Broke Chicago Schools Find Millions For New Computer Software

kids on computer
Ben Grey / Flickr
kids on computer
Ben Grey / Flickr

Broke Chicago Schools Find Millions For New Computer Software

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The Chicago Board of Education will vote Wednesday on a measure that would allow the cash-strapped school district to increase its spending on educational software by about $12 million.

The proposal would increase spending on education technology from about $2.5 million last year to more than $14 million over the next three years, plus another $3 million to train teachers on how to use it.

Chicago Teachers Union researcher Sarah Hainds says she is worried that the district is moving too fast in making educational software part of the curriculum.

“Who is going to be watching?” she asked. “Blended learning is a new field. It is a risky field. It is not tested on elementary students. We don’t know where it is going. We don’t what it is going to look like.”

Turns out, this huge increase in funding for educational technology is being justified because the software will be used to try to accomplish another of the district’s initiatives: reducing the number of students referred for special education services.

Schools are going to have the option of using a slew of approved educational software programs to help students struggling in school. Schools are being told they have to try to help students prior to referring them to get evaluated for special education services.

Some of these programs can help teachers track the progress of students and compare them to students as a whole, which is a step in making the case that a student needs special education services.

Chicago Public Schools officials have long told schools they had to provide interventions before referring students for costly special education services. But this year, the new head of special education Pat Baccellieri spearheaded a white paper that laid out problems in the department and solutions.

One of the biggest issues addressed in the paper is what the district sees as the over-identification of students with special needs. To reduce identification, district officials say they are using a new program called Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, which calls for all students to get support and for the support to get ramped up if needed.

Regular classroom teachers are typically called upon to offer that intervention and, since district officials announced the initiative in July, teachers have complained that they don’t have time to really implement such a system.

This agenda item seems to answer that complaint. Instead of teachers offering that support, it will be done through educational software.

Special education advocate Rod Estvan says he thinks the district is misspending money. For one, he doesn’t think too many students are identified as needing services. But he also says that the district would do better trying to reduce the number of students being diagnosed with emotional disorders by amping up social emotional supports.

Sarah Karp is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @sskedreporter or @wbezeducation.