A national database created to collect and track confidential personal information from public school students from kindergarten through high school is drawing fire from parents and privacy experts.
The Shared Learning Infrastructure, built over the past 18 months, stores millions of student records identified by name, address, race/ethnicity, economic status, guardian, primary language, grade, test scores, attendance, disciplinary history, standards and skills mastered, student hobbies, learning disabilities, homework completion, school and non-school activities, and much more. Even Social Security numbers sometimes are collected and stored.
This $100 million data warehousing project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Amplify Education, was initiated by the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association as a key part of the federal Common Core State Standards. After the infrastructure was completed, inBloom Inc., a nonprofit, was created to run the system.
One of the benefits inBloom touts for this database is that it will take data from more than a dozen systems to allow the creation of content and tools to personalize education for every student.
Nine states including North Carolina have agreed to participate and provide student data for the system. Guilford County Schools is the test case for the inBloom system in North Carolina.
While the service is free at present, Reuters reported earlier this month that inBloom “will likely start to charge fees in 2015.”
“Many parents have no idea this information is being collected nor have they given permission to do so,” said Lindalyn Kakadelis, director of the North Carolina Education Alliance, “but as more parents find out, I believe there will be a lot more opposition.”
A spokeswoman for Guilford County Schools confirmed to Carolina Journal that the district was part of the inBloom project, but offered no further comment.
Threat of child identity theft
The Federal Trade Commission sent out an alert in August 2012, warning parents about the growing threat of child identity theft and saying “when children are victims of identity theft, the crime may go undetected for years.”
Sheila Kaplan, an education researcher who founded Education New York to call state and national attention to information policy and children’s privacy rights, told CJ that amendments to the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act in 2008 and 2011 granted third parties, including private companies, increased access to student data.
Kaplan said these amendments expanded the definitions of “school officials” who have access to student data to include “contractors, consultants, volunteers, and other parties to whom an educational agency or institution has outsourced institutional services or functions it would otherwise use employees to perform.”
Federal officials say the database complies with FERPA privacy laws, but even inBloom’s privacy and security policy states the company “cannot guarantee the security of the information stored in inBloom or that the information will not be intercepted when it is being transmitted.”
Some data collected by these educational organizations and vendors appear to have little connection to schooling. A sample question in the 2013 demonstration booklet for Grade 4 Mathematics and Reading from the National Assessment of Educational Progress asked if a student has a clothes dryer, dishwasher, more than one bedroom, his own bedroom, or access to the Internet, in his home. Kakadelis wonders why an educator would need to know that.
Gretchen Logue, a founder of Truth in American Education, a nonpartisan group of parents concerned about federal interference with local schools, said about the database: “Local school districts had no choice in the requirements and no vote, but they’ll bear the cost.”
She said TAE has created an opt-out form for parents who want to protect their children’s privacy rights regarding Common Core State Standards, their assessments, state longitudinal data systems, and related issues.
A growing number of states are eyeing legislation to prohibit the release of confidential student data without the written consent of a parent or guardian. Among them are Oklahoma, Missouri, and New York.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham University Law School also are calling attention to student privacy issues. The Electronic Privacy Information Center in 2012 filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education, saying it lacks the statutory authority to amend FERPA to make student data more available and accessible to third parties. The case is pending in federal district court.
Education technology as a business
Kaplan said these data-mining efforts raise not only privacy concerns but also the likelihood that students will be exploited for profit. The Shared Learning Cooperative, run by inBloom, stores student data and catalogs instructional content and materials aligned to the Common Core State Standards. SLC will recommend Web-based resources. Educational products and services that are tagged to this Common Core system will be “optimized” (more easily found) on Google, Bing, Yahoo, and other search engines. Companies offering products that are not tagged could lose sales and profits.
In March 6 testimony supporting Missouri Senate Bill 210, a bill prohibiting the Missouri State Board of Education and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education from implementing the Common Core State Standards for public schools without the approval of the General Assembly, Kaplan said the education technology industry is a booming business.
“The business of education,” Kaplan said, was the phrase used by the CCSSO’s Education Information Management Advisory Consortium when it argued in favor of FERPA amendments granting vendors greater access to confidential student data. The Software and Information Technology Industry Association, representing more than 500 high-tech companies, also supported the FERPA amendments.
“Technology startups aimed at K-12 schools attracted more than $425 million in venture capital last year,” Kaplan said in her testimony.
Karen McMahan is a contributor to Carolina Journal.