Common Core and ‘Smile Intensity': Together at Last?

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 13, 2013 3 min read
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When I wrote about the death of an anti-common-core bill in Alabama last month, I noted that at least a few critics of the standards had linked them to “facial recognition” technology they said the U.S. government would use to read students’ minds and pry into their eating habits at home. (Some commenters on the blog post noted that general concerns about invasions of student privacy under the common standards are not really misplaced.) But at the time, I didn’t get into where exactly some critics were making the link between reading students’ facial expressions and the common core.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch spells out the link between the potentially unsettling technology and the common core. Elisa Crouch wrote yesterday about a Missouri Senate bill that would require public hearings and a study of the common core, conducted and produced (respectively) by the state education department. What critics are referencing is a draft report from the U.S. Department of Education titled “Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century” and dated February of this year. The report focuses on “noncognitive factors” and how they play a role in student success.

To cut to the chase, references to the possible uses and benefits of reading facial expressions can be found on page 41, when it deals with “affective computing,” which deals with reading heart rate variability, brain wave patterns, and eye-tracking, in addition to facial expressions, and on page 44, when it deals with something call the Media Lab Mood Meter from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This Mood Meter captures facial expressions and “extracts geometric properties on faces (like distance between corner lips and eyes) to produce a smile intensity score.” While this device may not be useful for small classes, the report notes, it could be useful in learning environments such as field trips where students go to museums.

And for those looking to fling a little more fuel on the political fire, in the “Acknowledgments” section, the report’s authors thank Ash Vasudeva, a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been criticized as a major force behind the standards.

Here’s the kicker, however. As Crouch notes, U.S. department spokesman Daren Briscoe asserts that there is no connection between the common core and this report. The report does mention the Common Core State Standards twice, in relation to the persistence students need to grasp the math standards. And “content standards” are also mentioned twice, noting that teachers must cover a large number of them with students and that short lesson plans can be “densely packed” with content standards. But the report makes no clear link between the common core and the actual use of any facial recognition technology, whether it involves a “smile meter” or anything else.

In addition, the report states that such “micro-level indicators” to gauge student interest and engagement can be “intrusive or impractical for use in school settings.”

But conservative bloggers, most prominently Michelle Malkin, have brought up “creepy student monitoring techniques” including facial recognition as one more reason to oppose the standards. As a rhetorical matter, for those who assume the federal government is behind both the common core and the potential introduction of facial recognition technology into classrooms, arguing that the two are connected isn’t a big stretch. But of course, many people and groups who support the standards and say they were a state-led initiative won’t grant their opponents the initial assumption about the federal government’s role in the common core.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.