Sunday, October 6, 2013

Deciding Who Sees Students’ Data

In fact, there were so many information systems — for things like contact information, grades and disciplinary data, test scores and curriculum planning for the district’s 86,000 students — that teachers had taken to scribbling the various passwords on sticky notes and posting them, insecurely, around classrooms and teachers’ rooms.

There must be a more effective way, Dr. Stevenson felt.

InBloom, a nonprofit corporation based in Atlanta, seemed to offer a solution: it could collect information from the district’s many databases and store it in the cloud, making access easier, and protect it with high-level encryption.

The company has name-brand backing: $100 million in seed money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation along with the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Beyond storing data, it promised to help personalize learning — by funneling student data to software dashboards where teachers could track individual students and, with the right software, customize lessons in real time. Also, districts could effortlessly share student records with developers seeking to create educational tools for schools. In other words, for Dr. Stevenson, it represented not just a fix to a narrow technical problem, but also a potentially revolutionary way to help educate students.

“We are joining the new generation of data management,” Dr. Stevenson said enthusiastically in the March issue of “Chalk Talk,” the school district’s newsletter for parents.

She did not imagine that five months later, she would be sitting in a special school board meeting in the district’s headquarters, listening as a series of parents, school board members and privacy lawyers assailed the plan to outsource student data storage to inBloom. What troubled the naysayers at that August session was that the district seemed to be rushing to increase data-sharing before weighing the risks of granting companies access to intimate details about children. They noted that administrators had no policies in place to govern who could see the information, how long it would be kept or whether it would be shared with the colleges to which students applied.

“Students are currently subject to more forms of tracking and monitoring than ever before,” Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington who appeared via video conferencing, told the room packed with parents. “While we understand the value of data for promoting and evaluating personalized learning, there are too few safeguards for the amount of data collected and transmitted from schools to private companies.”

Jefferson County is not the only place where parents have challenged the adoption of inBloom. Parents in Louisiana raised a ruckus after discovering that their children’s Social Security numbers had been uploaded to inBloom. In April, Louisiana officials said they would remove all student data from the database. Of the nine states that originally signed up this year to participate, just three — Colorado, New York and Illinois — are actively pursuing the service.

Still, that accounts for a lot of children. New York State has already uploaded data on 90 percent of 2.7 million public school and charter students — data stripped of identifiers like students’ names — into inBloom; state education officials plan to upload a complete set soon, including names.

But New York parents have no say in the matter, said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit group that has been the leading challenger of inBloom.

“We are officially the worst state in the country when it comes to student privacy,” she said, speaking of New York. Educators are naturally excited about the potential for new tools to improve learning. But the Jeffco controversy is a reminder that it can be easy to leap at new and unproven technologies before considering potential risks.

EDUCATION technology software for prekindergarten to 12th grade is an $8 billion market, according to estimates from the Software and Information Industry Association. One major reason is the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a program to standardize English and math curriculums nationally. To prepare for assessment tests for those standards, many districts across the country are investing in software to analyze individual student performance in more detail.

Services like inBloom want to speed the introduction and lower the cost of these assessment tools by standardizing data storage and security. The idea is that inBloom’s open-source code could spur developers to create apps for all its clients, reducing the need for them to customize software to each school district. In theory, that would make the products cheaper for schools.

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