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Most of us are aware of the Pandora’s Box that has been opened in terms of personal data mining. We are cautious in filling out store loyalty card applications, and we try our best to safe-guard of our online passwords and our other personal information. We even shred our bills and other printed statements.
What we may not know, however, is that our nation’s public school districts have assembled a huge stockpile of information on our children and may be handing it out — or maybe even selling it outright — to third-parties in the name of “better” education. The data that is vulnerable contains not only names, addresses and grades, but specific personal details including religious affiliation, disciplinary status, household income and health records. Once this data has left the school districts’ hands, there is no way to predict into whose hands it may fall. At the very least, it could go to marketers who aim to sell our kids software and apps. At the very worst, it could go to criminals who aim to do our families harm.
What about the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act  (FERPA)? Good question. The answer to it has everything to do with the Common Core  learning standards that will go into full effect next school year, and it is disturbing.
Back in 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided the first loophole. The government promised money to states that developed systems to catalog Common Core test data.
Then the Obama administration used data system development as the main focus for the awarding of any extra K-12 funds through the “Race to the Top” program.
The US Department of Education (DOE) then took the step of reinterpreting FERPA in 2011 to permit a student’s academic record to be shared with non-governmental organizations without prior written parental consent.
Students in states that have accepted Common Core standards will begin taking new state standardized tests in 2014-2015. The data from these tests will be stored by the states in their new longitudinal data systems that are designed to track a student from pre-K through college. The National Center for Education Statistics, which is part of the DOE, helps states to identify and code the various types of information.
While some educators say that having centralized data will help educators know more about how their students are doing so that they can adjust and improve educational standards and methods, the reality is that all this data is a veritable goldmine to software companies.
The Reuters news service reported last year that technology startups for the public school (K-12) market attracted about $425 million in venture capital. Media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who owns Amplify Education, one of the largest education technology companies in the US, estimates that K-12 education is a burgeoning $500 billion business in this country alone.
The issue of family privacy and parental control over all this student data is a hot one, and it is playing out in several states this fall. InBloom Inc . is playing a key role.
InBloom Inc. bills itself on its website as “a nonprofit organization working to make personalized learning a reality for every U.S. student by improving the effectiveness, variety and affordability of education technology.” Created and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation with $100 million, InBloom is storing information on a data cloud run by Amazon.com, with an operating system by Murdoch’s Amplify. (A strange partnership, to say the least.)
InBloom seeks to help educators have easy access to information that may now be available on many separate databases or spreadsheets. The company states on its website that it provides the “plumbing” to connect the systems so that they work more easily and efficiently together.
Here’s a piece the company doesn’t share so readily: InBloom Inc. plans to share data with software companies and other for-profit vendors in order to provide more personalized learning tools to students.
InBloom admits on its site that it cannot guarantee the security of the data it obtains: “While in this day and age no security protections can be 100% guaranteed, InBloom has greatly improved student data protection beyond the measures currently used by most school systems. We are meeting the highest industry standards and are exceeding federal requirements.”
While nine states originally agreed to participate in InBloom’s system, four of those states – Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky and Louisiana – have pulled out after protests from parents and other advocates for privacy, and several others are reconsidering.
New York – with a state enrollment of some 3.6 million children — is currently the only state sharing data on a statewide basis with InBloom. Despite protests from parents’ groups, advocacy groups and a variety of bi-partisan organizations, spokespersons for the New York State Education Department (NYSED) have repeatedly stated that parents “give up” their right to keep their child’s information private when they register that child for public school.
Meanwhile, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is urging Congress to get involved in the situation and the breaches to the FERPA. In an Oct. 10, 2013 letter to the Senate and House Committees on Education, EPIC wrote: “Students and families are losing control over sensitive information, and private companies are becoming the repositories of student data and even the data maintained by the schools is far more extensive than ever before.”
Marc Rotenberg, EPIC executive director, went on to say, “Once the data gets out there it has all sorts of ramifications. It weakens the [FERPA] structure Congress put in place because Congress understands that a lot of student data can be stigmatizing, keeping people out of jobs, for example.”
Some proponents of student data mining say that all the stored information can be useful in finding children if they are lost or kidnapped. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, for instance, has promoted a national database as a way of protecting children’s human rights.
Attorney Michael P. Farris, founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA ) and president of ParentalRights.org, maintains, however, that personal privacy is being destroyed by those who want to track children.
The trend toward student data tracking gets more Orwellian the more you look into it. The strangely titled 2013 DOE report Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century contends that “connections to neuroscience are also beginning to emerge” in data mining. Among the devices mentioned are a camera used to detect emotion by capturing facial expressions.
The report also describes a wireless sensor that can be attached to a student’s wrist. The sensors then collect “physiological response data from a biofeedback apparatus that measures blood volume, pulse, and galvanic skin response to examine student frustration,” according to the report.
Without parental consent and despite some opposition, the trend toward collecting personal data to identify and track students is accelerating. Our nation has been riveted by National Security Agency (NSA) spying, but we would do well to turn our attention to what is happening to our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. We cannot put our heads in the sand when we are told that this information will help our children learn. Our public education system cannot be fixed with databases.
Parents have the right to know what information their school district shares with a third party and to opt out if they do not want this information shared. Urge your school superintendents and state representatives to keep your school district from participating with this new and growing threat to our privacy.