Standards Opinion

Will the Data Warehouse Become Every Student and Teacher’s “Permanent Record”?

By Anthony Cody — May 20, 2013 5 min read
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When I was in junior high many years ago, I recall teachers warning students that if they did not shape up, their crimes would go into their “permanent record.” At the time I really did not know what that meant. It conjured up images of some moment in the future when an earthly version of Saint Peter might unroll some lengthy scroll of misdeeds, for which we would be held to account. The reality turned out to be much more mundane, as I discovered a few years ago in a musty school district warehouse, where I saw box after box, and file cabinet after file cabinet of dusty “cume folders.” These manila folders, some thin and some thick, are the actual “permanent records” our teachers warned us about. They hold report cards, suspensions, and other details of our school career. Once a student has graduated, these papers gather dust for a few years, and then are shredded. So much for permanence.

But that may change in the brave new world being built by the data hungry technocrats driving education reform.

inBloom, the non-profit started with a hundred million dollar investment from the Gates Foundation, is planning to create a digital record which, barring catastrophe, truly could be a permanent record of every K12 student, from their first interaction with the schools to the last. The amount of information they are planning to collect is staggering. Here are the several hundred categories, which include academic records, attendance records, test results of all sorts, disciplinary incidents, special ed accommodations, and more.

This level of data collection was made possible by the Department of Education’s 2011 revision of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). According to this report,

...in 2011, regulations issued by the department changed FERPA to allow the release to third parties of student information for non-academic purposes. The rules also broaden the exceptions under which schools can release student records to non-governmental organizations without first obtaining written consent from parents. And they promote the public use of student IDs that enable access to private educational records, according to EPIC, a nonprofit public-interest center based in Washington D.C.

There are several concerns that this raises. The first is around the security of this data. Unlike the manila file folders gathering dust in a school district warehouse, these digital files will truly be a permanent record of every step of a child’s life. Anyone with all this information could create a profile of every person that grows up within a school. Over time, this will be the vast majority of people in this country. Moreover, this sensitive information will be stored by inBloom on a data cloud, tempting to hackers. The vulnerability of the information is acknowledged by inBloom, which states on its security policy that “inBloom, Inc cannot guarantee the security of the information stored in inBloom or that the information will not be intercepted when it is being transmitted.”

States and districts that choose to participate in this system may then turn this information over to for-profit companies, like Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify, and Pearson. Amplify is actually building the operating system for inBloom, despite the fact that its parent company, NewsCorp, has been cited for violating privacy both here in and in the UK. Companies like Pearson are creating management systems and “data dashboards” to allow school districts to access and organize all this data, based on each student and teacher having a unique ID number.

Teacher records to be collected by inBloom include their names, addresses, the test scores of every student in their classes, allowing for various value-added estimates to be made. They also include their work history, including the “Separation Reason Type,” -- a long list of reasons a teacher left employment - including some that might flag someone as undesirable. For example, if a teacher leaves their post due to “Discharge due to unsatisfactory work performance,” this is noted in their record. A teacher such as Sarah Wysocki, who was fired a year ago in Washington, DC, because her VAM scores were low, might find herself tagged in this manner. Districts may consult these records before hiring teachers, so low VAM scores could become a career crippling event.

I have recently been writing about scenarios that are being made possible, and some have accused me of pessimism or even paranoia. But we have a recent history that suggests we ought to be vigilant about these matters. Teacher evaluation systems have been legislated that require teachers to be evaluated based on the scores of students they never taught. Teachers in subjects not covered by regular tests are finding their performance measured in strange ways.

Those in charge seem to have a rather cavalier attitude towards the way these chips fall. When Secretary Duncan was asked recently about major system failures in online testing systems, he said this:

We should have competition. We should be transparent -- I don't know who that company is, I don't want to pre-judge -- but if that company can't deliver, there's an opportunity for someone else to come in and do something very, very different... We should not have one problem and then say we should go all the way back to pencil and paper, that doesn't make sense to me.
This is a business. Folks are making money to buy these service. If those folks are doing a good job to provide that service, they should get more business. If they're doing a bad job providing that service, they should go out of business...
We'll get better and better. I do think, directionally, this is the right way to go. We have multiple players playing in these space... Let's see who's for real. But again, directionally, having computer-adaptive tests, having the ability to evaluate way more than just fill-in-the-bubble stuff -- the critical thinking skills -- directionally, it's the right way to go.
There will be bumps, there will be mistakes. The big thing is, 'What can we learn with them?' What was wrong with the contract? What was wrong-- how do we not replicate this someplace else? With all this stuff, we're moving the country in this direction, so for me, that's not just an Indiana challenge.

Duncan was speaking about the testing systems, but the same laissez faire approach is being taken with companies that have been invited to manage all this student and teacher data. Once this sort of data has been compromised, there is no way to get that horse back into the barn. We can trust the powers that be, and trust the wonders of the market to reward and punish the companies that are “playing in this space.” Or we can act to stop our states and districts from sharing this sensitive information.

Concerns over student privacy have been one of the reasons that Republicans have given for opposing the Common Core, in resolutions such as the one passed last week in Utah. This aligns with the resolution recently passed by the Republican National Committee against the sharing of confidential student data without parental consent.

We have also heard from such progressive organizations such as Class Size Matters, the Center for a Commercial Free Childhood, the Massachusetts ACLU and the Learning Disabilities Association of New York, about the tremendous risks involved in storing all this highly sensitive information on a cloud and sharing it with for-profit vendors. Because of protests from the left and the right, as well as many parents without any political affiliation at all, Louisiana recently withdrew its data from inBloom, and Georgia’s Superintendent says he will not participate in the system either.

Thus far teacher unions have largely been silent on this front. Many teachers already have student test scores included in their evaluations, often based on faulty and unstable VAM analyses. Will we find ourselves enmeshed in data systems that make it so this data becomes a part of our permanent records as well?

What do you think? Should we be concerned about the expansion of these student and teacher records?

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The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.