Archive for August, 2013

inBloom’s Big Data: Accountabilty or Liability

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Jefferson County School District in Colorado is embroiled in what’s likely to become a national controversy around the uses of big data in k-12 education, student privacy, technology security, and the impact of large foundations on so-called education reform.

School districts like Jeffco, one of the 50 largest in the US, have collected lots of data on students including names, addresses, email addresses, test scores, assessment scores, disciplinary events, medical needs, and demographic and economic information.  Much of the data is scattered over numerous software applications, making it difficult for teachers and other educators to pull everything together.

Teachers may have to enter the same data into several different databases, which is time consuming and annoying.  So districts want a system to pull all the bits together.

inBloom built by $100 million from Gates and Carnegie Foundations

That’s where inBloom, the technology platform developed by the Gates and Carnegie foundations, comes in.  It can take data from multiple sources, organize it, store it, and funnel it back to teachers through a “dashboard” system.  That’s the good news.

Here’s part of the controversy.  inBloom will store huge chunks of personal data from Jeffco students and all students in New York State and potentially many other states in one platform on cloud servers managed by inBloom employees.  Parents worry that their kids’ data will get highjacked by hackers.  They also wonder why all this data will be bundled in one place rather than held locally so it all can’t be shoveled out at one time to who knows whom.

Parents worry that federal privacy rules are insufficient for protection

Parents are also concerned that federal FERPA (privacy rules) regulations, watered down by the US Department of Education, won’t provide sufficient security to protect private information.  Under FERPA, school districts can share student information without notifying parents for research or for development of curriculum content.  Maybe parents don’t want their kids’ data used for those purposes, but they won’t know.

Rupert Murdoch wants to profit from education content business

Here’s the next part of the controversy:  Who will be in the business of developing the curriculum content, especially for the new Common Core Standards?  Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify, with its Amplify tablet, will be one provider.  Murdoch’s numerous media holdings in Britain have admitted to breaking the law related to hacking into voicemail of newsmakers and other privacy violations.  That’s not a track record that gives much comfort to some parents.

Are philanthropic foundations wagging the tail of the education dog

The Gates Foundation has a big dog in this hunt.  The education side of the Foundation is committed to building digital content to support student achievement.  The content may be derived from information gleaned from the big data contained within inBloom if districts agree to share it.  While Jefferson County School District won’t sell the data, it can share the information, giving private entities access to their students’ records.

Even if individual student identifiers are stripped from the data, parents may not want their children’s records used for these purposes.

Jeffco school board hasn’t provided guidance on the pilot, yet

So far, Cindy Stevenson, superintendent of Jeffco schools, has set up a Data Management Advisory Council without guidance from the district’s board of education.  The board hasn’t given direction on the big data pilot’s mission or policies.  At this time, the district is not offering parents any options to stay out of the data collection.

Apparently, parents who want to opt out are going to have to leave the district, seek private schools, or do homeschooling.

Many other questions are out there:

  • How will the data be secured
  • Who will have access to the data, under what circumstances
  • Will the data be shared with non profit, for profit, and research entities, and will parents be notified of any sharing
  • What government entities will have access to the data and for what purposes
  • What is the long term financial plan for inBloom; is it sustainable
  • What will happen if a security breach occurs; will parents be notified if a security breach occurs; how will security breaches be defined
  • Who is liable for security breaches
  • What policies will protect student privacy
  • How will districts monitor compliance with privacy and security policies
  • Who is responsible for guiding the district in its big data mission – the board or the superintendent
  • How will school boards provide oversight on big data collection and distribution
  • How effective has data collection been in driving education results over the last decade
  • To what degree should foundations drive education “reform” within a school district
  • How will big data collection ultimately affect teacher evaluation
  • What negative impacts may big data collection have on student achievement

Please add your questions and observations to our comment boxes.  Paula Noonan, First Vice President, Jefferson County School District



School Opens

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

Another school year begins; this time without fear of budget cuts. New Common Core State Standards (CCSS) articles head the news. “Should we or shouldn’t we?” is in the media. Although 45 states have agreed to use the CCSS, it still is argued. I don’t care as long as the tests for those standards are improved and are only one tool to assess the proficiency of students, and definitely not the evaluative tool that overwhelms all others to decide how teachers perform. The question of testing should dominate the media coverage. Why is it not? Too complicated?

California elementary school

California elementary school

I’m concentrating on how to begin the new school year. I have three days to prepare my room so that new kids switch from a low number of classmates in a primary third grade. They enter a fourth grade class with a lot more students and upper grade behavior standards to learn. My goal is to prepare a room that feels comfortable and readies kids to deal with new responsibilities. Then the students will walk in for five days to learn the why and wherefore about literature, writing, math, science, social studies, art, and physical education.

If I have a complaint about how our union negotiates the year’s schedule, it is why students don’t attend for 3 days just to learn and practice the order and schedule. Then have a weekend to relax and come back on Monday ready for a week of curriculum.

I’ve read about state legislatures that have voted for laws of no tenure for teachers. I’ve seen teachers on TV quoted because their state has done nothing to prepare teachers for the new Common Core Standards. Without going into the details of these issues, I’m just glad that California has enough money, and I don’t expect an easy transition. I’ve read articles about capable teachers who have already employed new practices to introduce standards to students. I’ve read about the “cycle of inquiry” as a staff development tool. I’ve also heard complaints about unhelpful professional development already attended.

I may have my differences with the union and the state, but I know that my students do well on exams, and my school will persevere no matter what. It is not like the high school in Oakland (“Lifting up fallen high school” by Carolyn Jones, San Francisco Chronicle, August 12, 2013) that has become the center of media attention because it showcases every problem a collapsing school can face: change in community demographics, neighborhood crime, high dropout and low graduation numbers, infrastructure failure. It does have a tight community of alumni who venerate the school and, I hope, stand by its side.

I know that our school is supported by the community too. Fortunately, our buildings are still holding up, our residential neighborhood is stable, and our students are curious, capable learners.

Let’s see? We’ll start with magnetism. Fourth graders love that science unit. I’ll introduce the procedures for reading and writing. They’re always surprised that they can choose their own book to read and join a literature group. My fourth graders love to be given their writing notebook. I make it special because they can keep track of their reading and write their drafts without criticism about spelling or grammar.

A good start.


Technology and Confidentiality

Friday, August 9th, 2013

As schools rely more on technology, parents require more confidentiality of their children’s data profiles.

Schools across the country are in the throes of education change and “reform.”  Desperate to improve student achievement, school districts are turning to technology to provide support of individualized student learning.

The largest school district in Colorado, Jefferson County Schools, may join with the New York City public school system to use a newly designed “middleware” platform called InBloom.  The middleware platform  has received funding from a consortium of foundations, including the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation, to design the InBloom “cloud” application.

InBloom allows school districts to aggregate and store gobs of data. InBloom allows districts to aggregate and store information from disparate sources into a single “dashboard,” giving educators and other personnel access to individual student test results, demographics, disciplinary actions, economic status, medical status, etc.  There are over 400 data points that districts can select from using InBloom.

And that’s what makes some parents exceedingly edgy.  Parents in Jefferson County have stepped into the InBloom project questioning whether aggregating so much information on their children into one platform is safe, secure, confidential, and private.

Parents want to know who has access to data under what circumstances. Parents are questioning whether it’s appropriate for the district to send all this student information to a third party for cloud storage on Amazon servers.  They worry about hackers, unauthorized third parties accessing the information, and selling student information to publishers and other education companies involved in developing education content.

Parents don’t want their children’s names, addresses, or any identifying features attached to the data.  They don’t want their child’s disciplinary or attendance records embedded with testing information.  Parents with learning disabled or physically disabled children are concerned that their child’s medical information will escape into the wrong hands.

Districts need to set privacy policies first. So far, Colorado’s Jeffco schools have responded by creating a Data Management Advisory Committee.  It’s focusing on how to secure information.  But as the issue is explored more deeply, the most basic problems are privacy and confidentiality.

Whether districts use InBloom or any other platforms, they must address the relevance and importance of privacy and confidentiality of student information.  Not only should districts have policies related to their own employees, but state Departments of Education should ask legislators to define student privacy in statute.  This definition would include control for self-identifying information; strictly define who has access to information; limit what happens to information not stored within a district; and specification of what information can be shared, with whom and under what circumstances.

These questions are prickly. Schools will lose students if their privacy isn’t protected. Teachers can greatly benefit from single source access to information.  They can benefit from individualized education content to give to students with specific learning issues.  All of this becomes possible with single source data storage and the capacity to identify specific solutions to individual student learning problems.

Somehow, even with these significant benefits, information privacy must not be lost or given away.  Some may say that districts should balance privacy with information aggregation and access.

But for many parents, justifiably, their child’s privacy must come first.