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Come the Data Collectors

Privacy and children’s advocates worry about a new pilot program in Massachusetts to outsource student data management.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Earlier this year, state education officials began discussions with a non-profit organization whose mission is to create “personalized learning” technology for use in classrooms.

“Every student is an individual, with unique knowledge, abilities and learning needs,” the group, called inBloom, says in promotional materials. “But the technology used in most K-12 schools today can make providing personalized instruction time-consuming and cumbersome for teachers.”

InBloom offers a solution: it proposes to gather and maintain student data for school districts and use that information to create educational technology that states and local school districts don’t have the resources and funds to create on their own. inBloom also promises to help school systems compile data to evaluate students and track their progress in mandated “common core” curricula.

Massachusetts is one of several states working with inBloom as part of a pilot program. But here, as in other states, privacy and children’s advocates are raising concerns about the project, saying it would collect highly personal information about students that could easily fall into the wrong hands.

“Student information—including your child’s name, home address, email address, test scores, racial identity, economic and special education status, and possibly even detailed disciplinary and health records—will be stored on a data ‘cloud’ and shared with for-profit corporations, without any guarantee that the information will be safeguarded,” warns the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, which has organized a letter-writing campaign to the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education protesting the inBloom project.

inBloom says it takes seriously student data security and that school systems—not inBloom—maintain control over how that information is used.

 

The Atlanta-based inBloom grew out of the Shared Learning Collaborative, a group of education officials, foundations and software developers that formed in 2011 with the goal of creating technology for classroom use.

The non-profit inBloom was created to “carry forward the mission of the SLC,” according to the organization. It’s funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, and its board of directors includes Margaret Spellings, U.S. secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration, and Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia.

The Advocate made several unsuccessful attempts to interview an inBloom representative. On its website, the organization says it is “dedicated to bringing together the data, content and tools educators need to make personalized learning a reality for every student” by offering school systems “a secure technology infrastructure to integrate data, services and applications that work together to support personalized learning” and “partner[ing] with education technology companies, content providers and developers to support the creation of products compatible with this infrastructure.”

That pitch apparently appealed to officials at the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Last fall, state officials agreed to join the pilot program, with one school district—the Boston suburb of Everett—participating.

“The theory of action behind the inBloom project is that it would reduce the effort and costs to districts of maintaining student information databases and connecting those databases to educational software products,” JC Considine, DESE’s director of media relations, wrote in an email in response to an inquiry from the Advocate.  “A second goal is to encourage more software developers to move into this space by providing a common data platform that they can write to.”

Considine stopped short of issuing a final verdict on the program’s success. “It’s much too early to evaluate whether the project will achieve these goals,” he wrote. Neither the state nor the Everett school district has yet to upload any “live data” into the inBloom program. Right now, Considine said, DESE is evaluating whether the program would work well for the state and local school systems, comparing the potential costs to what school systems already pay for student data management, and assessing whether inBloom offers “reasonable security provisions to protect the privacy of data.”

 

That last issue—the security of the data collected by inBloom—is a major concern to groups including the ACLU of Massachusetts, Citizens for Public Schools and the Mass. PTA, which have joined the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood in protesting the state’s involvement with inBloom.

“The information schools have on students is really sensitive and can be abused,” Josh Golin, CCFC’s associate director, told the Advocate. That information, CCFC says, could include whether a student is pregnant, has gotten into legal trouble outside of school, or has been involved with Child Protective Services.

“It is difficult to understand how students would benefit from having such sensitive personal information about them shared with for-profit corporations, but it is clear that such disclosures could harm students,” CCFC said in an action alert urging parents and others who are concerned to write to DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester and members of the Mass. Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Most immediately, critics worry about the safety of information stored in a data “cloud.” Beyond that, they are concerned about inBloom’s relationship with its various corporate “partners,” a list that includes Amazon and Dell, and question whether they would have access to student data for for-profit purposes. They also object to the fact that parents cannot opt out of having their children’s information shared with inBloom.

In February, CCFC, the ACLU, the Mass. PTA and Citizens for Public Schools wrote to Chester and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education expressing their concerns. They asked, among other things, that the department hold public hearings on the project, require parental consent before a student’s data could be shared with inBloom, and “promise that this data will never be used for commercial purposes.”

Golin sees the inBloom project as another example of corporate interests seeping into public education, something his organization already fights in forms as varied as corporate-sponsored curriculum and ads on school buses. Companies have become increasingly sophisticated in marketing their products, to adults and kids alike, gathering as much data as they can about potential consumers so they can develop highly personalized sales pitches, Golin noted. “This is using the school systems and the school’s unique position in children’s lives, where they have access to all this information, and giving private companies access to it.”

At deadline, inBloom sent the Advocate a prepared statement attributed to Adam Gaber, vice president of communications: “inBloom is a non-profit that was created in response to a request from states and school districts to simplify how they record student information, administer tests, analyze performance, train teachers, and share lesson plans to support personalized learning. inBloom provides school districts with secure compartmentalized storage space that allows schools and teachers to do their jobs more effectively by replacing numerous antiquated systems. Districts will continue to own, manage and control access to their data, just as they always have. inBloom has no ownership of student records whatsoever, nor does inBloom share any data.”

On its website, inBloom described student-data privacy a “top priority” and says its privacy safeguards have been developed in accordance with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. That law mandates that student records generally cannot be released without written consent from a parent, although it does allow release without consent under certain circumstances, including to “organizations conducting certain studies for or on behalf of the school,” according to the U.S. Dept. of Education.

According to inBloom’s website, “vendors” cannot access student data without the state’s or school district’s consent. “Neither inBloom nor any other participating agency or vendor may sell, assign, lease or commercially exploit confidential student data,” it adds.

Considine, the DESE spokesman, said the department is “aware of the privacy concerns that folks are expressing”; indeed, one of the things the department is assessing is the strength of inBloom’s security protections.

“We are always concerned about the privacy of student records,” Considine said. “These issues are not unique to inBloom; many school districts are already contracting with commercial software vendors to assist in maintaining required student information and to use that information to help inform and improve instructional practices.”

 

State education officials are moving slowly on the inBloom project. “We have not yet signed an agreement that would move us into the next phase of the project, and there is no arbitrary timetable for us to do so,” Considine said. “We will only do so if and when we determine that the project is likely to provide significant value added for our districts and we are satisfied that the data can be maintained in accordance with all [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] requirements.”

Massachusetts isn’t the only place where the inBloom project has sparked criticism. In April, John White, superintendent of the Louisiana Dept. of Education, decided to remove student information from inBloom’s data base. In New York, parents have shown up at town hall meetings and emailed education officials to protest that state’s relationship with inBloom.

“There are lots of issues at play, and that’s why there’s lots of pushback,” Golin, of CCFC, said. “Parents are truly horrified that this really sensitive data could be shared, and it becomes part of the larger fight over what is education, what is the role of teaching and the role of corporations. …

“I think that there’s this idea that data and technology are the magic bullets we’ve been looking for … to solve our problems in education,” he continued. “There’s this idea that collecting as much data on students and then putting that into these apps, then sending back personalized lessons to students are going to solve everything. That’s an unfortunate trend. Money spent on technology could be better spent on teaching.

“I think it really is part of the movement to undermine teaching,” Golin said. “It’s part of the idea that technology and data will solve the education crisis—which is an idea being pushed very heavily by the people who stand to profit off that idea.”•

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