Part 3 of 4

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has described himself as “a deep believer” in making data-driven policy decisions.

commoncoreapple“Data gives us the roadmap to reform,” Duncan said in a 2009 speech. “It tells us where we are, where we need to go, and who is most at risk.”

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His ultimate goal is to use academic and personal data collected from students to develop personalized curriculum that will help the students meet the new Common Core learning standards and develop intellectually at a faster rate.

Duncan is on the verge of realizing his dreams.

Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, students in 45 states and the District of Columbia will begin taking state standardized tests that are aligned with the new Common Core learning standards.

The tests will generate a lot of student-specific data that individual states will store in newly created longitudinal data systems that can track a student’s educational progress from preschool through college – even into the beginning years of his or her career.

According to a government website, there is a wide range of student attributes a state could collect information about, including hobbies, medical conditions, learning disabilities, religious affiliations, family income range, behavioral problems, at-risk status, homework completion, overall health status, dwelling arrangement and career goals.

Once the state databases are in place, the student-specific data will be made available to education technology companies. The companies will use the information to create computer software that personalizes the learning process for students, based on their own documented characteristics, and provides insights to educators and policymakers.

A recent Reuters article describes how it will work:

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“Does Johnny have trouble converting decimals to fractions? The database will have recorded that – and may have recorded as well that he finds textbooks boring, adores animation and plays baseball after school. Personalized learning software can use that data to serve up a tailor-made math lesson, perhaps an animated game that uses baseball statistics to teach decimals.

“Johnny’s teacher can watch his development on a ‘dashboard’ that uses bright graphics to map each of her students’ progress on dozens, even hundreds, of discrete skills.”

It all sounds very innovative. But a growing number of parents and privacy rights advocates have serious concerns.

Despite privacy guarantees from the companies and education officials, many Americans fear students’ personal information “could eventually be shared with college admission’s commissions, future employers and beyond,” reports

One state – Oklahoma – is close to passing legislation that would stop the release of student data to outside organizations, like the companies that would create the personalized learning software. Lawmakers in other states are reportedly considering similar actions.

As Jason France, a Louisiana father, tells Reuters: “Once this information gets out there, it’s going to be abused. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

How it will work

Duncan’s goal of personalized student learning and data-driven K-12 policies might already be in place, if the federal government wasn’t legally prohibited from collecting student-specific information for a national database.

However, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – the “stimulus” bill – gave the federal government a way around that. The stimulus bill provided money to all 50 states to develop the longitudinal data systems that will catalog the data generated, in part, by Common Core-aligned tests.

Just to ensure that states are doing their part, the Obama administration made a state’s development of the databases a key consideration when awarding extra K-12 aid through its “Race to the Top” program.

As for gathering more personal information about students, the federal government is facilitating that process, too.

The National Center for Education Statistics – part of the U.S. Department of Education – is helping state officials identify and code the different types of student-specific information they might wish to collect for their databases.

But this process has generated a lot of controversy because some of the student characteristics being discussed and coded are very sensitive, and their relevance to education is questionable at best. Those characteristics can include voting status, family income, religious affiliation, discipline problems, number of hours worked per weekend, medical laboratory procedure results, amount of non-school activity involvement and computer screen name.

NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley tells EAGnews that coding the data is not the same as telling states which data to collect. That remains entirely a state decision, he says.

And if the NCES is creating codes for student attributes that some consider intrusive, Buckley says the agency is only dealing with data that at least some states have already begun collecting and using.

“We’re not going anywhere (with the coding) that states aren’t already going,” Buckley tells EAGnews.

Even so, an NCES website trumpets the value of collecting the data:

“When common education data standards are in place, education stakeholders, from early childhood educators through postsecondary administrators, legislators and researchers can more efficiently work together toward ensuring student success, using consistent and comparable data throughout all education levels and sectors.”

‘A $500 billion sector’

Once the student-specific data has been generated and coded in a consistent manner, education technology companies will be able to use the information to develop software for students, teachers and administrators.

A few years ago, such information was off-limits to non-education officials, thanks to the Family Educational Privacy Rights Act.

The U.S. Department of Education found a way around that roadblock, too.

“In 2011, regulations issued by the department changed FERPA to allow the release to third parties of student information for non-academic purposes,” writes Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post. “The (new) rules also broaden the exceptions under which schools can release student records to non-governmental organizations without first obtaining written consent from parents.”

The education technology companies are benefiting from the relaxed privacy rules.

In 2012, “technology startups aimed at K-12 schools attracted more than $425 million in venture capital,” reports Reuters.

News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch, who owns Amplify, one of the nation’s largest educational technology companies, has described K-12 education as “a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone.”

When Murdoch purchased his company three years ago, he proclaimed that “individualized, technology-based learning … is poised to revolutionize public education for a new generation of students.”

Supporters such as Murdoch believe that tracking students’ academic progress will help education leaders identify struggling teachers, potential school dropouts, and effective lesson plans.

It all adds up to a culture of innovation and continuous improvement, they say.

We need to protect these kids’

Critics point out that all of the promises about technology revolutionizing education are still unproven.

And even if technology does live up to the hype, critics say compromising students’ privacy rights is too high a price to pay.

Americans of all political stripes are beginning to push back against intrusive databases.

“In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts ACLU, the Massachusetts state PTA, the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, Class Size Matters, and others have expressed their concerns about the project,” reports

A group of New York parents have coordinated a letter-writing campaign to state education leaders, asking them to reconsider their data-sharing plans.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit civil liberties group, is suing the U.S. Education Department over its watered-down FERPA policy.

And in Oklahoma, states lawmakers are on the verge of passing legislation that would stop the release of student data to outside groups.

The bill – Student Data Accessibility, Transparency and Accountability Act of 2013 – is currently in conference committee and could reach Gov. Mary Fallin’s desk in the next few weeks.

Republican State Rep. David Brumbaugh, one of the bill’s authors, says a number of lawmakers from across the nation have expressed interest in introducing similar legislation in their states.

If a large number of states follow Oklahoma’s lead in establishing a data “firewall,” it could snuff out Duncan’s dream of personalizing the educational experience for every American K-12 student.

But for Brumbaugh, the issue is about protecting students’ personal information by keeping the government in check.

“We need to protect the rights of these kids,” Brumbaugh says.