Kansas City Data-Sharing Effort Showcases Ballmer Group’s Strategy

By Benjamin Herold — March 04, 2019 7 min read
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The Kansas City, Mo., school district is part of a new initiative to increase data-sharing between schools and nonprofit organizations, raising hopes of better-coordinated services and fears about the continued bleed of students’ sensitive information.

The effort is being financed via one of the largest-known investments to date from the Ballmer Group, the venture-philanthropy arm of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and a major new player in the world of K-12 giving. Last August, the group put $59 million into software company Social Solutions Global, which is now partnering with the Kansas City public schools in what the business hopes will be the first step toward taking its model nationwide.

The basic premise is to integrate Social Solutions’ already-popular software for nonprofit case management and reporting with the student-information systems used by most K-12 districts. The latter typically contains data about children’s demographic backgrounds, attendance, academic performance, disciplinary history, and more.

See Also: Ex-Microsoft CEO (No, Not That One) Giving Big to K-12

Some parents and privacy advocates are alarmed, saying increased information sharing will likely lead to greater surveillance and profiling of children. They also contend the arrangement is legally questionable.

But proponents say organizations providing after-school programs, mentoring, social services, and other supports will be able to provide more timely, personalized help if they have a more holistic view of the children they serve.

And for K-12 districts, the potential benefits include more efficient tracking of the many nonprofit vendors who now receive contracts to provide “wraparound” services to children, said Mike Reynolds, the chief research and accountability officer for the Kansas City district.

“This can really help us focus our budget and determine bang for the buck,” Reynolds said. “If we’re contracting with your tutoring group, but outcomes stay the same, why are we paying you $600,000?”

Integrating Children’s Data

For years, some K-12 school systems have taken part in so-called “integrated data systems,” in which children’s educational records are linked with data from other governmental agencies, such as child-welfare departments.

In the wake of the Parkland, Fla., and other high-profile school shootings, there’s also a push for schools to share such information with law enforcement.

But what’s new about the partnership between Social Solutions and the 16,000-student Kansas City district is the involvement of nonprofit and nongovernmental social-services organizations. While schools regularly share information with such groups on an ad-hoc basis, often by manually created spreadsheets sent via unsecured means such as email, the idea of directly integrating the two sides’ software systems at scale would represent a major change.

Here’s how the arrangement is supposed to work: Founded in 2000, the Austin, Texas-based Social Solutions has developed software systems now in use by an estimated 3,200 nonprofit and social-service organizations and agencies, including many that work with children in grades K-12.

Right now, tools like the company’s Apricot 360 software allow those groups to track the services they provide, as well as basic outcome data, such as how often each student attends a program. The existing software can also be used to create reports for funders.

The new version of the software being developed with the Ballmer Group’s investment, however, will be much higher-powered, said Alexis Zotalis, the company’s director of educational solutions. Among the new features: direct connections with popular K-12 student-information systems such as PowerSchool and Infinite Campus, new dashboards, and a recommendation engine that can ostensibly suggest customized supports based on individual student needs.

In Kansas City, for example, that will soon mean that staff at third-party organizations will be able to view detailed information about specific students in their programs who also attend district schools.

Say, for example, a homeless student has missed several consecutive days of school. The software might alert the student’s caseworker to the issue. The caseworker could then “dig in a little more” into information such as the student’s attendance, grades, and recent disciplinary incidents, Zotalis said. The software might also provide automated suggestions about how to help.

“The system is really meant to be proactive, surfacing alerts prior to seeing degradation in [a student’s] test scores,” Zotalis said. “Are there other things the student perhaps needs, like maybe food support?”

Access to student information will be limited based on each third-party organization’s mission and individual staff member’s role. A coordinator at a program that brings grandparents into schools to read to elementary students, for example, would not be able to view nearly as much data as an administrator at a victims’ services organization.

And at least initially, Zotalis said, information will primarily flow in one direction, from the school district to its nonprofit and social-service partners, for only those students enrolled in the outside groups’ programs.

Still, there will be significant benefits for both sides, said Reynolds, the Kansas City schools’ research director.

The Kansas City district, for example, already pays numerous outside groups to provide social workers, trauma-informed care, restorative-justice circles, summer meal programs, and school-based medical clinics. Right now, Reynolds said, pulling data to evaluate the effectiveness of all those efforts is time-consuming and inefficient at best—and impossible at worst.

“We’re trying to make sure that if we refer kids to outside agencies, or put interventions in place, that we have hard data that really shows outcomes,” he said.

Privacy Concerns

Not everyone, though, is a fan of the new partnership and the larger trends it represents.

Even experienced teachers often struggle to use student data to improve decisionmaking. Is it reasonable to expect part-time mentors to do better?

And while increased data collection is often touted as a way to more efficiently deliver social services to poor families, some experts believe it can sometimes worsen the poverty and lack of opportunity they experience. In some cases, argue academics such as Virginia Eubanks, a professor of political science at the University of Albany, SUNY and the author of the recent book Automating Inequality, such practices have led to individuals being subjected to greater scrutiny of their behavior as a condition for receiving public benefits.

Then there are the fears around privacy.

“Parents across the country are very concerned about the promiscuous and unrestrained dispersal of their kids’ personal data, both to a wide range of government agencies as well as into private hands,” said Leonie Haimson, the co-chair of the advocacy group Parent Coalition for Student Privacy.

One worry is that the increasing volume of data sloshing back and forth could put children at greater risk of having their personal information compromised or stolen. Another is that granting staff at third-party nonprofits access to the types of data contained in most student-information systems could have unintended consequences. If workers at an after-school program know about a child’s disciplinary history at school, for example, could that negatively affect the services he receives? What if a law- or immigration-enforcement agency sought the data as part of an investigation?

And some experts question whether it’s even legal for school districts to share such information with third parties in the way Social Solutions and the Kansas City district propose.

Under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, districts are generally prohibited from sharing students’ personal information and education records without parental consent, said Sara Collins, an education privacy lawyer who works on issues related to integrated data systems at the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington think tank.

To facilitate their partnership, however, Social Solutions and the Kansas City district say they are invoking two commonly used FERPA exceptions. One allows information to be shared with third parties for audits and evaluations. Another lets districts designate outside entities as “school officials,” allowing them to receive students’ records so long as a number of conditions are met.

A spokeswoman for Social Solutions declined to provide a copy of the data-sharing agreement spelling out the arrangement, and the district did not respond to an open-records request for the document before this story was published.

Collins of the Future of Privacy Forum said the devil will be in the details.

“I would caution any school [against] installing this software before they have a better understanding of who the information is being shared with, how much control the school will retain over the data, and what is being done to protect the data,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Kansas City Data-Sharing Effort Shows Ballmer’s Strategy


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