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Colo. Moms Push Back on Data Mining and 'Big Business' Moving Forward in Schools

Colo. Moms Push Back on Data Mining and 'Big Business' Moving Forward in Schools

"I don't think it's appropriate ever to experiment on our children that way..."

Sunny Flynn had heard about the Common Core Standards Initiative and student data collection before. But it wasn't until she sent her daughter off to kindergarten this year in Littleton, Colo., and attended her first school board meeting that she realized just how in the thick of it she now was.

"I went to my first school board meeting in August, completely unaware of what was going on (in the Jefferson County School District)," Flynn told TheBlaze in a phone interview. While she sat there, "I had a pit in my stomach."

Common Core Standards Pushback Sue Lile, of Carmel, Ind., shows her opposition to Common Core standards during a rally at the State House rotunda in Indianapolis. Some states are pushing back against the new set of uniform benchmarks for reading, writing and math that replace a hodgepodge of goals that had varied wildly from state to state and are being widely implemented this school year in most states. (AP/The Star, Frank Espich)

Not only had Common Core been adopted by the state of Colorado in 2010, but Jefferson County School District, commonly referred to as JeffCo, was proposing to start a pilot program for software called inBloom that would collect, aggregate and analyze data of students.

The more Flynn researched, the more she said there were not only privacy issues but alarming connections with "big business" she feels have no place in her daughter's classroom.

The movement, not just by JeffCo but school districts around the country, for data-mining software programs with the intention to improve students' experiences could be related to the Common Core and the standardized tests that will be used to assess them.

While the data mining and tracking associated with Common Core has been labeled as "spooky," other recent initiatives involving schools and education have caused concern as well. Students and parents have balked about the privacy issues of RFID tracking in ID cards, and the recent amendments to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act increase data collection and sharing practices.

Parents concerned about privacy

News of the inBloom pilot program had been stirring in the community for months before Flynn's first school board meeting.

Rachael Stickland, who has children in third and sixth grade, said she first heard of the district's relationship with inBloom in January. After reading up on it, she became concerned.

Eventually, Stickland was able to schedule a meeting with the district's superintendent, Cynthia Stevenson.

"My first question before we even sat in our chairs was 'has the board approved this?'" Stickland told TheBlaze.

Stevenson said no, noting it was a staff-level decision, according to Stickland.

"It was a red flag that [the school board was] not more in the loop," Stickland said. "Boards are elected bodies for a reason."

InBloom is a nonprofit that began as "Shared Learning Collaborative" with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Gates Foundation provided support to the tune of $100 million.

According to inBloom's website, it's a software program that collects information and helps teachers identify students who might need extra attention, even directing educators toward learning materials for students' specific needs.

inbloom InBloom is a program that allows schools to select certain data that will be collected on students, which could help teachers track and be aware of certain metrics regarding their students. (Image source: inBloom)

Data that will be collected and stored on inBloom, according to a JeffCo Q&A, includes data from the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, the state's standardized testing; grades; testing information from Acuity (an assessment given three times a year in math and English to monitor student progress); enrollment information; and demographic information.

Disciplinary information was at one point to be collected and stored as well. The decision to omit  it -- and allow parents to opt children out -- came only in August after Stickland had been making other parents aware of the program and the concerns surrounding its privacy for months.

More specific data points -- there are more than 400 available -- that schools may collect with inBloom include: state and school crimes; disabilities; type of education being received (hospital class, special education); reasons for leaving a school (transfer to a religious school, withdrawal for illness); type of food program; and home situation (immigrant, pregnant, military, single parent), among others.

InBloom's privacy policy on its website states that it is "not creating a national database" and "only school districts decide who has access to that information and for what purpose."

TheBlaze contacted representatives from the Jefferson County School District and inBloom but did not receive a response.

District Superintendent Stevenson told The New York Times recently that she realizes privacy policies for the data would need to be established by the district. But she said she hopes inBloom data collection would supplement a $2 million dashboard project with valuable information for teachers.

She compared it to a car dashboard.

"You know if you are going too fast, you know if you are going too slow, you know if your tires are low," Stevenson told the Times.

JeffCo is not alone in seeing privacy concerns regarding the program. Nine states entered into a pilot program but now only three -- Colorado, Illinois and New York -- are moving forward.

'Too much big business and big government'

The push for such software programs, in addition to streamlining many programs already used by teachers, seems to involve the Common Core. Here's how The New York Times put it in its recent article (emphasis added):

To prepare for assessment tests for those standards, many districts across the country are investing in software to analyze individual student performance in more detail.

Services like inBloom want to speed the introduction and lower the cost of these assessment tools by standardizing data storage and security. The idea is that inBloom’s open-source code could spur developers to create apps for all its clients, reducing the need for them to customize software to each school district. In theory, that would make the products cheaper for schools.

In addition to potential privacy issues, it's this making of products and apps -- the involvement of businesses -- that also worries some parents like Flynn.

"My biggest concern that what we're seeing with Common Core and inBloom is a lot of big government, big business and big data. And that should be a big concern," Flynn said.

In addition to inBloom's pilot program moving forward in the district, it also announced in August that it had been awarded a $5.2 million grant from the Gates Foundation for the professional development of middle and high school teachers.

If fully adopted in 2015, JeffCo would pay for the inBloom service, calling it the "least expensive path for these much-needed integration services."

Sunny Flynn Sunny Flynn is a parent in the Jefferson County School District pushing back against a proposed pilot data-mining program. (Courtesy: Sunny Flynn)

To Flynn, connections like these equate to "too much big government and big business in our school system."

Stickland even questions whether more data collection and analytics would actually result in benefits for students.

"I don't think I've seen any evidence to support that using data is ... resulting in any results that they promise," Stickland said. "I think data can be misused and misunderstood."

In March, TheBlaze reported about different types of technologies proposed by the Department of Education to track student behavior that could then be used to analyze and promote better engagement, leading to an improved education. To create these techniques or best practices, data would need to be collected first, which makes sense.

Stickland's response?

"I don't think it's appropriate ever to experiment on our children that way, especially without parental consent," she said.

More to come?

Common Core and inBloom are not the only initiatives people like Flynn and Stickland are concerned about.

Flynn pointed to recommended readings on inBloom's website as an example of what she fears are to come.

Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles, a paper by Digital Learning Now with support from Foundation for Excellence in Education, which Flynn pointed out receives funding from the Gates Foundation, details technology, like keystroke-logging devices.

Even collecting information from student's out of school activities, like mentorship or tutoring, DNL's Data Backpack piece stated is "neither Utopian nor Orwellian" as it could "further bolster the Learner Profile’s ability to present a holistic picture of the student across every stage in a lifetime of learning."

Other documents like Public Impact's 3X for All: Extending the Reach of Education’s Best suggest using "technology-enabled means" to bring superior teachers into more classrooms. While the document doesn't suggest removing a physical teacher from a classroom all together in favor of a virtual instructor, Flynn fears it could someday lead to that.

Why would this be a problem?

"I think that teachers, the relationship they have with the community is extremely important," Flynn said. "That is our level of accountability."

"What this vision is doing is driving distance between parents and teachers further and further away," she said.

Stickland added that she thinks the Constitution put education under local and state control because the Founding Fathers "didn't want any organization to have too much control over the hearts and minds of our children."


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