HCS Recording Children Follow Up

This past Thursday, the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education voted unanimously and without asking any questions to approve a $93,500.00 contract with the LENA Foundation purportedly to help close the 30 million word gap that exists between children born above and below the poverty line.

As I mentioned in my last post, the board did conduct a brief discussion of the LENA Foundation plan on February 19, 2015. I have uploaded the video of that and the March 19, 2015 contract approval to YouTube, and I would recommend that you watch both of the meetings. The first presentation is about 15 minutes long. The second is about a minute and a half.

Here’s the first presentation on February 19th. It was offered by Mr. Anthony Davison of the School Readiness Department which manages the Pre-K program. He was making this presentation in the place of Ms. Helen Scott who was not present for either of the meetings.

Here is the video from this past week’s meeting where the board approved the contract without question.

It’s rather astonishing how lighthearted our board members are when they are approving a plan to turn even children who are not old enough to be in school yet into data points, isn’t it? No child left behind, indeed.

So what have we learned about their plans for recording children so far?

What We Currently Know About the LENA Program of Recording Children

  • The board is planning to, as Dr. Cooper stated during her introduction of Mr. Davison, “reach down and start touching students when they are infants and toddlers” to help close the word gap beginning in May 2015. 
  • Recruitment for this program will start immediately in March and April with their community partners. They will recruit children from “birth to thirty months.
  • The first round of classes will begin in May. This will be an 8-week session, and then the district will follow up with a monthly meeting for 10 months to make sure “that parents are still on track.”
  • The community partners include: Huntsville Hospital, “the other hospital” (presumably Crestwood Medical Center), United Way and “various groups.”
  • The meetings will be held at Ridgecrest Elementary School and Second Mile Development. 
  • The community partners will provide incentives for attending and allowing the children to be recorded. According to Dr. Wardynski, “when mom and dad come, they can leave with a box of diapers, and baby formula, stuff like that.”
  • Presumably the community partners will identify low-income parents to participate in the program. These parents will be recruited to participate in a curriculum called “Smarter Happier Baby” (SHB). Mr. Davison claims, “it’s not, a lot of times we’ve found that it’s not that the parents don’t want to, they don’t know how to” talk to their children.
  • Every “stakeholder” will have access to the data that is compiled by the program. As an example, Mr. Davison claimed that if it were 1:00am, and he wanted to check up on how “our students” (children birth to 30 months are students now) are doing, he can pull up that data on his smartphone wherever he is. Thus, the “stakeholders” who can access the data they are compiling include:
      • Huntsville City Schools employees,
      • LENA Foundation employees, partners, “coordinators/educators, administrative staff, and other users of the service,”
      • Presumably the community partners (Huntsville Hospital must have some reason to participate as a stakeholder who recruit and give diapers to parents),
      • and perhaps parents, although they will be receiving a “hard copy” of a report.

Board Member Questions

Is There Evidence of Success?

Three of our board members asked a total of five questions about this program on February 19, 2015. Here’s a transcript of the Q & A session that the board held.

Ferrell: You said that we’re the first school system to get this but are there cities that have done it, or libraries?

Wardynski: Providence and Chicago.

Davison: Providence, RI.

Ferrell: Do we know what their success rate has been?

Wardynski: They had evidence of success, but because the school system was not involved, they lost the ability to follow up and see the long term benefit. So that’s why we’re the first school system in the United States to participate, so we’ll be setting the trend for America with this information.

So, we know that our children/community will be guinea pigs for this program. LENA has no firm evidence that this system works because they haven’t actually tracked the results yet.

Think about that for a moment. We just bought the services of a company that is consistently claiming  that their services will help close the 30 million word gap, but they don’t actually know that their recording, monitoring, and pestering of parents via text messages will actually make any difference whatsoever.

That’s not all that this exchange shows us. It also shows us that Dr. Wardynski is clearly planning to ensure that parents who participate in the LENA program will gain spots in the Pre-K program when the children are old enough to attend.

Gaining a spot in the district’s Pre-K program is competitive. Not everyone who applies gains entry. That’s a significant incentive to parents.

Oh yeah, and once again we see Dr. Wardynski’s true motivation: to be a national trendsetter. That’s far more important than a child’s privacy.

Will Conversations Be Recorded?

The board members questions continued with Ms. McCaulley next.

McCaulley: And we need to assure the parents that it won’t be recording what they say.

Davison: Yeah, yeah.

McCaulley: There’s a privacy thing, and it’s not recording if you said, “You look like your daddy” or something like that. [Laughter]

Davison: That was one of the conversations that we had with the, [laughter] with the representatives from LENA, and they assured us that, that it only counts the sound [laughter] of the conversation, uh Ms. McCaulley, not the actual words.

McCaulley: Like y’all never told your kids, “you look like your daddy, that’s why you acting like that.”

Davison: Well, we did ask in advance of is it actually recording what they’re saying cause we know not everything is pleasant. And she shared with us that does not record what they actually say, but the actual conversational turns.

McCaulley: Does that sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher?

Davison: More wah, wah, wah [he nods].

Shelton: Yes, phonological segments.

Davison: Phonological segments.

It’s clear that Mr. Davison and Ms. Shelton (another School Readiness Specialist with the district) are doing a good job of repeating the LENA sales pitch here.

It is also clear that neither they nor any of our board members actually bothered to take a look at the LENA Foundation’s website in the month between this presentation and when they voted to approve the contract.

If they had, they would have seen that this claim of not recording conversations is, as I wrote on Friday, directly and specifically contradicted by LENA itself.

Q: Does LENA help with transcription?
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.

If they are transcribing the conversations, then the recorder is recording much, much more than “phonological segments.”

When I pointed this out to Ms. McCaulley via email on Saturday night, she responded:


It’s disappointing, among all the laughter that night, that no one decided to follow up to see if what they were told actually had any basis in reality.

They were too busy laughing at each other to worry about that “privacy thing” it seems.

Will This Pilot Be Expanded?

Mrs. Wilder continued the questioning:

McCaulley: Any other questions board members?

Wilder: This will be like a pilot and then we, if it’s working it just grows each year?

Davison: [Nods yes.] That’s our goal.

Wilder: That’s what I hear [in response to an inaudible comment from Dr. Wardynski].

Wilder: It’s excellent!

Davison: We’re so excited because like I said with Pre-K like Dr. Wardynski said by the time they get to us, their brain has 80 to 90 percent of it is formed. And so we’re working with that other 10. So if we can get them started from the beginning having mothers to talk to their babies when they first have them, having conversations, and actually using words with their babies, then we can definitely, I feel like we will have a success rate. And again, we are the first school system to implement this. We’re excited about it.

Shelton: Very excited.

McCaulley: I’m excited, too! I’m excited!

Davison: Well, we’re excited that you’re excited, Ms. McCaulley!

Everyone is excited, and excited that everyone is excited. But again, in all of their excitement, no one bothered to go look at the LENA website to see if what they were told was accurate.

Oh, and excitedly, we’re not only going to record 12-15 families beginning in May; we’re also going to grow this program because Mr. Davisonfeel like we have a success rate.”

Because research is best when it’s based on feelings, I suppose.

How Many People and Where Will They Meet?

Mrs. Ferrell wrapped up with two final questions concerning the number of people they are starting with and where the program meetings will be held.

Ferrell: Anthony, how many people are going to be in the pilot?

Davison: We’re starting with . . .

Shelton: Two groups

Davison: two groups . . .

Shelton: 12 to 15

Davison: 12 families to start with to 15 will be our max right now.

There was a question from an audience member concerning where these meetings will be held. They are considering hold them at Ridgecrest Elementary School and Second Mile Development.

Ferrell: Will the final decision be made based on where all of your, um uh, all of your recruits are from?

Davison: Based on the need, yes ma’am.

And with that, the board concluded their examination of the LENA program with all of their questions answered to their satisfaction and excited joy. Everything is AWESOME.

Thinking Critically About LENA

As our board has demonstrated, repeatedly, that they are incapable of critical thinking, here are some points any parent considering this program should keep in mind.

  1. The recorder will likely record statements like, “You look like your daddy,” or other “not pleasant” conversations despite Ms. McCaulley’s and Mr. Davison’s assurances that it will only record, “wah, wah, wah” like Charlie Brown’s teacher. LENA’s website makes this clear. They will be recording children.
  2. The district will target low-income families and entice them to record their conversations with “diapers, formula” and a likely guaranteed spot in the Pre-K program after the child turns 3 or 4.
  3. The district believes that parents (at least poor parents) don’t know how to talk to their children.
  4. The district believes that sending a text message to parents reminding them to talk to their children and bribing parents to attend a weekly and then monthly meeting will fix this problem.
  5. The district believes that it is completely acceptable to turn infants into data points that are available for review by any “stakeholder” at any time day or night via a smartphone.
  6. The board members are more interested in laughing at Dr. Wardynski’s attempts at humor than they are actually doing research to see if the things he is recommending actually have any basis in reality.

Another Autism Cure

One final note: One of the sides that Mr. Davison presented to the board showed was entitled, “LENA Research Findings.”


The final point on that list claims:

Parents of children with autism tend to talk less the more severe their child’s symptoms. Conversely, the stronger their child’s language abilities, the more parents talk.

In my experience, I think this is true. My son’s autism is on the more severe end of the spectrum. It is difficult to get him to speak, and it is therefore difficult to speak to him.

The LEAN Foundation promotes on their website that their services diagnose and aid those who are on the spectrum.

An Autism diagnosis does consider how often a child responds to speech, but that is just a small, truly tiny, part of the diagnosing process. Not being “talkative” does not make one autistic. This is a company, and there are more of them cropping up every day, that is seeking to profit from selling their services as a solution to autism.

Snake-oil is a waste of money, and it is often quite dangerous to the child.

So let’s look at that solution. I, as an autism parent, might not talk as often to my son on the spectrum as I do to my daughter who is not. My conversations are recorded by the LENA recorder, and then I get a text message reminding me to talk more.

Does this help my son’s autism?

Well, perhaps it might. I do occasionally have to remind myself that it is important to talk to my son even when, especially when, he doesn’t respond.

So it seems that I would support this program, right? Well, if the world were simply black and white without any nuance, the answer might be yes.

You see autism is described as a spectrum disorder for a reason: every single child on the spectrum is radically different from another. Sometimes they benefit from speech. Sometimes, however, speech actually does more harm than good.

Ask any ASD parent who has been through a meltdown if “talking” and forcing “talking” actually helps the child in that situation? One commonality you’ll find is that often talking is the absolute worst thing you can do at that point. It can lead to additional self-injury and can result in the child being less willing to talk at times when they are calm as they associate talking with pain.

A reduction of stimulation from external sources is crucial at that point.

Yet, if I know that I’m being recorded, I’m more likely to speak when keeping silent is actually more necessary.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, doesn’t it. When you believe that talk is the solution, then talking often becomes the only solution.

Sometimes the solution is the worst possible action.

Nuance is Beyond Wardynski’s Understanding

But this program doesn’t allow for nuance. Actually, nearly nothing Dr. Wardynski has ever proposed since 2011 does allow for a nuanced response. He came here with one single approach to education, with one arrow in his quiver, and he keeps firing it, over and over, regardless of the absence of results or of the failed results.

This program is no different. He believes that if only he has enough data, on every single thing, (how often we speak to a child, how often we refer a child to the office, how often a child goes to the clinic, how often a child goes to the bathroom, how often a child takes a standardized test and so on ad infinitum) then he can solve all the world’s problems.

Or at least he can use the data to show why the problem wasn’t his fault.

And that’s the issue here. Wardynski is not experienced enough in education to understand when nuance is crucial. This “plan” is no different.

There’s no evidence that this program will help. None. Wardynski said so himself.

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


  1. All I can say is amazing. No one on the Board does any legitimate research on the programs they are to implement. What is the purpose of the board, just cal themselves Board Members.

  2. I wish they would do some legitimate research on the effects of Silica Dust in relation to children’s health and safety,and the link to learning disabilities.

  3. My biggest objection to this program is the deceptive way that it is being promoted to lower income families. To tell them that their conversations aren’t being recorded when they actually are is unethical at best. As a taxpayer I want to know more about how this program will be promoted and operated. Who has access to the recordings? Can they be subpoenaed? Can the public see a copy of the contract – if any – that the families will sign to become part of the program? Will they be made aware of the risks involved with having heir conversations recorded?

  4. “My biggest objection to this program is the deceptive way that it is being promoted to lower income families. ” Mine too.

    1. She claimed that the board members would be requesting a demonstration of the recording device.

      I suggested to her two things:

      1. While it is a good thing that they are requesting this, it should have been requested before they approved the contract, not after it, and

      2. If she really wished to convince the public that the device was “safe” to wear in a home, perhaps she, the board members, and Dr. Wardynski would volunteer to wear the recording devices around their necks for 16 hours during the next Executive Session and then they could release the raw recording to the public for examination. (I acknowledged that this was probably not legal.)

      She has not responded to me further since that exchange.

      1. Well… If I may be so bold as to chastise you a bit on your own blog, that may not have been the best approach. 🙂

        I’d like to talk with you personally about this issue. It’s really captivated my attention. I can help you spread the word, perhaps even join you at a board meeting or two (I’ve already posted your blog on my Facebook page and emailed Dale Jackson on WVNN). Maybe they can be pressured to at least delay the program until all the public’s concerns have been addressed. If you’re interested, email me at mpaulson6 at att . net, maybe we can get together over a brew of the coffee bean or barley/malt/hops variety. – S.

          1. Looks like the LENA FAQ regarding transcription has been changed. It now reads:

            “Q: Does LENA help with transcription?

            (This question is only applicable for LENA Pro software. Programs like LENA Start and Providence Talks do not retain audio after processing.) 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.”

            So as long as HCS doesn’t use the LENA Pro software, the conversations (apparently) can’t be transcribed, and the audio is discarded after processing. I guess the next question then is does HCS have any plans, now or in the future, to use the LENA Pro software, or to give any third parties (i.e. law enforcement) access to the recording devices?

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