs that are already out there?

    Also, since Wardynski was in CO before Huntsville, I find it very interesting that he recommended a CO company. I wonder how Wardynski came to know about this company. And why does the district award so many sole source contracts Surely this outit in CO isn’t the only one offering these kinds of services.

  6. My personal opinion of this entire concept is it is a load of crap way to funnel money away from the PK-12 students of Huntsville and funneling it to a company outside of Huntsville, Alabama. Since when is HCS so wealthy that they can use monies, that should be providing teachers and materials for students within the system for whatever outside the PK-12 agenda.

    Also, I would like to know where these children are going to come from? How will they be selected? How will they be found? Will they be approached at birth at the hospital?

    If I understood correctly, this will target young parents in low income households. Will there be offers of rewards for participation? A years worth of free diapers if one agrees to participate in the program, assistance with rent or perhaps a financial stipend? Honestly, if you are a 15 or 16 year old single parent, incentives like this would likely convince you to participate.

    Also, what happens when incidents of abuse are recorded on this device? They aren’t listening, right? They can’t report it, because they didn’t hear it, right?

    Someone on the board needs to open this matter back up and retract this approval.

    All parents, young, not so young, no matter what income, need to stand up and put a stop to this type of intrusion.

    1. Funny how they will fund a study to justify spying on low income students/parents but they won’t fund a health risk assessment and air quality analysis to judge how building a school less than half a mile from an active rock quarry will affect low income students learning abity.

  7. Is it really the school’s charter to fund studies like this? What I see is yet another business relationship between Wardynski and private enterprise, both I’m sure will benefit from this. This is following in the dreadful footsteps of Common Core. I can only think back on when I went to school and how we addressed education. Failing schools? Really? Schools don’t fail, students do. Sure you can build beautiful new schools and supply them with the latest tech devices, but if the kids don’t have the desire to achieve, then it is all a waste of money. You want to fix the school? Then sit down and identify why it’s “failing.” Stop getting rid of good teachers and stop protecting the bad ones. Employ a zero tolerance policy. Prior to the school year, every student and at least one of the parents must meet with school administration for a mandatory discussion. Explain the schools policies (instead of sending home the documentation which almost never get read), have the parent sign an agreement of what’s expected, and then build a file on every student which follows them until they graduate. Inform them of opportunities, assistance, and anything else they need to help the student through the school year. But also let them know the consequences of bad behavior, rampant absences, or consistent failing. Our schools today act more like an assembly line, preparing students to take tests instead of actual learning, with its ultimate goal to push them out into society. Remember when America use to be on top when it came to education? Take a look at the minnows we are graduating today and it’s no wonder we’re sliding down the scale of school achievers. Sorry for the rambling, it’s just that I see so much wrong with our education system and the “business-minded demons” who run it.

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