[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 . . .
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).”
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.
So what do we know:
- This contract calls for the recording of children/parent interactions beginning in May 2015.
- The program is designed to work with children from ages 24 to 48 months.
- 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.
- 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.]
- Helen Scott, Director of School Readiness, (the Pre-K program) will be overseeing this program.
- 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.”]
- 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:
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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?
- 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.)
- 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.