Two parent members say Shawnee Mission’s Digital Learning Task Force was ‘designed to silence critics and stifle debate’

The Digital Learning Task Force has delivered its final report to Superintendent Mike Fulton — but two parent members say they can’t endorse the group’s work.

Administrators leading the Shawnee Mission School District’s Digital Learning Task Force have submitted their report to Superintendent Mike Fulton. And some of the parents who participated are none too happy with the final product.

District parents Gretchen Shanahan and Erica Frans, members of the Digitally Wise parent group that raised concerns about Shawnee Mission’s 1:1 technology initiative last year, submitted a letter to Fulton and members of the board in late June prior to the final report’s delivery to the superintendent. In the letter, Shanahan and Frans said they could not endorse the advisory statements included in the report “without a more substantive and transparent review process” that would prominently include consideration of peer-reviewed research on the impact of devices in the classroom, among other steps.

They’re speaking out publicly now that the report has been finalized and posted on the school district’s website.

Shanahan and Frans maintain that the district administrators charged with leading the task force steered the process away from taking a hard look at the potential negative effects that have accompanied implementation of the 1:1 program, which provides an iPad or Macbook to every Shawnee Mission student. After five years and an investment of more than $50 million, the district has little evidence that the initiative has been a positive contribution to the learning environment overall, they argue. And they claim district leaders were unwilling to acknowledge potential negatives during the task force’s work.

“From day one it was evident that the task force was designed to silence critics and stifle debate, while ignoring five years of student performance data and a growing body of research questioning the utility of digital devices in the classroom,” they said in a statement provided to the Shawnee Mission Post. “For these reasons, we withdrew our support from the DLTF and presented independent recommendations, consistent with Superintendent Fulton’s commitment to a thorough and transparent review of the digital initiative. Inexplicably, the final task force report was adopted without public comment or review, and without independent recommendations presented by dissenting task force members.”

Administrators Drew Lane (at podium) and Christy Ziegler served as co-chairs for the task force.

Shawnee Mission Chief Communication Officer David Smith confirmed that Christy Ziegler and Drew Lane, the central office administrators who led the process, had presented the report to Fulton. Smith said that there was no plan to present the report to the board of education at one of the district’s public meetings. Fulton has told members of the task force that their report will be used as an advisory document as various groups work toward implementing portions of the district’s new strategic plan, which was adopted in June.

“The Strategic Plan is our district’s road map,” Fulton wrote to members of the task force. “As such, the Digital Learning Task Force report will be provided to staff and community as they work on implementing various aspects of the Strategic Plan. This allows the research with recommendations to be used in the context of conversations around continuous improvement at building and district levels.”

Among the concerns that led Shanahan and Frans to back away from endorsing the report was the fact that it’s light on specific action steps to address problem areas, leaning more on general advisory statements like, “Increase communication between district, teachers, parents, and students regarding digital learning.” Though the final report does prescribe some specific steps, like the development of a “responsible use policy” and “time usage guidelines” that are “easily accessible in a common place on the district website,” it does not have any timeline in place for accomplishing them.

Frans said she was frustrated by the lack of detail in the recommendations.

“We have heard from countless parents who are frustrated that children do not have adult supervision while using the devices at school and even after going through the entire DLTF process they still have access to YouTube, YouTube Kids, Netflix [and] uneducational games,” Frans said. “We were expecting the DLTF to come up with action steps like ‘devices will not be used during indoor recess,’ [and] ‘all apps will be removed and revetted before the start of school’…”

In the letter they sent to Fulton and the board, Shanahan and Frans asked the district to consider a new process with the following steps:

  • 1) Appointment of a new, independent leadership team;
  • 2) Completion of a comprehensive review of all student performance data;
  • 3) Review of current digital practices;
  • 4) Administration of a blind survey of students, parents, teachers and
    administrators;
  • 5) Comprehensive review of validated, peer-reviewed digital learning research; and
  • 6) Consultation with independent experts in the fields of child development;
    mental and behavioral health; online safety and privacy; and digital learning.

They also urged that the “review should be conducted in full compliance with Kansas Open Meetings and Kansas Open Records laws. All results of the audit should be subject to public review and comment…”

After being barred from attending meetings of the Digital Learning Task Force, the Shawnee Mission Post submitted a Kansas Open Meetings Act violation complaint with the Kansas Attorney General’s office. The office has not announced its findings.