First Person

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. 

stockmoreycomputerlab1On 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.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.