Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

Technocratic Expansion of Education Data Systems Stirs Privacy Concerns

By Anthony Cody — June 12, 2012 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Follow me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

What will it mean for every one of the nation’s 50 million students to have a unique ID number, and be included in a national database that tracks every test they ever take? And teachers will get ID numbers as well, so the database can track the test performance of our students over our entire careers.

I have been exploring in recent weeks the way technocrats such as Bill Gates are redesigning our education system, with projects such as the Common Core (national) Standards. I also wrote about the Groupthink I believe is being fueled by the alliance of philanthropic dollars and government coercion. This week we learned of research the Gates Foundation is funding investigating the use of attention-monitoring devices in classrooms.

The core of the technocrats’ push to reshape education is the all-powerful DATA that they believe ought to be driving all of our decisions.

The Gates Foundation has been funding an organization called the Data Quality Campaign, which operates to pressure states to develop “longitudinal data systems” to track student and teacher test performance in fine detail over time. In much the same way the NCTQ is in the process of rating schools of education across the country, and the Media Bullpen is acting as self-appointed “umpires” to “hold the media accountable,” the DQC has developed a system to give “grades” to states for their educational data systems. To get their seal of approval, state data systems must have the following ten features:

  1. A unique statewide student identifier that connects student data across key databases across years.
  2. Information about each student’s demographics and participation in programs like Free and Reduced lunch.
  3. The ability to match individual students’ test records from year to year to measure academic growth.
  4. Information on untested students and the reasons they were not tested
  5. Statewide Teacher Identifier with a Teacher-Student Match. This enables the use of VAM systems, and also the comparison of teachers from different teacher preparation programs.
  6. Student-level transcript information, including information on courses completed and grades earned.
  7. Student-level college readiness test scores
  8. Student-level graduation and dropout data
  9. The ability to match student records between the P-12 and higher education systems
  10. A state data audit system assessing data quality, validity and reliability

As usual, Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is in lockstep with these ideas. They have made the expansion of data systems a central feature of Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers. States are being asked to develop systems very much along the lines laid out by the Data Quality Council, and the DQC’s recent summit in Washington featured Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee - that expert on quality data -- as speakers.

The concerns raised this week regarding galvanic response bracelets reveal a deeper discomfort with the intrusion of technology into our classrooms. There is a fear that was not there when we were bringing in the internet, or laptops, or digital cameras. The galvanic response bracelets seem to be taking over a core element of the teacher’s responsibility - to track and respond to student engagement. They also suggest the ability to constantly monitor us, which has echoes of sci-fi dystopias such as 1984.

The expanded data systems raise related fears. What will it mean for our students when the “permanent record” so often held over their heads begins in pre-school and follows them their entire educational life, and includes not only periodic grades, but detailed information gleaned from ever-more frequent assessments?

How will this data expand when we add computer-based tests at ever more frequent intervals?

What will it mean for these state-level data systems when these tests are all nationalized through the Common Core? It seems as if we will then have, in effect, a nationwide data system with detailed information about every single person enrolled in a public school.

If the data collected were only used in accordance with its true value, we might not have such a reason for concern. But as we are seeing with the VAM fiasco in New York, where dedicated teachers are being pilloried in the press because of a flawed system.

The no-bid contract that Rupert Murdoch’s Wireless Generation won with New York State to manage their student data system was scuttled a year ago - but they figured out a work-around. The Gates Foundation stepped up and provided $76.5 million to support the creation of a special LLC, which will funnel $44 million to Wireless Generation to do this work. This LLC will be creating a national student and teacher database, and access to the data held by school districts is the crucial hurdle they must cross. Once they have the data, then they can manage it and sell it back to districts, for all the myriad purposes it has been given - rating and ranking schools, teachers, and of course students, with ever greater detail, made all the more precise by the national standards and tests they have been simultaneously promoting.

If we had some reasonable assurances of privacy and respect for individual liberty, we could relax. But there can be no such assurances, because the people creating these systems do not even control them once they have been constructed.

And some, like Rupert Murdoch himself, have a very troubled history regarding the use of technology to invade privacy. His news outlets have been found to have hacked the phones of accident victims and government officials, suggesting a corporate culture that does not respect individual privacy.

This is the trouble with technology. You can create tools, but often the tools themselves wind up only leading you towards solutions that they can provide. If our data consists of test scores, we seek ways to boost them, even if they only represent a fraction of what truly matters. And “we” no longer control the data, when it is housed in a national system maintained - for purposes of profit - by entities such as Rupert Murdoch’s Wireless Generation.

It would be one thing if this data was the magical tool its adherents claim. They suggest that low performing districts do best when they “become obsessive over using data to drive instruction.” But we have collectively obsessed over data for more than a decade now, thanks to NCLB, and we have very little progress to show for it.

This is not to say all data is worthless, or we should abandon assessment of student work. On the contrary, solid assessment practices are critical to good teaching. But they are at their best when they are carried out by the teacher, who can respond immediately to the data she gathers. We do not need a huge national database, nor do we need nationally aligned benchmark tests, in order to do effective formative assessment.

There is a lot of evidence that this focus on test data does more harm than good. Our technocrats are in the process of creating a national data system with unique ID numbers and detailed information about every single person who passes through the doors of a public school, for no good reason.

I, for one, do not entirely trust the enterprise.

Update 1: Reader MRM provided us with this link to the National Education Data Model website, which reveals the incredibly detailed data that the technocrats would like to assemble.

Update 2:
The Department of Education maintains that rules designed to protect student privacy will prevent the abuse of this data. But then there were rules against hacking phones in England as well.

Update 3: MRM again provides some fresh data: “Ah, no, Anthony, the link you provided which describes FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) (the one that actually *protected* a student’s privacy) is OLD (April 2011). It is important to note that they quietly CHANGED the legislation in December 2011 to allow access to basically anyone who wants to study the data (...) for some presumed educational purpose. Here is a link that describes the changes.

What do you think? Is the creation of a nationwide database of student and teacher information likely to spur achievement? Or is it a potential invasion of privacy on a massive scale?

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.