Privacy fears derail K-12 database

States are backing away from a $100 million database set up to track millions of public school students amid privacy protests by parents and civil libertarians, reports Reuters.

The database, funded mostly by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is intended to track students from kindergarten through high school by storing myriad data points: test scores, learning disabilities, discipline records – even teacher assessments of a child’s character. The idea is that consolidated records make it easier for teachers to use software that mines data to identify academic weaknesses. Games, videos or lesson plans would then be precisely targeted to engage specific children or promote specific skills.

The system is set up to identify millions of children by name, race, economic status and other metrics and is constructed in a way that makes it easy for school districts to share some or all of that information with private companies developing education software.

The nonprofit that runs the database, inBloom Inc, had nine states as partners in March when the project was announced. Kentucky, Georgia and Delaware have backed out, Louisiana will hold hearings before providing any data and Massachusetts and North Carolina are wavering. That leaves New York, Illinois and Colorado as active participants.

Districts already store student data and often share it with private vendors hired to crunch the numbers, said former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, who sits on the inBloom board of directors.

InBloom simply consolidates in one secure, cloud-hosted database the reams of student information now scattered among an array of computer servers, teacher grade books and file cabinets, Wise said. The districts retain complete control over which data to store in inBloom and whether to let third-party vendors use it.

In Colorado’s test district, suburban Jefferson County, software lets teachers look at digital “dashboards” that show which students are having trouble with which skills.  When teachers got a sneak peek, “by far the most common question was, ‘Could we get this in my classroom tomorrow?’” said Greg Mortimer, the chief information officer for the 85,000-student district.

Some inBloom supporters, such as the Council of Chief State School Officers, are backing away from the database and focusing on phase two, an online library of lesson plans, quiz questions and other teaching resources that won’t use student data. However, some states already have joined together to create their own online library.

Officials at inBloom vow to do a better job of explaining how the database will help teachers improve teaching. And the nonprofit will ask districts to assign each student a random numerical ID instead of using students’ Social Security numbers. “But spokesman Adam Gaber refused to say whether Social Security numbers might be included elsewhere – not as a label but as a basic data point, along with ethnicity, address, parents’ names and other personal information routinely collected by public schools.”

I don’t think inBloom has a sinister purpose, but it’s a tough time to persuade parents of that. The government is tracking your phone calls, emails and texts and now the public schools want to make it easy to track your children’s academic, behavioral and health records in a giant database — a “permanent record” in the cloud — that can be accessed by officials and private companies.

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