An Irrational $170 Million Database We Most Certainly Don’t Need

While some folks have been warning the public about this for over a year, a recent Reuters article has renewed popular outrage over a privately controlled centralized database that will house an unprecedented amount of individual level data without the consent or even the knowledge of parents, and apparently, state or federal legislatures. My comments are throughout, as I can’t resist. The article reads, in part:

An education technology conference this week in Austin, Texas, will clang with bells and whistles as startups eagerly show off their latest wares.

But the most influential new product may be the least flashy: a $100 million database built to chart the academic paths of public school students from kindergarten through high school.

In operation just three months, the database already holds files on millions of children identified by name, address and sometimes social security number. Learning disabilities are documented, test scores recorded, attendance noted. In some cases, the database tracks student hobbies, career goals, attitudes toward school — even homework completion.

Brushing off real concerns about this development, readers are reassured with this declaration: “Federal law allows [schools] to share files in their portion of the database with private companies selling educational products and services.”

Further on readers are informed:

Federal officials say the database project complies with privacy laws. Schools do not need parental consent to share student records with any “school official” who has a “legitimate educational interest,” according to the Department of Education. The department defines “school official” to include private companies hired by the school, so long as they use the data only for the purposes spelled out in their contracts.

This raises a host of questions, ones that I’ll deal with in a future post. But, for now, let’s follow the “logic” outlined in the rest of the article and what it reveals about the “Career and College Ready” agenda that is driving this initiative.

“This is going to be a huge win for us,” said Jeffrey Olen, a product manager at CompassLearning, which sells education software.

CompassLearning will join two dozen technology companies at this week’s SXSWedu conference in demonstrating how they might mine the database to create custom products — educational games for students, lesson plans for teachers, progress reports for principals.

Maybe I’m confused, but I thought teachers created lesson plans and principals created reports? This discourse suggests the intensification of the deskilling and de-professionalization of educators that began decades ago with scripted protocols, etc. Once in place, any Teach for America like temp worker can print up the computer-generated lesson plan, which will certainly include some “educational games”. Results of those “games” will automatically populate the report that the virtual principal will produce for the virtual school board.

Next we are told:

The database is a joint project of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided most of the funding, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and school officials from several states. Amplify Education, a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp [known for violating privacy rights and spying], built the infrastructure over the past 18 months. When it was ready, the Gates Foundation turned the database over to a newly created nonprofit, inBloom Inc, which will run it.

What isn’t shared in the article is the role this database will play in implementing the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI), which would not exist in its present form without the Gates Foundation. The inBloom website discussion board clearly indicates that this database is designed around the CCSS. The CCSSI assessment apparatuses are likely to directly tie into this database if and once they become fully functional. And, given that the plan is to have student essays graded by computer, there are likely to be “digital” assessments of student writing from the dispositional point of view. Might an angry or merely “different” essay by a student trigger a “no education list” (a la the U.S. Terrorist Screening Center’s no fly lists) and be used by corporate charters in screening applicants, inventing a vast and detailed hierarchy of “human capital”?

The article continues:

States and school districts can choose whether they want to input their student records into the system; the service is free for now, though inBloom officials say they will likely start to charge fees in 2015. So far, seven states — Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Massachusetts — have committed to enter data from select school districts. Louisiana and New York will be entering nearly all student records statewide.

So, individual data collected by public authorities that are responsible to protect the privacy claims of these individuals is turned over to a private company, and then the public authority has to pay the private company for access to that data? Now that’s “critical thinking”! And while “inBloom pledges to guard the data tightly, its own privacy policy states that it ‘cannot guarantee the security of the information stored … or that the information will not be intercepted when it is being transmitted.’ ” Seems like a double standard when you think about how “reformers” would scream if a public school stated that it could not protect student privacy.

The article does report that parents from

New York and Louisiana have written state officials in protest. So have the Massachusetts chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and Parent-Teacher Association. If student records leak, are hacked or abused, “What are the remedies for parents?” asked Norman Siegel, a civil liberties attorney in New York who has been working with the protestors. “It’s very troubling.”

I encourage parents to send a letter, similar to this.

What follows is the main justification for the initiative, and it is worth parsing out in detail.

“We look at personalized learning as the next big leap forward in education,” said Brandon Williams, a director at the Illinois State Board of Education.

First, I believe “personalized learning” is the new language for what used to be called tracking based on “ability”, social class, or other forms of social differentiation (“race,” ELLs, etc.). But it gets better:

Does Johnny have trouble converting decimals to fractions? The database will have recorded that — and may have recorded as well that he finds textbooks boring, adores animation and plays baseball after school. Personalized learning software can use that data to serve up a tailor-made math lesson, perhaps an animated game that uses baseball statistics to teach decimals.

What kind of nonthinking human being creates such narrative? Even the most unmotivated mediocre teacher can determine if a student has trouble converting decimals to factions! And wouldn’t the database be more useful if it could identify those students who actually found textbooks exciting? And, seriously, might teachers, unencumbered by the demands of “accountability” that increasingly block them from establishing meaningful relationships with their students, know which student likes baseball?

No teacher, school administrator or parent needs this database; it is a solution to a non-existent problem. It’s a complete hoax. It is also frightening that someone thought the above narrative was a useful public justification and that it could stand in a news item. How far gone are we that the absurdity is not evident? “Personalized learning” = remove the teacher -> collect “data” -> replace real teaching with “virtual games” -> so as “to get to know the student.”[1]

But wait, there’s more!

Johnny’s teacher can watch his development on a “dashboard” that uses bright graphics to map each of her students’ progress on dozens, even hundreds, of discrete skills.

Forgive me, but I prefer to watch the development of young people in person. “Bright graphics” — sounds like Disney, not education. “Discrete skills” — nothing says “product specification” better than “discrete skills.”

“You can start to see what’s effective for each particular student,” said Adria Moersen, a high school teacher in Colorado who has tested some of the new products.[2]

If you need a glowing, colorful dashboard of “discrete skills” to “see” your “students develop” and discern what is “effective” there’s definitely a problem. Or, maybe that’s the vision? Let’s continue:

The sector is undeniably hot; technology startups aimed at K-12 schools attracted more than $425 million in venture capital last year, according to the NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit that focuses on the sector. The investment company GSV Advisors tracked 84 deals in the sector last year, up from 15 in 2007.

NewSchools is a big supporter of charters and other privatization schemes.

In addition to its $100 million investment in the database, the Gates Foundation has pledged $70 million in grants to schools and companies to develop personalized learning tools.

Again, I offer my suggestion that “personalized” is the new language of tracking. Data will be the new marker used to segregate.

Also of note is that the official estimates of the Gates Foundation contribution to the Common Core Standards is $100 million; but if we include all those grants that are part of the Core agenda, the number becomes much, much bigger; the above $170 million constituting a start. Based on data I have collected from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website, I estimate the total expenditure to be about $1.5 billion between 2009 and 2012. The next bit is revealing as well.

Schools tend to store different bits of student information in different databases, often with different operating systems. That makes it clunky to integrate new learning apps into classrooms. […]

The new database aims to wipe away those obstacles by integrating all student information — including data that may previously have been stored in paper files or teacher gradebooks — in a single, flexible platform. […]

Education technology companies can use the same platform to design their software, so their programs will hook into a rich trove of student data if a district or state authorizes access.

This reminds me of the justification for the security state built post 9/11. We would all be safe if we could just break down those barriers between databases (e.g., eliminating boundaries between local, state and federal police agencies) and remove the blocks to spying!

At the Rocketship chain of charter schools, for instance, administrators must manually update at least five databases to keep their education software running smoothly when a child transfers from one teacher to another, said Charlie Bufalino, a Rocketship executive.

The extra steps add expense, which limits how many apps a school can buy. And because the data is so fragmented, the private companies don’t always get a robust picture of each student’s academic performance, much less their personal characteristics.

First point: you most likely don’t need the software; the money could be better spent. Second point: who cares if the “private companies don’t get a robust picture”? Why are we all of a sudden so concerned about private companies having a “robust picture” of our children?

Yes, it even gets better.

Larry Berger, an executive at Amplify Education, says the data could be mined to develop “early warning systems.” Perhaps it will turn out, for instance, that most high school dropouts began to struggle with math at age 8. If so, all future 8-year-olds fitting that pattern could be identified and given extra help.

Forgetting for a moment that Larry’s statement erases more than 40 years of research on the predictors of “dropping out” (linked mostly to poverty, racism and lack of funding), my question is this: will the “early warning system” be color coded, like the now infamous “terror alerts?” Is “fitting the pattern” the new language for profiling? Sounds like the noble language of helping to prevent “drop outs” might hide something a little less palatable; maybe inBloom will partner with state governments to alert them of students not “ready” to vote?

Companies with access to the database will also be able to identify struggling teachers and pinpoint which concepts their students are failing to master. One startup that could benefit: BloomBoard, which sells schools professional development plans customized to each teacher.

Well that’s good news. Private companies that are charging the public for access to the data provided to them by the public will assist in further attacking teachers as the source of the problem while social inequality reaches new heights! Hopefully BloomBoard will lobby for more computers — I just hope some of the leaking roofs won’t short out the circuits. I also hope their statisticians can develop models that can compensate for students not giving a damn as they sit, alienated, in their PARCC testing cages.

The new database “is a godsend for us,” said Jason Lange, the chief executive of BloomBoard. “It allows us to collect more data faster, quicker and cheaper.”

But I thought it was “all about the kids”?

In the end, this is an untenable plan, doomed to failure, with more harm along the way. It should be opposed.

  1. Even the introductory video on the inBloom website presents a vision of the teacher/student interaction as completely mediated by their database which is to form the basis of and completely structure the student/teacher relationship. In the video, both students and teachers are presented as passive, with very limited voice, only acting through the devices devised by the database developers.
  2. The formulation “each particular” set me off, so I went searching on the Internet for Adria, and I came up with what appears to be someone who loves signing up to all the social media, but never really uses any of it (is she real?). No posts from her twitter account. No info on Linkedin, but a member. “Summitt Post” indicates “high school teacher” in Colorado. On “Clas talk”, nothing. Uses “pinterest” — what I saw was vapid. Appears on “rate my teacher” with 3 stars out of 5, from six respondents (“fun” was used frequently by those posting). (Obviously the sites that did not identify her profession and location could be for someone else.) From what I could find, she does not come across as an authority on the subject of using large databases to enhance education. She has been a teacher for a short time, and in general strikes me as an odd choice for an interview by an international news agency.

11 Comments An Irrational $170 Million Database We Most Certainly Don’t Need

  1. Julie Gorlewski

    Excellent piece, Mark! Will you be at the conversation about charters on Thursday?

  2. Mark Garrison

    Thanks. There’s a lot more to this, in terms of significance, which I hope to post later this week.

    Julie: Can you post the details about the charter forum?

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  4. Mary Adams

    Great piece Mark! No one can get a straight answer from SED on whether New York State’s public school student and teacher data is about to be transferred to inBloom, Inc. Leonie Haimson in NYC is doing round the clock advocacy on this.

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  7. Dino

    Mark–“Data is good” is what several admins said in my district–why or for what purpose?It was said just like that as though to suggest that even though all these reforms and dictate from the state are known to be bad, there may be something good to come of it. Who decides? and what is the aim? Yes yes, there’s going to be lots of profit made and narrowing and exploiting the youth that way is going to cause alot of damage. But, I think the problem is the aim of the education system to serve the decaying social system, and the method of de-contextualizing and setting individuals against one another

    Really, everything we do in the world is collective. Even in the capitalist enterprises, things are done in teams and the output is for the company. Everyone knows that there are strengths and weaknesses among and within individuals. So what? Its not a problem. Its true that some, like Microsoft, are famous for pitting people against eachother through evaluations, although that is having poor results. (see Atlantic? article)

    One of the big slogans which is meant to speak for much of the opposition to standardized tests is that one size does not fit all–I remember seeing a prominent progressive speaker in education saying that everyone should have an IEP. I think its a good idea to change the factory model–and data is going to do it, but not how we want.

    What they are talking about, I think, is getting rid of standardized tests. Instead everyone will have different homework, different lessons, different tests based on all the mounds of data (Guided by the god-like standards owned by the private interests). Its the logical outcome of the differentiation and intervention that they’ve been proposing. In fact if it weren’t being used to crush individuals and the society as a whole, it might be interesting and maybe have something to it. Remember those books that they called learning machines, where you would go to different pages depending on whether or not you answered correctly. It made sense, if you understood and demonstrated it, you moved on to the page that had the next concept, and if not, there was additional exercises and questions to teach the same point. And of course this seems like it could be a good use of computers and data collection. You could learn online and have infinite variety of personally customized approaches and questions to help you learn a specfic thing, right?

    Even the clothes example –which is hinted at by the “one size fits all” idea is benefitting from computers and data collection–its a matter of time before your shoes and clothes will be completely customized–not just the color and style, but detailed measurements of your body shape, preferences in fit, intended use, cloth, I don’t know, detailed analysis of what facebook and social media determine about your clothing needs etc could be stored on your cloud account and you just send it in with your order, and the customized, computerized (desktop?) manufacturing process sends you your custom product sized just for you. (ready to be worn a few times and then recycled?)

    While this analogy may work for coming up with exercises to drill yourself on a concept you’re learning, I don’t think it gets to the heart of the matter.

    Understanding requires an act of conscious participation of the individual, an act of finding out. Changing conditions is the aim, and it is through acting on the world, that we learn and determine what needs to be investigated. Now everything is done collectively. Why is the education system still so obsessed with the individual, separated, decontextualized from experience and collective activity?

    Why should we even assess individual students or teachers through tests, and evaluations, when in fact all of our activity, experience and output is collectively done. Really, who cares how an individual does on a test? The image of Confucian civil service exams in Imperial China comes to mind where miles of highway have thousands of little outhouse shaped boxes regularly spaced, and inside each one the candidates have to write their essays regurgitating the proper interpretation of the Confucian classics. These were then judged and the test takers were assigned civil service jobs and levels.They were reproducing the society and its relations.

    One is part of a place and one is part of existing connections and experience and one can identify problems to solve collectively in that context. Can members of a collective succeed together in their objectives, play their role, be decision makers in their lives? Can a collective determine for itself what it needs and how to deal with its strengths and weaknesses? That is not about data–that is about perfecting relations and everyone participating together. Data is code for the next mediator to keep the people from actually deciding and controlling their present and future.

    As with many of these developments, if it seems to be for one thing, its likely for its opposite. So, all this testing and such is meant to differentiate and figure out what people need? More like its a refined means to control and attack peoples rights and pit people against eacheother.

    Students are removed from being part of everyday life, and are instead placed in schools part of a “system of education”. As though education is separate from work and dealing with any and all experience. It is quite decontextualizing and detaching of learning from life. How to organize it differently? Why shouldn’t youth work?–not exploited, but together with their families and neighbors and friends, and at the same time learn. We would want to deal with current reality and what stand to take and so we’d have to study/teach/learn about fracking and geology, international relations and geography or math and statistics, food, social relations, how to communicate and decide. We should be teaching and learning together with kids. Perhaps we’d have to decide whether or not to drill in our area, and if so how to best do it, and if not what are alternatives. And then manufacture in our factories the necessary equipment etc. Or we would study/teach/learn about growing and harvesting food in our conditions to minimize pollution, transportation, and maximize health and output in harmony with local ecosystem. And then carry out the work. The same can be said of the cultural needs–all participate.

    So each of these projects would touch on areas of study, branches of knowledge, and their applications, as well as being actual work to transform the conditions and produce actual output.

    Frozen into the position of student or teacher is once or twice removed from actual work and production–this is not needed anymore. Instead work and production is needed with maximum conscious participation so that these activities are in a state of constant improvement and the participants are in the best position to devise, or share or make use of someone else’s experience to meet ever developing needs of humanity generally or their particular problem for solution.

    Once you have output based on conscious participation of all ages and abilities, then you can identify that the collective is “educated” and what is needed next to proceed.

    Everyone should be deeply involved in all levels of decision making, as well as identifying problems and implementing solutions. Transforming the collective and material world is everyone’s work, and today the social relations are the main problem to solve.

    Everyone should be deeply involved in child rearing and education which would not be separated from improving the world. We need solutions to human relations and decision making, and we need them now, together with kids and everyone. Everyday living and learning and teaching need to become synonymous.
    We need to take steps to stop the separation of school from production and social life and instead bring the youth into these things.

    Really social relations lag way behind the technology and data collection abilities we already have. The decontextualizing/farming/prison/data education system wants to keep the youth and teachers and parents out of decision making and keep the social relations from being unleashed to solve problems

    A related point. We’ve been talking about how the ruling class wants to farm their specified products for maximum profits, and I hope we’ll hear more about this theory and practice. Do you think perhaps the rulers are no longer content to wait for their farmed output, and instead will start to reintroduce some form of child labor exploitation?

  8. Mark Garrison

    In her post “Bill Gates is naive, data is not objective,” MathBabe sums up the issue nicely: “the person who defines the model defines success, and by obscuring this power behind a data collection process … it seems somehow sanitized and objective when it’s not.”

    This practice is called “operationalism” and it is the common practice of official social science: the thing is defined by how it is “measured”; thus, under this model, those who measure are “the definers”. While scientifically discredited in the early 20th century, it is still common practice in most universities, think tanks and psychology labs. Operationalism is politics by other means.

    So, the nature of the data collection system is influenced by both who designs it and for what purposes they design it, which in turn influences what data are collected and how they are analyzed and presented. The common fetish for ranking is ideologically derived, and a form of disinformation. As just one example, so-called international rankings fail to convey that, just as is often the case with athletic competitions, the difference between the top 3 might amount to practically insignificant differences (note, too, that ranking is not measurement). Yet, for social and political purposes, much is made of these imposed differences (and as you point out, differences that are not often a problem when examined from the view of social living).

    So, I believe it is helpful for folks to understand that the main function of treating all the same — curriculum, teaching method, test — is differentiation of “the masses”; it always has been. That is, while a standard outcome is being imposed, it is being imposed with the aim of determining those who do not meet the outcome and ranked categories for the degree to which a product specification has been met (e.g., the HEDI scores for “teacher effectiveness”). Differentiation of this type is a form of social control, premised on (1) forcing individuals to compete against their fellow human, with whom they in fact share common interests, (2) justifying inequalities as arising from individual differences in ability to compete, and (3) blocking direct experience of the the need for radical change (i.e., change by whom and how decisions about how to live are made, how problems are defined, etc.). The aim of “reform” now is to re-create the social hierarchy on a new basis, consistent with the new governing arrangements — elimination of elected governance, privatization, rule by executives, militarization of all facets of life, rendering all public claims infamous and the subject of legal censure. It serves to disfigure by removing from control those who are the source of the data. It is a form of alienation.

    So maybe we should say: No data without representation! Certainly it is the case that there are alternative possibilities for using data and designing data systems that are empowering (I like your custom clothing idea), and contribute to solving a host of problems. Some educators talk about the need for customization in this “era of standardization”, and I tend to agree with them (here I’m thinking of Phil Schlechty). The idea of centering assessment around common work and not isolated individuals in competition with one another (on meaningless, detached, silly tasks) is very much needed (and, by the way, something I noted in the conclusion of my book, A Measure of Failure). But somehow arguing all this out takes back stage to countering the wrecking, which I believe is a problem.

    As a start, the orientation of assessment of common work is premised on the inviability of rights: no assessment is legitimate if it aims to rank the value of human beings or groups of human beings (work, on the other hand, which is social, can be differentially valued, as well as collectively determined). By contrast, the current assessment system is the basis for establishing a hierarchy of privileges with the underlying assumption that some human beings are more valuable than other human beings. We can’t expect assessments that presume to define or discover ranked differences in the amounts of value of human beings to be able to serve as support for broad, democratic forms of education. And, the more these assessment systems are controlled privately, the more violent will be their character.

    I believe that all of the above can serve to deepen critiques of existing “reforms” (meaning exposing their logic, essence) and in turn, be transformed into their opposite.

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  10. Sally Canzoneri

    Aside from all the other problems you discuss, anyone who has any actual classroom experience could tell the whiz kids at SXSW that much of the data they so love will be garbage. It’s quite likely that Susie is the kid who can’t convert decimals to fractions, but she was signed in under Johny’s username when the computer tracking his progress reported the info. Meanwhile, Johny hates baseball because his jock dad insists that he play, even though the class bully makes every practice a miserable experience. In fact, Johny is terrific at math, composes music, and idolizes Yo Yo Ma, rather than some major league pitcher.

    Poor Susie, on the other hand, gave up her place in front of a writing software program to Harriet, when Susie moved to the baseball game on the computer Johny was using. (He, naturally, was bored by the easy fraction problems & baseball theme, and went to the library to read an off-computer, off-data collection system, paper biography of Mozart.) Harriet, signed in as Susie, searched the web, and just for the fun of it wrote an unassigned, excellent report on the use of steroids in baseball, complete with data from an NIH web page.

    The following year, when the kids arrive at a new middle school, the assistant principal looks over his shiny dashboard while assigning students to “specials” (though the school system cannot afford to have much in the way of arts & enrichment activities because it had to pay for the data system); he assigns Johny to the baseball team and Susie to the Newspaper. The dashboard has little info on Harriet, who most often used her username to sign in and then help other students improve their math & grammar skills; so Susie gets no “special” because the dashboard recommends that she use the time to drill in math & grammar instead.

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