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Voices: What election day meant for data and privacy in schools

Outgoing Jefferson County school board member Paula Noonan reflects on what the board election results there mean for the future of data collection and privacy in schools. On election week, Bill and Melinda Gates lost two big Colorado bets totaling $101 million.

First, their $1 million contribution to the pro-Amendment 66 campaign misfired when Coloradans voted 2-1 against raising their taxes to implement the new school finance act.

Then the Gates Foundation’s $100 million investment in inBloom, the data storage platform built by Rupert Murdoch’s company, took a twelfth round knock out punch in Jefferson County School District two days after the election.

Jeffco schools, a pilot district for inBloom, ended its inBloom partnership because the board majority lost on November 5. Dr. Cindy Stevenson, Jeffco superintendent and supporter of inBloom, also resigned, effective June 30.

Jeffco parents took on district over the “Big Data” inBloom project

The Colorado inBloom fight began publicly in March when Rachael Stickland, a Jeffco parent from the south area, addressed the school board about her concerns over personal student privacy and data security.

Her contention was that the Family Education Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) was gutted by the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan. Parents could no longer rely on FERPA to protect and secure their children’s personal student records from uses by entities not under the district’s supervision.

Stickland also argued that personal student records sent to inBloom’s Amazon “cloud storage” platform would be a big target for hackers eager to take Bill Gates down a notch. Other IT experts stated that managing the policy compliance and general security of such a project would be expensive and difficult.

InBloom loses support over privacy and security protections

Criticism of the project gathered momentum when the district would not disclose what personal student data would be sent to inBloom. Parents worried that disciplinary data would be released, so the district decided to hold back on that information.

Parents worried about released medical information, but the district needed to include medical data described in individual student education plans.

Parents worried that the district would sell their children’s data to third party education content providers allowed under new FERPA rules. The district agreed not to sell data, but sharing data remained on the table.

Jeffco parents asserted inBloom risks greater than benefits

The district conducted an “innovation tour” to describe the benefits of inBloom. The district held board study sessions and board business meetings on the subject. Lines were drawn between district staff and parents. The district argued that the benefits of reducing teacher data entry time, streamlining the district’s multitude of applications containing student records, and providing education content to individualize student learning was worth the risks of breached privacy or security.

Parents resisted, and the debate became deeper as issues over student assessment and testing, teacher assessment, big data, inBloom finances, foundations’ influence on education policy, a prospective data monopoly, and the purposes of collecting, aggregating, sharing, and mining personal student data by unsupervised third parties took over.

A politically diverse coalition of parents, mostly mothers in south Jeffco concerned about their children’s right to the privacy of their data collected from the time kids were in preschool until after they graduate from high school, pressed their case to the district and the pubic.

Parents won on election day

On election day, parents won. The change-over in the school district’s board sent a vehement message from Jeffco voters that they didn’t want inBloom storing Jeffco students’ data.

So now the district will build its data integration dashboard to help teachers reduce data entry and improve their information analysis, and it will store personal student records locally on district servers. InBloom is done in Jeffco.

On Wednesday, November 13, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) and the State Board of Education also pulled the plug on the inBloom project.

Big data technology gets too far ahead of privacy policies

This dispute put a bright light on a large education policy gap in the state. Districts do not have adequate tools to address the privacy impacts of advanced technology now available to track every element of a student’s life for up to 16 years.

Especially dicey are the numerous new “behavior tracking” applications that can record kids while they’re misbehaving, email or text the recordings to parents or other individuals, and set up behavior management systems in classrooms. That’s a far distance from a principal’s call to a parent when Jimmy hits Johnny.

Parents also are objecting to the extensive testing and observations built into Teaching Strategies Gold, a pre-school to third grade assessment used in Jeffco that creates a developmental profile of each child based on 38 “objectives.” Assessments like TS Gold are likely to be next in the cross hairs of the big data wars.

CDE will develop new privacy policies

The CDE is taking some initiative to develop “best practice” privacy policies for review by the State Board of Education. It is “to be decided” to what degree the department’s policy recommendations will meet parent standards.

It is also unclear to what degree the Gates Foundation will continue its funding of education projects in the state. What is clear is that some Jeffco parents yanked education policy away from Foundations and put it back into the hands of local school boards. And as everyone in Colorado discovered on November 5, money doesn’t always talk. Sometimes money takes a walk.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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