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.
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 as 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.”
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.
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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩