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Student Data to Be Legally Given (and then Sold) to Capitalist Ventures
March 6, 2013 5:25 AM   Subscribe

via Reuters A joint venture sponsored in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a vast student database including personal information on students grades K through 12 will be shared with corporations selling "personalized" educational software. Information can include social security numbers, presence of learning disabliities, or anything else school officials choose to share with any companies involved in this venture.
posted by DMelanogaster (88 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ok kids, Big Brother is watching you AND making money off of you.
posted by mareli at 5:32 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


What could possibly go wrong?
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:35 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Way to lose MASSIVE karma points from the malaria initiative, Gates Foundation.
posted by availablelight at 5:36 AM on March 6, 2013 [24 favorites]


Federal officials say the database project complies with privacy laws. Schools do not need parental consent to share student records with any "school official" who has a "legitimate educational interest," according to the Department of Education. The department defines "school official" to include private companies hired by the school, so long as they use the data only for the purposes spelled out in their contracts.
contracts! LOL
posted by ennui.bz at 5:38 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


And you all thought the home-schoolers were nuts.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:38 AM on March 6, 2013 [12 favorites]


...I can't think of a legitimate cause for these companies to need names and socials for something like this. I try to think of these things charitably, and I do like the idea of educational software makers having a good idea of how much of the population has x learning disability, what that does to grades, etc. but knowing things about individual kids seems insane.
posted by EtzHadaat at 5:41 AM on March 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


The privacy concerns are legitimate... but this is a direct assault on professional (unionized) teachers. The purpose of the database is to provide data and information that edtech firms can use to produce software and tools that can/will be used to replace expensive skilled teaching labor, with cheaper unskilled teaching labor.
posted by notyou at 5:41 AM on March 6, 2013 [35 favorites]


notyou is probably on target regarding this. The privacy issues are nothing new, school districts have been using contractors and outside firms to provide services (and, as a result, providing them with student data) for a long time. The data is probably more secure in the hands of the contractors who have money on the line than in the schools own servers which are often obsolete and vulnerable.

But...computer based education...it's the cheap way out for schools... a PC is a lot cheaper than an actual teacher....
posted by HuronBob at 5:45 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm going back to bed.
posted by goethean at 5:51 AM on March 6, 2013 [15 favorites]


"What could possibly go wrong?"

We might actually see how our students are doing with the clear eyes that well indexed data can give you? Despite the really aggressive framing of this FPP and the shallow gotchya journalism it comes from, having this kind of data all together has a hell of a lot of potential and really honestly isn't significantly less secure than the average school district's laughably inadequate protections.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:53 AM on March 6, 2013 [13 favorites]


...or anything else school officials choose to share with any companies involved in this venture.

No parents in the loop?
posted by DU at 5:53 AM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


...honestly isn't significantly less secure than the average school district's laughably inadequate protections.

"Security" wasn't the question. Exploitation of children and the disadvantaged by massive corporations is.
posted by DU at 5:55 AM on March 6, 2013 [10 favorites]


"a $100 million database built to chart the academic paths of public school students from kindergarten through high school.

In operation just three months, the database already holds files on millions of children identified by name, address and sometimes social security number. Learning disabilities are documented, test scores recorded, attendance noted. In some cases, the database tracks student hobbies, career goals, attitudes toward school - even homework completion."


It will not only be a marketing tool to sell teacher-replacement products when EVIL CAPITALIST COMPANY sends you a detailed highly personal letter mapping little Skippy's failing performance against big thick lines of standard performance. Patents and school boards might get the mistaken idea that they are not getting value for money out of the public schools.
posted by three blind mice at 6:01 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Patents and school boards might get the mistaken idea that they are not getting value for money out of the public schools.

We'd have to be putting money into public schools for that to happen.
posted by DU at 6:03 AM on March 6, 2013 [14 favorites]


I am a firm believer in having a robust public education system. I am a product of public schools myself (and feel that I have been well-served by my education) and I gladly pay property taxes so that others may have a decent education. But shit like this is why I feel fortunate to have the ability to send my child to a private school where I have a lot more say in what goes on behind the scenes.
posted by TedW at 6:04 AM on March 6, 2013


I'd be getting bent out of shape about junk food in schools before this, TBH.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 6:07 AM on March 6, 2013


""Security" wasn't the question. Exploitation of children and the disadvantaged by massive corporations is."

So by exploitation of children and the disadvantaged do you mean corporations designing lesson plans or software specifically for them in a way targeted to their needs? Because that is what we are actually talking about. Its not at all clear that this kind of engineering mindset will end up finding patterns in student performance that have significant value to educators, but it has a hell of a lot of potential that is worth testing.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:07 AM on March 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


What else would you expect from Bill Gates? He may be acting like a angel these days, but that old greed will resurface. There's probably all kinds of quasi-corporate boilerplate in those "non-profit" grant awards.
posted by songdogtech at 6:14 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Part of this is addressing the concerns of the learning that goes on at home, right? Kids who are shuttled off to schools are expected to spend 8 hours a day learning but not every teacher is good nor is every child suited for that kind of experience. For some kids, a lot of that learning has to come from home.

I came from a household where my parents worked late and didn't get back until after dinner. In place of homecooked family meals, I'd have a microwaveable dinner and spend most of my time watching television while doing a little bit of homework. There wasn't a lot of push in my life and while I did manage mostly A's and B's, I could have done a lot better and I might have been a lot more involved if I had had some guidance. So for this, I can see the benefit of having software step in as a stopgap. Also, given a few years, this database would make it easier to find what has worked for what kind of student, and presumably what software is actually working and what isn't, and under economic principles that's a pretty sound and beneficial innovation.

It may cost a little more and the argument can be made that it'll just serve to make lazy parents lazier but I think there were and are a lot of kids who are going through the same thing and who could use a little more push, even if it does come straight from a PC. There'd have to be a lot of caution in the recognition that this is just a stopgap between real parenting and no parenting and the last thing you'd want your kids to learn are their values from a corporation. But in the purely academic sense, this doesn't sound all that bad, at least for the children who don't always have a parent around who might have ended up falling through the margins.
posted by dubusadus at 6:15 AM on March 6, 2013


The textbook market is huge, too, and in many ways kinda gross and corrupt already. Same goes for the assessment market. I think (or at least I hope) the companies that are doing this kind of thing are aiming to replace the textbook and the standardized test, not trying to replace the teacher.
posted by escabeche at 6:15 AM on March 6, 2013


Way to lose MASSIVE karma points from the malaria initiative, Gates Foundation.

As if Gates worries about karma points.

Seattle Micro, DEC email, STACKER, 123, and many other 'interactions' is a of 'bad karma' to overcome - building laser mosquito zappers doesn't overcome the manner of HOW Mircosoft got that pile of cash.

And you all thought the home-schoolers were nuts.

I'm sure there is more here than on the face of it:
In 2010, a Tennessee judge granted asylum to a German family who feared persecution from their government for their decision to homeschool their children.The unusual decision pushed persecution boundaries—while the German government was not motivated by religion to persecute Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, it was frustrating the family's faith, said judge Lawrence Burman.

Now, three years later, the Romeikes are still in the middle of a deportation battle.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the Romeikes's appeal of a May 2012 ruling by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), which ruled that Germany's ban on home education is not a human rights violation—and that the Romeikes must return to Germany as a result.


mean corporations designing lesson plans or software specifically for them in a way targeted to their needs?

Like how Bonzi Buddy was ment to make your computer fun and help you with shopping?
posted by rough ashlar at 6:17 AM on March 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


It will not only be a marketing tool to sell teacher-replacement products when EVIL CAPITALIST COMPANY sends you a detailed highly personal letter mapping little Skippy's failing performance against big thick lines of standard performance.

We (teachers) already give parents this data, except that instead of a 'letter' we sit down at a table with the parents and talk to them about it face-to-face. And we don't then try to sell them a supplemental math program that will fix their child, we offer them solutions that are individualized to the needs and personality of their child, and they don't have to pay extra for it.

At least that's what every teacher I know does.
posted by Huck500 at 6:18 AM on March 6, 2013 [39 favorites]


So by exploitation of children and the disadvantaged do you mean corporations designing lesson plans or software specifically for them in a way targeted to their needs? Because that is what we are actually talking about.

That's what the corporations are currently claiming, you mean. I don't see any reason to take them at their word, given all of history.
posted by DU at 6:19 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


If this was really about helping children, they could just donate the same amount of money to the Department of Education (or better yet, individual schools), no strings attached.

It's about seizing control.
posted by DU at 6:20 AM on March 6, 2013 [18 favorites]


You think Germany would accept my asylum claim if I asserted that decent publicly provided medical care/coverage and 95mph speed limits on awesomely maintained roads were human rights too?
posted by spitbull at 6:21 AM on March 6, 2013


"Seattle Micro, DEC email, STACKER, 123, and many other 'interactions' is a of 'bad karma' to overcome - building laser mosquito zappers doesn't overcome the manner of HOW Mircosoft got that pile of cash."

Big business in ruthlessness shocker. To be honest, nobody died.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 6:28 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


"What else would you expect from Bill Gates? He may be acting like a angel these days, but that old greed will resurface. There's probably all kinds of quasi-corporate boilerplate in those "non-profit" grant awards."

[citation needed]
posted by Blasdelb at 6:32 AM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Blasdelb, what concerns me most is the unique identifiers that are apparently in the database. If the info was in aggregate (e.g., in these three zip codes, here's how kids did on geometry), I'd be a little more okay with this. That would actually be really interesting data that could help create interventions (although in my area, that info is already available to anyone willing to look for it.)

But to have personal information, such as name, address, and social security number, included? That's a blatant violation of privacy. I don't understand how FERPA isn't applying here, and the fact that it isn't makes me want to throw up my hands. Individual teachers and districts are forced to comply with it, but big corporations who pay for the information can have access to it?

If I were a parent, I'd be livid. As a former educator, I *am* livid.

Not acceptable.
posted by absquatulate at 6:33 AM on March 6, 2013 [11 favorites]


Related article that references Gattaca, data, and what is happening in higher education.
posted by ejaned8 at 6:36 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


At least that's what every teacher I know does.

But that's not every student and even if there are some who need help, it's not necessarily the parents that they'd want to turn to. I had some problems in schools, mostly because every teacher I had knew I could be two grades ahead but was instead maintaining steady honor roll grades due to missed homework assignments. So, every once in a while, a teacher would send a letter of concern back home or ask for a signed permission slip or one who even ended up calling my home.

In these cases, I'd fake signatures, hang up the phone, or delete voicemail messages. Because if my parents ever found out, first it'd be yelling and then, if the situation was bad enough, and somehow it often was, I'd find myself on the floor being kicked and punched.

I come from a middle-class background and even there it wasn't all that rare to hear stories of physical violence. What is a teacher supposed to do? What is a social worker even supposed to do? It's not like the corporations are going to descend like angels and perform miracles. What they will do is provide a bare minimum amount of guidance, an alternative to anger and apathy. I think it's easy to dismiss corporations here but it's not easy to say that they don't hold a lot of power and that they wouldn't be better at parenting than a significant minority of parents who either can't be there for their kids or who won't.
posted by dubusadus at 6:36 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


/derail
spitbull: "95mph speed limits on awesomely maintained roads"
I wouldn't call the Autobahn awesomely maintained, but at the same time there's no 95 mph speed limit. There's no general speed limit, period. The highest posted speed limit anywhere is 130 km/h (81 mph).
posted by brokkr at 6:37 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just you wait. Coke and General Mills are going to buy online education companies now.
posted by adamrice at 6:38 AM on March 6, 2013


It's kinda funny how MS is using the fact that you're giving tons of data to Google as some sort of horribe threat and that "hey you should move to Bing for privacy/security!" And then you have this. So, Mr. Gates, which is it... Giving corporations info for their nefarious Capitalist purpose is wrong, or it's right. Oh yeah. It's wrong when your competitors do it, but it's oh so right, when you do. Piss off.
posted by symbioid at 6:40 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


This sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.

I can definitely see the potential upsides: this sort of dataset could be invaluable for studies of the education system as a whole, if it was looked at using the same sorts of techniques that epidemiologists use for medical cohort studies. What factors predict or contribute to success? What needs to be fixed most urgently, what warning signs should we look at? You need detailed information on large and diverse populations to start teasing these answers out, and this sort of dataset is good for that. And on an individual level, when some of that is understood you could definitely use it to apply best-practice monitoring and interventions for kids whose needs are not being met by the system.

But, like a medical data set, the protections around the storage of and access to this information needs to be absolutely iron-clad. The analyses performed and the policy decisions flowing from this need to be subject to external scrutiny.

We already know that the pharmaceutical industry is terrible at this sort of thing. A strong profit motive results in a tendency to obfuscate their research methods and/or deny the existence of inconvenient data. And this is in a scientific field; in education policy, where the data are messier and political ideologies much more powerful, the idea of trusting private companies to do this sort of thing with the requisite care, transparency and honesty seems insane.

There is a huge potential benefit to this kind of thing and I do want to see it happen, but if it's going to be done by a profit-focused organisation then that organisation had better be subject to extraordinarily strict data protection and process transparency requirements, and to someone with a bad temper and a big stick who's been put in charge of keeping them honest.

Admittedly, some of this reaction can probably be chalked up to my lefty biases: the idea of for-profit education systems gives me the heebie-jeebies at the best of times.
posted by metaBugs at 6:42 AM on March 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'm less worried about Bill Gates and more about Rupert Murdoch:

The database is a joint project of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided most of the funding, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and school officials from several states. Amplify Education, a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, built the infrastructure over the past 18 months.
posted by 445supermag at 6:47 AM on March 6, 2013 [16 favorites]



Big business in ruthlessness shocker. To be honest, nobody died.


The case could be made for Gary Kildall's eventual death being laid at Gates' feet.
posted by mikelieman at 6:48 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm more worried about what's done with attitude and attendance data after they graduate.

The words "permanent record" just got scary again.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 6:50 AM on March 6, 2013 [10 favorites]


"But to have personal information, such as name, address, and social security number, included? That's a blatant violation of privacy. I don't understand how FERPA isn't applying here, and the fact that it isn't makes me want to throw up my hands. Individual teachers and districts are forced to comply with it, but big corporations who pay for the information can have access to it?"

The FERPA rational is that those given access to the database for the specific projects they are contracted to work on are acting as school officials acting with a legitimate educational interest, which they are. This might get a little thin with case law in a few states, but presumably those states involved in the project have run this by their local lawyers.

"Blasdelb, what concerns me most is the unique identifiers that are apparently in the database. If the info was in aggregate (e.g., in these three zip codes, here's how kids did on geometry), I'd be a little more okay with this. That would actually be really interesting data that could help create interventions (although in my area, that info is already available to anyone willing to look for it.)"

Presumably identifiable data would be stripped for those with access to the database but who don't need it for the kinds of projects you're thinking of, but the goals for this project are a lot more ambitious than the article in the FPP lets on. Imagine IEPs for everyone, with ways to automatically flag students in need of various kinds of attention, from academic to developmental to behavioral, who might otherwise be invisible to staff who should be helping them.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:54 AM on March 6, 2013


"We look at personalized learning as the next big leap forward in education," said Brandon Williams, a director at the Illinois State Board of Education.
Personalized via ... integration with a database.

Here's a story about personalized learning. In grade school I disliked math. Math period was miserable for me and for my teacher.

After Christmas break all the kids brought in some of their haul to share. I brought a little 3D wooden tyranosaurus rex model ... like this.

My teacher had a look and said, "Wouldn't that be cool if it was four feet high instead of six inches high?"

"Sure?"

"Maybe we should make one. But you have to do the ratios."

"The ratios?"

"It'll be easy. I'll show you."

So he showed me the ratios and I figured out how much bigger the pieces would have to be and I traced them out on graph paper and then I figured out how big to make the squares on the big-sized graph paper we'd make and use for the pattern and then I copied my tracings from the small sheet to the big sheet, and then one day after school we cut out the patterns and transferred them to sheets of plywood and cut them out and assembled it and painted it in the school's colors and gave it to the kindergarten classroom, where it still may be today (but I doubt it -- that big T Rex model is pushing 40, now).

I was pretty good with ratios after that.

Can your IEP do that? Only if my learning problem matches the edtech firm's remediation script.

Also. Why not a great leap forward?
posted by notyou at 6:54 AM on March 6, 2013 [12 favorites]


Despite the really aggressive framing of this FPP and the shallow gotchya journalism it comes from

What, you mean "Federal law does not prevent SPECULATIVE LIST OF EVIL THINGS"?

But... Bill Gates!
posted by Artw at 6:56 AM on March 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


If this was really about helping children, they could just donate the same amount of money to the Department of Education (or better yet, individual schools), no strings attached.

It's about seizing selling control.

posted by filthy light thief at 6:59 AM on March 6, 2013


Imagine IEPs for everyone, with ways to automatically flag students in need of various kinds of attention, from academic to developmental to behavioral, who might otherwise be invisible to staff who should be helping them.

But why do for-profit corporations have to be directly involved in providing this? Can't they just be content with developing the software and technology that educators will use to keep track of students? Why do they need the data?
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:00 AM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


There's probably all kinds of quasi-corporate boilerplate in those "non-profit" grant awards."

I know what all those words mean, but I am not clear what you are trying to say here.

We'd have to be putting money into public schools for that to happen.

The United States spends almost $11k per pupil per year on primary and secondary education, 35% more than the OECD average. The total spending is 4.1% of GDP. [Education Expenditures by Country]

You're free to argue that it should be more, I'd probably agree with you. You're free to argue that local and state budget problems over the last few years as a result of incompetent politicians and low taxes have had a large impact on school systems, again that's probably true. But it simply is not the case that the US doesn't spend money on education.
posted by atrazine at 7:05 AM on March 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


It's kinda funny how MS is using the fact that you're giving tons of data to Google as some sort of horribe threat and that "hey you should move to Bing for privacy/security!"

If you haven't noticed, Bill Gates no long works at Microsoft.
posted by smackfu at 7:05 AM on March 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


"But why do for-profit corporations have to be directly involved in providing this? Can't they just be content with developing the software and technology that educators will use to keep track of students?"

This is exactly what is currently happening. All of the tin foil frenzy is related to the fact that this database is also, in addition to its primary purpose of serving the school districts that provide the data, intended to be shared with the corporate entities selling those school districts products that they have an interest in being as good as possible. This is something that obviously needs to be done carefully, but is a pretty logical extension of what the database can do.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:07 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


From the article: Schools tend to store different bits of student information in different databases, often with different operating systems. That makes it clunky to integrate new learning apps into classrooms.
...
Companies with access to the database will also be able to identify struggling teachers and pinpoint which concepts their students are failing to master.


Wait, what? First, what personal information do in-class "learning apps" need to function? I understand that if a school is running a number of different programs to track students and their actions, it can be a mess, but that doesn't directly connect to classroom activities.

As for the second part, teachers should already know that. I understand that teachers can have hundreds of students to manage, but by grading their tests and being present in the classroom, it's usually pretty clear where kids aren't picking up the material. Of course, this means you can't rely on scantrons, and you might be spending a considerable time out of class to grade tests and work on revised classroom plans, but that's what you do as a teacher. And what about false positives? Johnny really does understand how to find the area of a circle, but he didn't understand the question due to poor wording on the test.

I think the article is poorly written and researched, to say the least.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:10 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why does this database need to have identifying information potentially accessible to contractors? Couldn't you just keep names and SS numbers and so on in a separate, linked database, that only teachers and school staff have access to, and anonymise the contractor-facing database? Not aggregate it, but leave it so contractors can say "student $state-$town-$school-[uniquenumber] needs x intervention" and then their teacher can look up who exactly that student is, and pass on whatever supposedly magical anti-truant/grade-improving software or whatever they've developed, without the contractor knowing the name or address or actual identity of the student in question?

Is there any good reason why the contractors would ever need to be able to map actual identities to the database entries?
posted by Dysk at 7:12 AM on March 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think the article is poorly written and researched, to say the least.

The article has researched that the words "Bill Gates" turns off people's critical thinking abilities to a shocking extent, what more do you need?
posted by Artw at 7:13 AM on March 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


Is there any good reason why the contractors would ever need to be able to map actual identities to the database entries?

Yes. They will be constructing personalized learning plans and curricula. They can't very well construct personalized learning plans and curricula if they can't identify and track individual students.

As has been noted, the privacy issues are troubling, but the goal here is to replace skilled teachers with databases and learning tools based on them.

Also, Artw, I understand your frustration with some of the comments, but you're being a prick about it.
posted by notyou at 7:34 AM on March 6, 2013


The article has researched that the words "Bill Gates" turns off people's critical thinking abilities

Or history has shown a lack of protections for personal data combined with the personal prejudices of teachers which result in students getting sorted into categories where they do not belong.

I look forward to the lawsuits over how little Johnnie has a 'bad mark' in this record because a previous teacher become offended when Johnnie didn't want to pray at the start of class.

The nail that stands up will be pounded down and this will be a tool to make sure the pounding is swift and repetitive for those who do not fall in line.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:38 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes. They will be constructing personalized learning plans and curricula. They can't very well construct personalized learning plans and curricula if they can't identify and track individual students.

So they need education data about individuals. Why do they need to know their name or address? They can personalise it for 'person x8294' and then the teacher can know that that means little Jimmy. Why do they need to know person x8294's actual name or address or anything to personalise a lesson plan for them? They just need to know their test scores/truant record/educational data, surely?
posted by Dysk at 7:40 AM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


The article has researched that the words "Bill Gates" turns off people's critical thinking abilities to a shocking extent, what more do you need?

Hmmm. Bill Gates Steved my Jobs the other day. Afterwards George W. Baracked my Bush into Bill Clinton's Obama. These are not the test scores you are looking for. *motions with hand

The nail that stands up will be pounded down and this will be a tool to make sure the pounding is swift and repetitive for those who do not fall in line.

Personally? I love swift and repetitive poundings. But yeah on preview what Dysk said. What other possible reason could there be than this. There are definately some faculties being "turned off," but it ain't the ones raising concern that are suffering this malady.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 7:44 AM on March 6, 2013


Not to say this shouldn't be done as envisioned by Dysk.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 7:46 AM on March 6, 2013


Also, Artw, I understand your frustration with some of the comments, but you're being a prick about it.

Heh. I'll leave you to free associate wildly in peace then.
posted by Artw at 7:48 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks, man.
posted by notyou at 7:52 AM on March 6, 2013


Aggregate data is awesome and useful. Personalised data troubles me, especially when its data for a small person who does not have any say in whether their data gets used. Extra annoying is that it appears the parents do not get any say in whether their child's data gets used. Addresses and especially SSNs? There is absolutely no reason that I can think of that any company would need that data for any good educational purpose.

If this information gets leaked or hacked (and yes its a higher security risk than individual school districts because its all together in one place making it an enticing target), or is misued and compromises the identity of the children in the future, then there's no turning back. I actually don't blame Gates so much as I blame the states who have bought into this already. As a parent this makes me see red.

"So far, seven states - Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Massachusetts - have committed to enter data from select school districts. Louisiana and New York will be entering nearly all student records statewide."
posted by Joh at 7:59 AM on March 6, 2013


CompassLearning will join two dozen technology companies at this week's SXSWedu conference in demonstrating how they might mine the database to create custom products - educational games for students, lesson plans for teachers, progress reports for principals.

The database is a joint project of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided most of the funding


The privacy implications are obvious — these private entities should not have access to this data. But aside from that, I'm surprised that there is little discussion of probable conflicts of interest, given what stock endows the activities of the Gates Foundation.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:13 AM on March 6, 2013


All of the tin foil frenzy is related to the fact that this database is also, in addition to its primary purpose of serving the school districts that provide the data, intended to be shared with the corporate entities selling those school districts products that they have an interest in being as good as possible.

I was tangentially involved with something like this in the mid-1990s. What limited student data the developer got for testing purposes was stripped of anything identifiable and replaced at random with information taken from a phone book that came from several states away. When it came time to assess the performance of the system it was the educators who reported back to the developer.

There's absolutely no reason for these private, for-profit companies to see student data. There's absolutely no reason for these private, for-profit companies to provide these "services."
posted by RonButNotStupid at 8:20 AM on March 6, 2013 [10 favorites]


Why do they need to know their name or address?

Direct marketing.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:21 AM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


We might actually see how our students are doing with the clear eyes that well indexed data can give you? Despite the really aggressive framing of this FPP and the shallow gotchya journalism it comes from, having this kind of data all together has a hell of a lot of potential and really honestly isn't significantly less secure than the average school district's laughably inadequate protections.

"Schools can't be trusted to keep their private data secure or use it wisely, so we should allow them to share it more widely." What the F kind of logic is that?

Data will not save kids. Data will not give kids resiliency. Data will not mentor. Data will not teach.

Data will sure as hell be misinterpreted. The mangers who make these decisions (politicians, managers, principals, private contractors) often have absolutely zero background in social science, they have no incentive to consider statistical significance or relevance or the chilling effects of a lack of privacy. They are all susceptible to pretty sales pitches and the ideas for cheap and easy solutions that are attached to those pitches.

You can bet that there will be parents who will refuse to get their kids put on an Individualized Education Plan because they don't want their kids to be forever labelled in a government database. I can't blame them. Most of us on Metafilter aren't the victims of historical prejudice, but the most poverty affected people are and they have every reason to never trust the government for all the broken promises that have been committed (Heck, remember what happened on March 1, 2013?) And answers aren't cheap and the answers aren't easy. The answers are costly and time consuming.

The only asset that has ever helped one child grow up to be a good and productive adult is the asset of human beings -- human beings who are there for the long term and who don't give up. Models already exist that put humans right where they need to be and you don't need any more big data to know that than is already publically available. Half the time you can look out the damn window of your car and easily see the neighborhoods where we're failing our kids, but anonymized data is just as fine as well.
posted by Skwirl at 8:25 AM on March 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


smackfu: "It's kinda funny how MS is using the fact that you're giving tons of data to Google as some sort of horribe threat and that "hey you should move to Bing for privacy/security!"

If you haven't noticed, Bill Gates no long works at Microsoft.
"

Yeah - but it's not like he doesn't still have a stake in it. He might not work there, but I believe he still has a shitton of shares and as a stakeholder probably has quite a bit of pull (and probably even the ear of Ballmer and the board). Of course, maybe he doesn't throw his weight around at all, but I'm sure he still has some influence on the general spirit of things.
posted by symbioid at 8:25 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm really conflicted about this. I love that there's finally talk about personalizing education and trying to make it interesting and relevant for children, and I hate that it's happening for profit.

I don't hate teachers, nor schools. My mother's a teacher; my mother-in-law's a teacher; my partner works for a company that develops curriculum for schools to use. I worked for the school system as a sub and an aide for something like seven years. I want, desperately, to love our educational system.

But I had parent-teacher conferences last Friday, less than a week ago. All four of my daughter's teachers and me, in a little room in tiny chairs. And what I was told, in short, was that my kid is bright, and she's doing really well academically. Her test scores are, across the boards, 95% and above. But she's getting Bs and Cs because she's not bothering to do all the work, because, the teachers admitted, she's clearly bored. My daughter and I fight, every morning, about if she has to go to school that day, and why she has to do it when it's so boring.

This is a relatively poor district. There's no accelerated class, no pull-out for "gifted" kids, for at least another two and a half years. We're poor enough that my kid gets free lunches at school, and there's no way we can afford to send her to a better, private school. I'd like to think that there's a way out of this for us that doesn't require us to go bankrupt and also doesn't mean that Maura hits high school as a B/C student who's easily bored and unable to study because she's never needed. I just...can't see that way, right now.

I don't delude myself into thinking that this is a solution to all of that, but maybe it's a start. Unfortunately, I also can't quite convince myself that this isn't the beginning of a database that could, thanks to social security numbers and etc, plague our children for a long, long time.
posted by MeghanC at 8:25 AM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm surprised that there is little discussion of probable conflicts of interest, given what stock endows the activities of the Gates Foundation.

One can find those charges and claims on other websites - but given the historic inability of large software deployments working and the historic suck of the software made by said firm - perhaps this project will not work and will just end up on the scrapheap.

Because of the Internet things like the Poptart gun
http://www.relevantmagazine.com/slices/child-suspended-gun-shaped-pop-tart
and the photo of airsoft gun
http://www.fromthetrenchesworldreport.com/actor-joseph-c-phillips-teacher-threatened-my-son-questioned-his-mental-state-over-photo-of-bb-gun/36986/
will never go away, but a database as proposed will make sure the incidents that don'[t make the news cycle and would end up being forgotten won't.

And so far - no one has mentioned how false data entered into this proposed system will be able to be corrected or challenged.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:26 AM on March 6, 2013


Mmm - and of course, these DRI Lyrics just came on:


Please classify me
Force me to succeed
Change identity
And watch me change
posted by symbioid at 8:28 AM on March 6, 2013


I was that kid - boredom is an excuse. She needs to really learn how to apply herself. She's coasting and then when things get hard she's going to give up. And it's better to learn how to push yourself earlier rather than later, otherwise you're gonna wake up 20 years later and see all the things you could've done if only you'd learned to apply yourself earlier, and stick with it.
posted by symbioid at 8:36 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Symbioid, I assume you're responding to me, and I totally agree--boredom is an excuse, and she's milking it. But it's hard not to be bored when you're spending a month "studying" something that you mastered the first week. It's not like her grades are suffering because she's not pushing herself--there's literally nothing that she can push herself *towards*. There aren't even supplemental assignments that we could do at home. We've done some--she can do basic algebra, which her school won't tackle for another two years; she's learnt to knit; she slowly becoming proficient in the kitchen; she's created some amazing, lengthy comic books...but the flip side is that the more advanced stuff we do at home, the less interesting school becomes.

Basically it's win/win, except instead of winning, we're losing.
posted by MeghanC at 8:44 AM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Why do they need to know their name or address?

When powerful evil beings know your true name, they control your soul.
posted by aught at 8:45 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Meghan, is there a permitting system in any nearby school districts that can get you to transfer your kid to a different school, or even a different district? I used permitting to get my son into a great school near my office. Perhaps there is something like that near you? Note, it wasn't really "advertised" at all, I had to research to find out about it.
posted by Joh at 8:50 AM on March 6, 2013


DU: "Patents and school boards might get the mistaken idea that they are not getting value for money out of the public schools.

We'd have to be putting money into public schools for that to happen.
"

What is that even supposed to mean?

The nation's elementary-secondary public school systems spent an average of $10,615 per pupil in fiscal year 2010, up 1.1 percent from the previous year, according to statistics released today by the U.S. Census Bureau.
posted by Perplexity at 8:52 AM on March 6, 2013


"There's absolutely no reason for these private, for-profit companies to see student data. There's absolutely no reason for these private, for-profit companies to provide these "services.""

There is also absolutely no reason to think that this specific kind of data is intended to be shared with for-profit companies at all, much less without protections of any kind. The database management software is in fact built specifically with the ability to share data in a restricted way so as to give some users access to only some kinds of information, for example fundamentally anonymized characteristics like raw test scores and zip codes, and not others like social security numbers and addresses. Things like social security numbers and addresses are a really good thing for the administrators to have to keep all of the 'Adam Smith'-lings apart and significantly improve the questions that can be asked of the data.

"Direct marketing."

Oh for fucks sake.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:55 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Basically all student data in both public and private schools is already stored in student information systems from private sector vendors, who often not only build the databases but host them too. A lot of schools have to use multiple databases, and it's a headache. If the Gates Foundation can build a better SIS and save some headaches, great. Not really news, though.

From the article:
Education technology companies can use the same platform to design their software, so their programs will hook into a rich trove of student data if a district or state authorizes access.
This makes me think the excitement is not about being able to scrape that rich trove for direct private benefit, but about writing and selling algorithms which crunch the data for school admins. Potentially some great stuff will come out of that. Potentially there'll be a mess that combines all the problems of textbook vendors and school soda machines with No Child Left Behind. And it's likely that a lot of really clever but educationally useless applications will make a bunch of people rich. There are a lot of ways this could go, but I don't think they're talking about selling student data per se.

Basically, I think the story is less about who gets to see the specifics of student data and more about a bunch of startups who look into the future and see an app store for schools.
posted by postcommunism at 8:56 AM on March 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


And you all thought the home-schoolers were nuts.

You know, I have a good friend whose nephew was "no schooled" and I always kinda looked down on that decision, but as a parent of a 4 y.o. I'm beginning to get it. School is a fucking massive waste of time and money that mostly punishes kids for being kids and teaches them more about how to abuse themselves and each other than anything truly valuable.

also doesn't mean that Maura hits high school as a B/C student who's easily bored and unable to study because she's never needed

This was me, except with a slightly higher grade-point average. School was so easy all through high school (until college) that when I got to harder college classes, I wasn't willing to work at it because I had never had to. Pretty much everything I ever learned I read from a book.

... I dunno. It could certainly be worse. Give her tough books to read, especially with lots of "adult" themes. Treat her like an adult and give her as much agency in selecting her education as you can. I know it sucks.

it's better to learn how to push yourself earlier rather than later, otherwise you're gonna wake up 20 years later and see all the things you could've done if only you'd learned to apply yourself earlier, and stick with it.

I've realized that my happiness and sense of satisfaction has almost nothing to do with my productivity and almost everything to do with my personal relationships. Justmy2c. For me, it was more important (and more difficult) learning how to live with myself (and others) than doing "something important" or doing something "very well." Sometimes the latter sense of accomplishment is important, but the former always is. Again, justmy2c. Ambition is overrated.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:57 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


If the Gates Foundation can build a better SIS and save some headaches, great. Not really news, though.

Yeah, I saw all the paranoia yesterday or whenever and didn't quite understand ... doesn't this already exist? Or are people worried that the database will now be competent, lol?

Also, why is targeted advertising any worse than non-targeted advertising? I'm far more concerned about employers or police getting personal data than fucking advertisers. Oh, no ... an ADVERTISEMENT!
posted by mrgrimm at 8:59 AM on March 6, 2013


Also, why is targeted advertising any worse than non-targeted advertising?

Creepy sense of a robot that wants something watching you. Intellectually I know that my db ID just popped out in response to some algorithm someone paid Google to run*, but I still don't like it.

*(or not even my personal ID; say my immediate browsing behavior triggered something someone had previously paid to have happen)
posted by postcommunism at 9:02 AM on March 6, 2013


So they need education data about individuals. Why do they need to know their name or address? They can personalise it for 'person x8294' and then the teacher can know that that means little Jimmy. Why do they need to know person x8294's actual name or address or anything to personalise a lesson plan for them? They just need to know their test scores/truant record/educational data, surely?

In theory of course that is precisely what you would want to do. The problem is that the databases they will be drawing from to get these datasets will often have data in all kinds of formats. If you have a truancy database with (name, SS number, address, truancy), and a grading database with (name, grades) then you can combine them pretty easily. Once you have that done, you'd obviously only want to expose views that don't reveal personally identifiable information, but without that personally identifying data you'd never be able to combine data from multiple datasets.

Of course you could make the argument that the district should do all that data aggregation and then expose only a list of arbitrary identifiers while keeping the identifiable information private.

In fact, the article says:
The database also gives school administrators full control over student files, so they could choose to share test scores with a vendor but withhold social security numbers or disability records.

It also says:
Schools tend to store different bits of student information in different databases, often with different operating systems. That makes it clunky to integrate new learning apps into classrooms.

At the Rocketship chain of charter schools, for instance, administrators must manually update at least five databases to keep their education software running smoothly when a child transfers from one teacher to another, said Charlie Bufalino, a Rocketship executive.

The extra steps add expense, which limits how many apps a school can buy. And because the data is so fragmented, the private companies don't always get a robust picture of each student's academic performance, much less their personal characteristics.

The new database aims to wipe away those obstacles by integrating all student information - including data that may previously have been stored in paper files or teacher gradebooks - in a single, flexible platform.

Education technology companies can use the same platform to design their software, so their programs will hook into a rich trove of student data if a district or state authorizes access.


Really what the Gates Foundation is funding here is a non-profit Software as a Service database system for schools. What will happen over the next few years is that they will turn this into a Platform as a Service the same way that Salesforce provides a CRM system as SaaS and offers a third-party market-place for applications that work on that data through Force.com

So this is useful for school districts that want all their data on a single platform and it is useful for vendors of educational software who can target the inBloom API instead of dealing with each district's idiosyncratic mix of database systems and schemas. In the future if these school districts wants to buy software that sends out truancy reminders they can authorise that bit of software to see information like addresses but software that tracks math grades might only have access to an internal database key and the grades.

Whether you think centralising data like this is a worthwhile trade-off to decrease the cost and increase the choice of educational software solutions (which are ridiculously expensive) will probably depend on how much you think better software and sophisticated analytics will improve education.

On Metafilter I know opinions on that range all the way from 'pernicious nonsense' to 'software will fix everything'. I'm personally skeptical, I think it's very easy to get fixated on statistical models and forget that both the input data: 'does this student understand the material' and the output: are we shaping an educated mind are either difficult to quantify accurately or not intrinsically amenable to quantification at all.
But then, I don't believe that exams, grades, and all that malarky have very much value so I'm hardly in-step with the education system as a whole...

Finally, those of you pointing out that this will be used by school districts to assess teachers are correct. Dollars to donuts some of the vendors looking to set-up on the inBloom PaaS will be selling analysis software to districts that assess performance in some way or another (another reason they'll want residential addresses in the database is that some of these vendors will be selling algorithms that take into account parental income and will use zip-codes as a proxy).
posted by atrazine at 9:20 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


God, can we just make Bill Gates illegal already?
posted by Ad hominem at 9:32 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


What is that even supposed to mean?

The nation's elementary-secondary public school systems spent an average of $10,615 per pupil in fiscal year 2010, up 1.1 percent from the previous year, according to statistics released today by the U.S. Census Bureau.


Inflation was 1.6%.
posted by Zalzidrax at 9:37 AM on March 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


I'd like to see what happens the first time that someone attempts to have a misdiagnosis removed from this DB, the first time it's used by a contracted specialist to recommend that parents medicate a child to deal with his/her "needs", and the first time a competitive college buys it, just to make sure no one is hiding any childhood problems from the admissions officers by "failing" to report them.

Essentially, if it's widely adopted, this is the end of second chances for US public-school kids. Have a behavior problem in 4th grade? Gone by 5th grade? Doesn't matter, the flag for it will follow you forever, just to make sure your high school is "ready to meet your needs." Want to take AP world history after doing well in 9th grade US history? Well, what about this "writing skills deficit" in 7th grade? Want to get your son off a remedial track onto a college-prep one? Why bother, little Johnny is doing so well with his "specialized, tailored" work, and it's so far behind the college-prep stuff that there's no way to close the gap, anyway. This here database says Johnny isn't college material. Your objections just show you're a pushy helicopter parent. Lower your horizons to something realistic for someone with his challenges.

Back in college, I knew an Icelandic woman who had come to the US for grad school in part because, in a small country like Iceland, it was impossible for her to escape behavior problems, and the resulting reputation, she'd had in junior high. She was worried that she wouldn't be allowed to stay on for grad school after doing well in college, and that she'd be unemployable at home, since everyone knew everyone, so everyone knew someone who knew of her or her harried mother when she was 13. I thought of her when I read this article.
posted by Wylla at 9:39 AM on March 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


"Essentially, if it's widely adopted, this is the end of second chances for US public-school kids."

Wait what?

"Want to take AP world history after doing well in 9th grade US history? Well, what about this "writing skills deficit" in 7th grade?"

So this wild speculation you are presenting as absurd? It is in fact absurd.

"This here database says Johnny isn't college material. Your objections just show you're a pushy helicopter parent. Lower your horizons to something realistic for someone with his challenges."

You know, not that we could ever hope to be so lucky or that better data management by school districts could ever hope to affect this, but it would be a pretty awesome thing if we could build a society where kids got into college based on their own performance rather than their parents'. Because that is what we have now and it kinda sucks that we have so many amazing kids with poor parents working at McDonalds and so many mediocre idiots with rich parents running everything.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:55 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


"...the first time a competitive college buys it, just to make sure no one is hiding any childhood problems from the admissions officers by "failing" to report them."

So this would be a clear violation of federal law. The corporate entities this data is planned to be shared with would only be able to access any of it while acting as hired officials representing the school districts and while acting in the legitimate interest of the educations provided to students. A hypothetical competitive college would plainly meet neither of these qualifications.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:05 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Under no circumstances would I want a private contractor to have information specific to my child. Data roundup, maybe. Who the hell are these contractors to have information on whether my child is doing well in math?

And I agree, at least some of this is aimed at teachers.

Do you really think this is a good idea? I just went a couple of rounds with a disability management company that insisted that, in order for it to assess my claim, tried to require me to provide or allow others to provide, information on my "professional licenses, credit history, previous employment, earnings, insurance claims and benefits, use of drugs or alcohol," etc. It could not or would not tell me where this information would be stored, for how long, who would have access to it, etc.

When I was receiving radiation treatments for cancer, thankfully nipped in the bud, the radiologist's office tried to sign me up for a system that would provide me info on my treatment. I thought it was the doctor's office, and that I'd be able to see my own files. It turned out it was a federal government program to collect data for assessment of treatment, which they said would not use private information. Except I saw no evidence of how that data would be protected, whatsoever.

I am FED UP with this invasion of privacy.
posted by etaoin at 10:44 AM on March 6, 2013


Anything that uses your personal information and doesn't require a clear and voluntary opt-in is WRONG. Period.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:16 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh, this makes me so ill. Of course it wouldn't occur to the Gates Fdn to imagine that capitalists might not have kids' best interests at heart. Joe Camel was just a funny-looking cartoon, amirite?
posted by katya.lysander at 11:58 AM on March 6, 2013


Blasdelb, I love data, and I'm totally with you on thinking it would be awesome to use well-curated data to personalize education in much the way that we're trying to personalize medicine, both to "tune" the material and to predict (and mitigate!) the risk of bad outcomes before they occur. (With the understanding that an equitable but non-personalized education/medical system is a far more attainable and still as yet unachieved and profoundly NECESSARY goal.) I don't think this is the way to attain those ideals, though.

Consider: when your lab or mine or anyone else's does a study (esp using federal & state monies) that involves human subjects, we have to specify a protocol that spells out what data will be collected, how it will be protected, the circumstances under which it will be shared, and what it will be used for -- and we have to document those things such that they can be understood and consented-to by the study participants -- all to the satisfaction of an IRB. This collection & mining of student data would certainly need IRB approval if it were to take place under the auspices of a social science dept at my university, but there's no analogous regulation that I can see here. That's what rubs me the very, very wrong way. We already know that if the data are sufficiently detailed (meaning that we measure enough covariates), even de-identified (and in high dimentions, aggregated) data can be a privacy risk,* yet no plan to protect even the obvious identifiable info is articulated. On top of that, I see no plan for how the data will be used or analyzed, or what interventions would be targeted at particular patterns -- it strikes me as more of a fishing expedition. That's at best a shitty way to achieve Personalized Education; at worst, it has creepy overtones of turning people into numbers to be "optimized" in service of corporate greed. (Relatedly, if this were at a university, the research office would be all over the fact that these private educational companies might constitute a competing financial interest that would have to be disclosed and evaluated.)

By all means, let's study our education system to improve its outcomes, and lets build the infrastructure to enable that. Just let's do it in a way that is as transparent and accountable and ethical as we'd want any other study to be.

---------
* We're facing this repeatedly in genomics, where you can show that even GWAS summary statistics -- not the genotypes, just the average allele frequencies in the cases & controls -- could be used to guess whether person whose spit you just sent off to 23&Me was likely to have been one of the participants... and whether or not he was a case. See, eg, doi:10.1038/nrg3067 for one recent review.
   The solution at the NIH has been to lock down the genomic data and require researchers who want to use it to take a class in protecting PII and file a data access form in which they explicitly state exactly what they are going to do with the data and sign that they will do nothing else without requesting permission. Perhaps that's not so different from "shar[ing] student records with any 'school official' who has a 'legitimate educational interest,' ... includ[ing] private companies hired by the school, so long as they use the data only for the purposes spelled out in their contracts," but the NIH's subjects gave informed consent to the further analysis of their genome; did the students?

posted by Westringia F. at 12:30 PM on March 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


What happens when a corporation knows my kids' entire school history and SSN...including notes about problems or disabilities? How is that not an invasion of his privacy? Why can't they anonymize him and tailor to him that way, if they like? GAAAH. I can hardly see straight I'm so mad. He just needs to go to school, dammit, he does not need to have his actual identity become chum for some goddamn edusoftware marketing company. Will this get tied to anything else...his medical diagnoses? (and how is it not a HIPAA/ADA violation to tie a kid's disability to his SSN..? Maybe it's not. It should be. It's no one's goddamn business.)

And you know, computerized learning is great as a tool, but, this came out the other day: Research shows everyone does worse with online learning.
posted by emjaybee at 2:49 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because that is what we have now and it kinda sucks that we have so many amazing kids with poor parents working at McDonalds and so many mediocre idiots with rich parents running everything.

Compiling MOAR DATA is not going to solve class inequality. Have you never heard of special treatment for children of alums? We do not live in a data-driven meritocracy, and we never will. At best, we can use data to push for more fairness, but as we have seen on the conservative side, data and facts can and will be ignored by people with an agenda.

Data is great! It is also very powerful, and can become a weapon in the wrong hands. It can be used to stalk, or humiliate, or categorize, or stereotype. It can be manipulated and falsified. Just ask the parents of kids mistakenly put on the no-fly list who, apparently, will never be able to get them removed from it.

Sometimes I think DATA YAY attitudes are like NUCLEAR POWER YAY attitudes back in the early nuclear era. Both do amazing things, both can have unforeseen long-term aftereffects.
posted by emjaybee at 3:06 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


RonButNotStupid: "Can't they just be content with developing the software and technology that educators will use to keep track of students? Why do they need the data?"

Show me a K-12 teacher who can write SQL and I'll show you a web developer making three times as much.
posted by pwnguin at 7:22 PM on March 7, 2013


I appear to have misread your question. Why do they need data? I don't know why they need SSNs, that part is odd. But the rest of it comes down to who you trust more: The Cloud or Your School's IT Administrators.
posted by pwnguin at 7:41 PM on March 7, 2013


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