on Privacy

In December 2011, the US Department of Education changed the regulations regarding the release of private student data to the private sector, without Congressional authority to do so and in direct violation of the existing FERPA law (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). Under the new policy, private student data can now be released to third parties without parental consent, including volunteers, contractors, or any third party they believe has a compelling interest to the data.  An example of such a third party would be Google, who offers it’s Apps for Education nationwide, and whose many other services are used by school districts, including ours. Plus, this new policy also allows the feds to review private student data to evaluate non-academic education programs, including bullying prevention, cyber-security education, and substance abuse and violence prevention, no matter who is administering said program.

The problem with this change is that now private entities, and not the school institution, student or parent, will have control over that data. For instance, Google has said that will disclose student information from its Apps for Education if it has a “good-faith belief” that such disclosure is “reasonably necessary” to comply with law enforcement requests and to protect “the rights, property or safety of Google, [Google] users or the public as required or permitted by law.” Are you comfortable with private entities being the sole arbiters of your child’s personal data (or faculty and parental data)?  Or deciding what it will be used for (such as marketing purposes)? Or that they can be legally compelled by local, state or US government agencies to share information with them that under FERPA they would not legally be allowed to access? In an era of ever increasing security breaches and the personal and political targeting of those who are critical of government, a promise that our data is safe and will not be used for nefarious purposes is hardly reassuring.

So how much information on you and your children will our government and third parties have? Well, in addition to the requirement to adopt Common Core in order to try to qualify for Race to the Top stimulus funding, states were also strongly advised to implement a State Longitudinal Database System (SLDS), used to track students by obtaining personally identifiable information. Currently, 24 states qualified for grants to do just that, including Iowa. While most parents would assume that such a database would include mainly just transcripts and school data, the vision that our US Department of Education has for such systems is far more robust (and a bit Orwellian). According to Department of Education’s February 2013 report Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century, “Researchers are exploring how to gather complex affective data and generate meaningful and usable information to feed back to learners, teachers, researchers, and the technology itself. Connections to neuroscience are also beginning to emerge.” In fact, Iowa’s own $12.5 million federal grant acknowledged the importance of an SLDS, stating that “the promise of data-based decisions requires linked individual data over time and across education and employment sectors… allow[ing] for the addition of other agencies and outcomes such as corrections, healthcare, and social services…to create a robust resource for educators, administrators, policy makers, employers and consumers.” Currently, there are up to 400 different student data points that are in discussion, including “personally identifiable”  information, such as parents’ names, address, Social Security Number, date of birth, place of birth, and mother’s maiden name, as well as “sensitive” information, such as a student or parent’s political beliefs, mental problems (personal or familial), sexual orientation, behavior or attitudes, disciplinary history, critical appraisals of family relationships, religious practices or beliefs, and income (other than what is required by law to determine eligibility for assistance). So basically not only will government and private companies know who we are, they will know how we think and act, even across non-education spheres such as our employers, healthcare, social services and corrections. Are you comfortable with all these strangers being able to data mine such personal info on you or your child?

The SLDS systems will be designed to track the student from preschool all the way through to the workforce. Already the Iowa Department of Education and Iowa Workforce Development are sharing student/worker data. When I asked for a detailed list of all the student data points available in this system, which third parties (including the feds) will have access to the information, and if parental consent/opt out will be sought, I was advised that it would take some time to gather this info, and that to ensure a “timely” response, I should file a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request. Considering that it has now been over four months and I have yet to see an answer, I am now in the process of doing just that. So, if transparency was truly a virtue in our state and federal government, should it really need to be forced?

It seems that the priority of the educational establishment has been less about the success of our students and the empowerment of great teachers, and more about the success of the establishment itself. The only ones that seem to benefit from it now are those that traffic in the educational process, such as publishers, curriculum and assessment creators, researchers, consultants, unions, and those politicians and bureaucrats who want an agenda-driven outcome. The very ones that should be making the decisions and controlling outcomes – parents and individual teachers – are the only ones being ignored. So in essence, this really isn’t about improving the education of our children, but about controlling the education of our children (and thus undermining parents). More on this next week.

For more info on Iowa’s SLDS grant, see http://nces.ed.gov/programs/slds/state.asp?stateabbr=IA

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