Data

New York Seeks an Alternative to inBloom

By Michelle R. Davis & Michele Molnar — April 15, 2014 5 min read
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Faced with determined opposition from a group of parents worried about student privacy, state officials in New York have ended their relationship with inBloom, a nonprofit organization that synthesizes and stores student data.

But rather than resolving the controversy, the public fight has left the state—and potentially other states and school districts around the country—with difficult questions about how they will go about collecting and analyzing data they regard as essential to evaluating, and improving, student and school performance, while also protecting sensitive information.

State and district officials have faced increasingly tough questions over the past few years from parents and privacy advocates about how student data are being collected and stored. And inBloom, based in Atlanta, has emerged as a prime target of critics despite some technology advocates’ belief that the company’s work is not unusual.

Federal Obligation

New York state education officials were scrambling to cobble together a system to synthesize student data after curtailing inBloom’s work. New York state education officials were holding a series of calls with the leaders of its regional information centers, in hopes that these centers could instead provide systems to analyze and present student data to educators. The state is obligated to improve its use of data and make it accessible to teachers and parents under a nearly $700 million federal Race to the Top grant.

Precarious Partnerships

Originally, inBloom listed nine states as partners, but now most have cut ties with the company:

Colorado: The state started a pilot project with inBloom in the Jefferson County school district, but in November the district’s school board cut ties with the company, thus ending the state’s contract as well.

Delaware, Georgia, and Kentucky: These states were listed as original partners with inBloom, but never made concrete plans to work with the company.

Illinois: The state is continuing to explore collaboration with inBloom, but not by sharing student data, said Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the Illinois state board of education. The state is looking at how inBloom tools might be used with Illinois’ own student-information database. Districts could have the option of using those tools if they choose to, Mr. Vanover said. The state’s largest district, the Chicago system, has decided it will not work with inBloom.

Louisiana: The state removed student data from inBloom last year. Student data are currently being stored in-house.

Massachusetts: An initial pilot project with the Everett public schools has been completed, and the state has no current plans to move forward with inBloom, said JC Considine, a spokesman for the state education department. He said he did not anticipate that individual districts would work with inBloom any time soon.

New York: The state recently severed its ties with inBloom and had its student information deleted from the company’s database, following pressure from parents and educators and legislation essentially barring the partnership.

North Carolina: The state initially chose a site for a pilot project, but district officials ultimately dropped out.

Source: Education Week

But questions remain about the centers’ capacity to carry out that work, and about whether recent legislation approved by the state aimed at protecting student data would impede other efforts to crunch that information.

Negative publicity surrounding New York’s partnership with inBloom, as well as a series of setbacks that had other states cutting ties with inBloom over the last year, may cause states and districts in other areas of the country to be wary of working with the company, observers said. But without inBloom, the public education sector needs to find an alternative way to analyze, share, and store student information, said Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, or SETDA, based in Glen Burnie, Md.

“The needs of schools aren’t going away,” Mr. Levin said. “If you’re not using inBloom, what are you using? There’s a relatively small set of alternatives.”

Search for Options

Late last month, state lawmakers made it illegal for the New York state education department to share student data with outside companies to collect and organize in a dashboard or portal for educators or parents. In addition, it required any data already provided to such companies to be deleted. This effectively ended New York’s relationship with inBloom, a startup launched last year with $100 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. (Carnegie provides financial support for Education Week‘s coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design.)

InBloom had faced a groundswell of opposition in New York in recent months from parents who filed a lawsuit, dismissed in February, arguing that hosting data in the cloud for use in real-time academic-progress reports flouted privacy and parental-consent laws; and from educators who worried that specific information about students—including their disciplinary records—was at risk of being made public.

Though the recent New York legislation bars the education department from contracting with outside companies for storing, organizing, or aggregating student data, the legislation does say that the state’s Boards of Cooperative Educational Services could be tapped for that purpose. New York has 37 BOCES, which provide educational support and services to districts across the state. The BOCES also oversee 12 regional information centers, which focus on technological services for districts. Dennis Lauro, the executive director of the Lower Hudson Regional Information Center, said he has been speaking with state officials about the possibility of the centers’ providing data analysis and dissemination for the state. “We’re already responsible for a lot of the data, so we should be able to get geared up for it,” he said, acknowledging, however, that this would be a much larger data project.

In an emailed statement, Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the New York State Education Department, said officials “will continue to explore and pursue alternate paths” to develop cost-effective data tools. “As required by statute, we will not store any student data with inBloom, and we have directed inBloom to securely delete the non-identifiable data that has been stored,” Mr. Dunn said.

But the legislation has wider implications, said Paige Kowalski, the director of state policy and advocacy for the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of high-quality data in education.

“The clause that forces the end of the relationship with inBloom also prevents the establishment of relationships with other vendors that might provide other services around data,” she said. “It prevents what the DQC would like states to do—which is move beyond data for accountability and toward dashboards and analytics to get something useful out of that data.”

While the state department of education could continue to tap the BOCES or the regional information centers, it’s unlikely the state would invest significant funding and manpower to ramp up these kinds of projects, she said.

Future Direction

So what does this mean for inBloom?

Adam Gaber, a company spokesman, said that inBloom continues to forge ahead with its mission to empower teachers and parents through data use. “We are definitely experiencing success in obtaining contracts with districts. We are making strong progress in that regard nationwide,” Mr. Gaber wrote in an email.

The company originally listed nine states as partners, but now has none featured on its website, and Mr. Gaber would not name any partners currently working with inBloom. Due to the controversy surrounding the New York contract, as well as previous partnerships in others states that faced opposition, “we are leaving it to customers to determine on their own when timing is best to reveal our work together,” he explained.

Mr. Levin, of SETDA, said districts may now see the company as “tainted” and may be reluctant to move forward with inBloom because of “a perception or potential consequences.”

But with all the investment in the company from the Gates and Carnegie foundations, Mr. Levin also said it’s unlikely the company will close its doors anytime soon. “I suspect they have some time to figure it all out,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2014 edition of Education Week as New York Dumps inBloom; Now Must Find an Alternative

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