Privacy concerns have been growing over a $100 million student database — largely funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and operated by a  nonprofit organization, inBloom Inc. —  that contains detailed information about millions of students. Most of the states that had signed up to participate in a pilot program have pulled back, and in New York, parents and educators have pushed back with protests and a lawsuit. The nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center has sued the U.S. Education Department over the database.

Here’s a new post about the database from award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York, who has been chronicling on this blog the many problems with test-driven reform in New York (here, and here and here and here, for example). She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It has been signed by more than 1,535 New York principals and more than 6,500 teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens. You can read the letter by clicking here. 

By Carol Burris

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is indecisive when it comes to uploading student information into inBloom, the cloud-based system designed to provide student data to vendors. He says that he is waiting for Commissioner John King’s report on privacy, even as the upload begins.  Cuomo claims that massive student data collection is “necessary.” Meanwhile, eight other states that originally committed to inBloom have pulled out, or put their plans on hold. 

The collection and reporting of school data is nothing new. We used to send data on scan sheets; test scores, drop out rates, the percentage of students with disabilities, etc., were all reported in the aggregate. As technology progressed, we began to electronically send data, not in the aggregate, but by student.  Students were assigned a unique identifying number so that their privacy was protected, with identity guarded at the school or district level.  More data, including race, ethnicity and socio-economic status, were added to what we sent. This allowed the state to disaggregate data by student group, while still preserving anonymity.

Now that wall of privacy is shattered. Names, addresses (e-mail and street) and phone numbers are to be sent.  Schools are required to upload student attendance, along with attendance codes, which indicate far more than whether or not the student was absent or present.  Codes indicate whether a student is ill, truant, late to school or suspended.  Details about the lives of students are moving beyond the school walls to reside in the inBloom cloud.

As a high school principal, I am worried by the state’s ever growing demands for student information.  I believe that all disciplinary records should be known only to families and the school.  All teens are under tremendous strain to perform — sometimes for adults, other times for peers. Some live on the emotional breaking point — others visit that point now and again. Kids make mistakes. Some make bad decisions. Others lose their temper and get out of control. Such serious infractions result in suspensions. We have to keep our schools safe, even as we are concerned about the well being of the offender.

When I suspend a student, I frame it within the context of learning. I also assure students and parents that discipline records are only known to us.  Once that information is in the state database or the inBloom cloud, I can no longer give that reassurance.

What, then is the rationale for shipping personal data beyond the school? The New York State Education Department defends the collection of individual attendance and suspension data, claiming that it must be collected and uploaded to inBloom because it is one of several “early warning indicators” of dropping out. That rationale is insufficient. The identification of students with those indicators can be done at the school level. What is needed are the resources and supports so that schools can better intervene. Schools also need community support for dealing with problems such as student truancy. We do not need data in a cloud.

An additional justification is that inBloom data dashboards will allow parents to check to make sure that a suspension was removed from their child’s record if the commissioner overturns a suspension on appeal.  In those rare cases, if a parent wants reassurance that the suspension was expunged, parents should visit the school.  Schools are obliged to produce every written record,  as well as give parents access to computer records.  Disciplinary records are kept in both hard copy as well as in school data systems.  Looking at a data dashboard would give an incomplete picture at best.

There is simply no justifiable reason for a state education department to know whether an individual student was ever suspended. It is an intrusion into the privacy of kids.

Similar arguments are made to justify the increased collection of individual disability information as well as test modification data.  The years during which data is collected and stored is expanding as well.  New York’s Race to the Top application committed the state to a P-16 system which would, according to their proposal, eventually become a P-20 database–thus tracking students from age 3 into well beyond their college years. Educational records would be linked to workforce data, all to be held in the inBloom cloud.

Post high school data collection has already begun.  This year, information on the college progress of our alumni was placed in my Nassau Boards of Cooperative Educational Services data dashboard. I was startled to see information on students who graduated years ago.  In the past, we did follow-up phone calls, identifying ourselves, and giving parents the choice as to whether or not they wanted to let us know if their child had graduated college. Most  were willing to speak with us, but it was their choice based on their trust in our high school. I wonder if there are other agencies with access to that data, or if graduates even know that data was captured and shared.

I wonder when New Yorkers decided that it was acceptable for a state agency to collect  children’s personally identifiable information from pre-kindergarten until well into their adult years.  I do not remember the debate. If  it is acceptable today to store whether a student has an emotional, intellectual or physical disability in the inBloom cloud, will the collection of even more personal information be viewed as necessary tomorrow? Logically, couldn’t every detail of a child’s life be justified on the basis of serving “research purposes”?

We are living in an era of data fascination.  Too many policy makers  have been seduced into believing that there is a perfect research algorithm from which we can extract wisdom to design a personalized education for every child. This belief persists even though pilot programs, such as the study of the much heralded School of One, have failed to demonstrate improved learning results.

Despite the lack of evidence, the inBloom website actively encourages the development of  products to be sold to schools, which will encourage schools to turn over student data for the creation of personalized educational products.This belief that “the algorithm knows best”  is based on nothing more than the speculation that a data-driven instructional world will better serve our children. Whether or not children prosper, however, may be inconsequential to those lining up to  develop products and sell technology to schools.

On Jan. 10,  2014, parents opposed to the upload of their children’s data to the cloud will have their lawsuit heard in a New York State Superior Court. I am grateful for the hard work, research and persistence of Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters who has fought to protect student privacy since inBloom’s inception. Leonie played a critical role in the development of the lawsuit and no matter what the outcome, she has made parents and educators aware of inBloom. Let’s hope that this lawsuit not only puts the upload of student data on pause, but also serves as a catalyst for the needed debate that we ought to have regarding the involuntary collection of student data.

Perhaps we can agree that before any personally identifiable data is collected, the government and its agencies should have to provide a compelling justification, and not collect data because they deem it to be “necessary.”  Those who have no problem setting high standards for our students, should, when they collect student information, be held to high standards as well.