Archive for the ‘Jeffco Public Schools’ Category

Money Walks, Doesn’t Talk

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

How did it happen? Election week in Colorado, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation lost two big Colorado bets totaling $101 million.

First, their $1 million contribution to the pro-Amendment 66 campaign misfired when Coloradans voted 2-1 against raising their taxes to implement a new school finance act.

Then the Gates Foundation’s $100 million investment in inBloom, the data storage platform built by Rupert Murdoch’s company, took a twelfth round knock out punch in Jefferson County School District two days after the election.

Jeffco schools, a pilot district for inBloom, ended its partnership because the school board turned over in the November 5 election.  Then Dr. Cindy Stevenson, Jeffco superintendent and supporter of inBloom, also resigned effective June 30.

The Colorado inBloom fight began publicly in March when Rachael Stickland, a Jeffco parent from the south area, addressed the school board about her concerns over personal student privacy and data security.

Her contention was that the Family Education Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) had been gutted by the US Department of Education.  In her opinion parents were concerned that the district would sell their children’s data to the 3rd party education content providers allowed under new FERPA rules to receive personal student records without parental approval.

Further, based on the inBloom pilot, Jeffco’s personal student records would be sent to the Amazon “cloud” where inBloom stores and manages data coming in from all over the country.  Stickland and other IT experts argued that any Gates project was a big target for hackers and so carried a high degree of security risk.

In addition, the district would not disclose what personal student data would be sent to inBloom.  Parents worried about medical and behavior information.

Even with a district “innovation tour” to describe the benefits of inBloom; board study sessions; and board business meetings on the subject, lines were drawn between district staff and parents.  The district asserted that the benefits of reducing teacher data entry time, streamlining the district’s multitude of applications containing student records, and providing education content to individualize student learning was worth the risks of breached privacy or security.

Parents resisted, and the debate became deeper: issues over student assessment and testing, teacher accountability, BIG DATA, inBloom finances, Foundations’ influence on education policy, a prospective data monopoly, and the purposes of collecting, aggregating, sharing, and mining personal student data by unsupervised third parties.

On election day, the parents won.  The change-over in the school district’s board was a vehement message from Jeffco voters that they didn’t want inBloom storing Jeffco kids’ data.

So now the district will build its own data integration dashboard to help teachers reduce data entry and improve their information analysis. inBloom is done in Jeffco. On Wednesday, November 13, the Colorado Department of Education and the State Board of Education also pulled the plug on the inBloom project.

It is unclear to what degree the Gates Foundation will continue its funding of education projects in Colorado.  But what is clear is that some parents yanked education policy back into the hands of local school boards and the state board.  And as everyone in Colorado discovered on election day, November 5, 2013, money doesn’t always do the talk.  Sometimes money has to take a walk.






Keeping Tabs on Student Success

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Teachers and parents:

Is your state one of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)? Or a state in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium? Look it up! Not only are Common Core State Standards the new thing, but these consortia are devising new assessments to divine what children have learned.

Are you asking yourself how are these assessment results expected to be organized and secured? The latest brouhaha is about the system called inBloom, a nonprofit foundation that has offered a cloud repository where data can be gathered and kept for states and districts. It promises access to large swaths of data and efficient economies of scale, always a worry for education. InBloom is being field-tested by states in the PARCC consortium. New York City, two districts in Illinois, and one in Colorado are taking inBloom under consideration.

For Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado, the most controversial questions about inBloom’s system deal with privacy and access. Look at these questions received after the last post was published on 8-29-2013.

Security Issues

  • Who will have access to the data, under what circumstances – in house and/or outsourced?
  • How will we know if unauthorized individuals have gotten access to data, both in-house and outsourced?
  • What will happen if a security breach occurs; how will security breaches be defined?
  • Who is liable for security breaches at inBloom; how will this be enforced?
  • How will the district manage compliance by inBloom with the district’s security policies?  What compliance staffing and tasks will be put in place?
  • How will Jeffco Public School data be separated from other districts’ data?
  • Why does inBloom insist on putting the data on their servers?  Why can’t the data be placed on local servers?
  • If a child leaves Jeffco PS, how is the data removed and guaranteed as removed?

Sharing Data

  • Will student data be shared with non profit, for profit, and research entities? Will parents be notified of any sharing?
  • Who will determine what is shared?  What will be the policies and rules around sharing data?

Parental/Guardian Access

  • According to the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), parents can have access to their student’s file; will this be made automatic through inBloom so parents can audit the use and accuracy of their children’s data; if not, why not?
  • Who will make sure that kids with parents who have language, literacy or innumeracy issues receive the same parental services through the portal as kids with parents who speak English, read, do math, etc.?
  • What will be the value of the portal to parents who may not have computer access, internet access, or don’t understand the language or the meaning of lessons children are supposed to be learning?

Last, for any state or school district in the country determining a new data collection system that features Common Core State Standards, money is an issue.

  • What is the long term financial sustainability plan for inBloom?  How many students need to be in the system for inBloom to be financially secure?
  • What is the fall back plan if inBloom goes bust?
  • What is the long term financial relationship of the Gates Foundation and other foundations to inBloom?

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.

Cutting budgets

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

School districts in Colorado are again cutting budgets.  Jefferson County Schools, the largest district, will cut somewhere between $35 million this new part of the school year and $15 million for 2012-13.  The District has already cut about $70 million over the previous two years.  The operating budget that ran at $650 million in 2008-2009 is now down to about $580 million and dropping.

The District has engaged in a proactive process in its budget work.  The County Financial Officer (CFO) consistently uses conservative numbers to calculate budgetary possibilities.  That tack helped the District build a large surplus in the mid 2000’s that has buffered some cuts.  Even so, the drop in tax dollars has been relentless, and reserves are tapped.

The District developed a “Budget Academy,” a six week program that covered all aspects of its budget.  Over 100 people participated, patiently listening to reports from district personnel on facilities, transportation, athletics, instruction, technology, compensation, health benefits, and pensions.

These people then became involved in Budget Work Groups that focused on sections of the budget, scouring departments and school budgets for any excess flesh.  District personnel took the first whacks, reviewed the whacks with citizens, and tried to mitigate cuts for classrooms.

Citizens and employees completed an online survey asking where cuts should occur.  The cry went out, “Get rid of administrators.”  One person suggested getting rid of buildings as well, saying a tent, children, teacher, and blackboard are enough.  Suggestions included expanding transportation walking distances another half mile (up hill both ways), increasing fees for athletics and other after school activities, trimming librarians and school counselors, and getting rid of music and arts in elementary school.  Long ago the district eliminated after school athletics for middle school.

What the District hasn’t done yet is decide where it needs to hold the line.  It hasn’t made triage decisions.  So, if the District decides it must get all third graders reading at grade level, how can it fund that decision?  Or if the district needs to put money into middle school to keep those kids on track, how can it fund that need?

The District hasn’t explored whether it’s possible to reduce costs and increase teacher income by asking some teachers to take on more students, pay for the extra work, but save money by reducing the staffing.

The harsh recession continues to take its toll.  We may not know the full impact for 12 years when today’s kindergartners are seniors.  If drop out levels are high in 2024, and lots of graduates need remediation in college, we can look back to their early years and know that the recession of 2008-2012 wreaked havoc on our ability to deliver the excellence kids deserve no matter what year they’re born.

School board election to test public education

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Non-partisan school board elections have turned highly partisan in the Denver metro area.  The Republican party has gone full forward against two teachers’ associations – the Jefferson County Education Association and Douglas County’s American Federation of Teachers.

What’s interesting is that both districts do well in the state’s academic assessment program.  Douglas County, which rims the south metro area, has a mostly white population, with a 10 percent poverty rate.  Jefferson County, which at one time mirrored Douglas County’s demographic, now is much more diverse with a 30 percent poverty rate.

Jeffco School District is the largest in the state with about 85,000 students.  Its students test well above the state average on the Colorado School Assessment Program (CSAP) tests.  Of the 140+ schools in the district, one is considered non-performing.  The district has numerous schools ranking among the top 10 percent in achievement.  Douglas County Schools are similar in their test results, with no non-performing schools.

Douglas County has also been at the front end of pay for performance reforms.  It is about to release a revised performance pay package.  Jeffco is currently testing pay for performance strategies in a federal pilot program based on a $38 million grant.

Nevertheless, the Republican party is pushing a hard, anti-union agenda, on the premise that unions provide dollars to Democratic candidates. The Jeffco district, with a majority Republican board, advocates, and is trying to implement, a voucher program allowing up to 500 students to attend private schools, including religious schools.

The cry in Jefferson County by Republican candidates is for more “choice,” even though every school in Colorado is a choice school.  Jefferson County has 12 charter schools and has received only one charter application in recent years.

In addition, the Jeffco Republican candidates, along with a current board member, will put pressure on the superintendent to “follow directions.”  It’s likely that the superintendent, elected Colorado Superintendent-of-the-Year by her colleagues in 2010, will leave the district if the Republican candidates, known as the “two dads,” win.

The two dads state that a voucher plan is not their goal.  But Republican candidates for school board in Douglas County said the same thing in the 2009 election, and now that district is fighting for vouchers in the Colorado state court system.

November 1 is Election Day.  Both districts, representing about 17 percent of Colorado kids, face stark choices.  The school boards elected in this election will test how citizens see public education in the future.