Student privacy concerns continue to grow (Guest Post by Maria Naughton)

Maria Naughton is an educator, educational consultant and public school parent.  She is a frequent guest columnist here at Wait, What? and writes commentary pieces for the New Canaan Advertiser where this piece was first posted. See: http://ncadvertiser.com/43686/student-privacy-concerns-continue-to-grow/

It is all about the Data – The uncomfortable truth about teaching in America

Privacy protections for our youngest citizens are undergoing a troubling transformation due to recent policy changes, and requirements in education. As a result, both state and private entities are gaining expanded access and use of individual-level student data. Upon closer examination, it is becoming abundantly clear that greater controls need to be put in place.

To explain further, a key requirement of the education-related Race to the Top program mandated collecting data on students to “ensure” their successful navigation into the workforce. This has resulted in an almost non-stop (and ever-expanding) stream of information being collected and stored on our children, starting as soon as they enter formalized schooling, and possibly sooner.

At the state level, data on children will be aggregated from various state agencies into one system. This personally identifiable information (PII), will be collected from birth and into the workforce, and will be made accessible to Federal agencies. Maintained in federally-funded state repositories (P20WIN in Connecticut), this data, we are told, is necessary to ensure that our children are “college and career ready.”

However, in order to make that PII more accessible than in the past, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act or FERPA was redefined by the Obama administration, removing longstanding federal protections for children. Most of us would agree that teachers making data-driven decisions to ensure student success make perfect sense. But the lack of insight as to how this state-level digital dossier will be used, or where captured data is stored, is disturbing.

This information gathering will begin early. Nationally, in grant-funded preschools, educators are learning that those much-needed federal dollars come with strings attached. Teachers are finding they have endless reporting requirements about their young students, which cover everything from toileting habits to cooperation skills, to expressions of understanding and “empathy” towards others. Schools are being mandated to use programs like Teaching Strategies Gold, into which teachers spend inordinate amounts of time entering up to ten “domains” of information, even submitting photos and videos to provide what they call evidence, to ensure toddlers are on the track to success.

Behaviors common in preschool, like biting or whining, while just a blip on the radar of child development, may now be logged forever in an electronic student record. And while the appropriate course of action would be for a teacher and parent to discuss the behaviors, entering them into a database will allow unseen analysts to perceive them as indicators of a potential mental health issue, when in fact, a child might just be having a bad day.

Of course, preschool teachers have always monitored the progress of the children in their care. What is disturbing is the submission of this data to unknown entities and the lack of understanding about where it goes. In Connecticut, the Early Childhood Information System (ECIS) is under development, and will be part of the newly-funded Office of Early Childhood. This ECIS system will connect to the P20WIN, ensuring contiguous progress monitoring on children. The P20WIN is overseen by an appointed Data Governance Board, which holds the authority to release that data upon request to organizations meeting the “educational use” requirement. This illustrates just how far removed parents and families have become from how these agencies are using their children’s information.

Data gathering does not stop at preschool. As children move through the public school system, they will continue to generate personal data, often through online programs and third-party vendors not under the direct control of the schools. A key component to education reform involves the concept of “personalized learning.” Parents should familiarize themselves with this term. This involves students using an electronic device, and an online program, with or without teacher instruction, to learn. Theoretically, by using analytics and algorithms, the online instruction is tailored to the student’s individual needs.

Recent online programs in use in the Norwalk public schools include programs like mClass for literacy or Total Motivation, a program meant to teach critical thinking. These programs capture online responses and behaviors, in order to be personalized. While it is easy to appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit of the new products flooding the market as a result of the educational reforms, conflicts begin to emerge about who benefits most from the use of these innovative, albeit new teaching methods.

To clarify, using methodologies with a proven track record for students makes sense. However, that proof may not be evident with some new web-based products, which are under continuous development. As an example, a recent Grossman Family Foundation study in Connecticut looked at the impact of using mClass in certain pilot schools, over other reading programs and found the differences in achievement, “statistically insignificant.” Yet, while the benefits to students are negligible, the vendors do benefit from student feedback through use of the product. As a direct result of the FERPA law change, those responses may be used by the organization for future product development, without parental consent, effectively putting students in the position of being unsuspecting, and unpaid, product testers, instead of receiving time-tested and effective instruction.

In addition, the “digital dossier” will grow as more and more students submit to online instruction as part of their public education. As of right now, there is little protection for a child’s online profile, or the sharing of that data with others. Proposals like President Obama’s recently introduced Student Digital Privacy Act, while appearing to protect students, actually only clarifies that personal student data may be shared as long as it is for “educational purposes.” This new act, which does nothing to keep this data out of the hands of the educational product vendors, is a cleverly titled fig leaf which allows States to assuage the growing privacy concerns being raised by parents.

These concerns are real, and state lawmakers, including those in Connecticut, are listening to their constituents. Several bills have been introduced in this legislative session, which will go further to offer privacy protections for students and their families. Additionally, legislators are seeking to understand how students’ time is being used in school with regards to online learning. These are sure to gain bipartisan support. Please stay engaged, and check in at cga.ct.gov/ to learn which Bills have been put forth, and how you can make your voice known to the Committees, which will be discussing them.

Note:  Many data collection products are being used by Connecticut public school systems.  For example, Norwalk uses mclass (mentioned above) which is a product of Amplify, the massive corporate education reform industry entity owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch and education reformers Joel Klein –   http://www.amplify.com/assessment/mclass-reading-3d.

  • LutherW

    Great companion piece on TheIntercept,com on survey evaluating 8 yr olds and up for potential terrorism, to be watched

  • Bluecoat

    Keep pushing this issue. There is no need for psych exams or personality tests performed on our kids without written permission.
    This is the number one reason in my mind that we need to pull out of the SBAC and any electronic adaptive testing, where everything is being recorded.
    I think we all need to be aware, that all Health information collected in schools is no longer protected by HIPPA laws but by the Same FERPA laws that are now deemed useless.
    In Stamford, and Waterbury, in the past year or so, these two cities have placed Health Clinics within their schools.