March 24, 2017

Parents Are Furious — Not Fearful — About Data-Mining

Students_computersA recent column by Brenda Leong of the Brookings Institution condescendingly intones that parents are clueless and fearful about the glories of womb-to-tomb data-collection for our children, including social-emotional (psychological) data. Here is an excerpt:

The role of technology within schools expanded at an unprecedented rate, general awareness of consumer data security and breaches increased, and student databases at the state or national level were established or proposed, which drew great public scrutiny and fear. This maelstrom yielded a tremendous output of legislative activity targeted at education technology companies, that was overwhelmingly focused on protecting and limiting the sharing and use of student data—in rare instances, to the point of forbidding research uses almost completely. There are signs that this wave of fear-driven response has finally crested, and that more measured conversations are occurring; conversations that prioritize the fundamental requirement for appropriate privacy and security, but with a clear focus on the invaluable role of research and analysis and the need to enable it.

Leong and Brookings are among the corporate/foundation/government education cartel that supports the invasive Strengthening Education Through Research Act (SETRA – S 227), which would expand federal government snooping into children’s social-emotional data:

[The Senate’s passage of SETRA] is one of the recent signs that Congress takes seriously the research value of student data. Another encouraging moment occurred in March, when the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing which addressed stakeholders’ concerns about student data . . . Unfortunately, as of now, SETRA is stalled (or “held hostage”), potentially because of continuing distrust about broader student privacy concerns.

Leong’s opinion is clearly that Big Data is imperially entitled to this sensitive data, and while acknowledging privacy concerns, she believes they are of secondary importance. She basically tells us benighted parents and privacy advocates to ignore the man behind the curtain — that the needs of corporate and government data overlords outweigh student privacy:

There is significant risk in not leveraging this information in responsible ways to improve what is almost undeniably a seriously flawed, and certainly highly unequal, public education system. Certainly all student data collection must be designed and implemented to protect personal information. However, current technologies generate highly detailed data, about large groups of students, over time and across locations, and properly handled, this provides an unprecedented chance to identify patterns that lead to success on both the individual and micro level, as well as system-wide, with reference to a broad set of factors.

Perhaps we can clarify reality for Ms. Leong. First, parents are not fearful, they are furious. That’s why parent groups joined together to sue the Gates/Murdoch/Carnegie cloud database system called inBloom, successfully bringing down the multi-million-dollar venture. Yes, parents “distrust” the state longitudinal data systems (SLDS) — because they can’t get straight answers about what data is collected and with whom it is shared; because data-mining proponents speak of collecting data on their children’s “affective states”; because under current federal law and regulations, access to personally identifiable information (PII) is available to researchers, tech companies, multiple federal agencies, and even “volunteers”; and because recent congressional hearings have exposed the horrifying lack of data security within the U.S. Department of Education [HERE and HERE].

Parents also object that in too many cases, government collects and discloses their children’s data without parental consent. They don’t appreciate hearing that it’s just too much trouble to get their consent or that their right to protect their children’s privacy by opting out of data-collection is secondary to having full data sets for “research” (as was discussed in the March House hearing that Leong touts).

Nor is “trust” engendered when data-collection involves psychologically profiling innocent children to provide the “individual and micro data” advocated by Leong, using creepy, Orwellian devices such as those described in a recent op-ed in U.S. News and World Report and rebutted here:

They also measure and monitor things like students’ saccadic eye patterns as students learn from visual and textual information sources, data from sensors tracking facial expressions and posture, and more. These data are all fine-grained, reflecting students’ learning processes, knowledge, affective states . . . .

Unfortunately for the sake of privacy, Brookings has been doing this kind of social-emotional research for years via the Social Genome Project with its partner the American Institutes of Research (AIR), author of the Smarter Balanced national assessment and Florida’s Common Core tests, and which conveniently provided one of the pro-data-mining witnesses for the March House hearing:

Brookings_AIR_Social_Genome_ProjectParents are also noticing that even researchers who focus on this type of data-collection admit how subjective the assessment instruments are and disagree on what, if any, would be appropriate uses of the data.

In arguing for more, more, and more data, Ms. Leong also ignores what would seem to be a fundamental problem: The emphasis on technology and “research-based” education that both requires and provides so much data isn’t producing results that even remotely justify the loss of privacy, parental rights, and local control.  NAEP test scores, including college-readiness scores, have declined or are stagnant. State test scores are lower when the assessments are given online. Bill Gates himself has admitted that he and technology “really haven’t changed [students’ academic] outcomes.” If what they’re doing with the data isn’t working, do they seriously believe doing more of it will produce results?

And in any event, government is notorious — especially in the education arena — for simply ignoring research that doesn’t support its desired outcomes (for example, the many studies showing the ineffectiveness and or harm of current government education and child social programs such as preschool and home visiting [also here], as well as the effectiveness of a two-parent family structure and academic basics like phonics). So why do we need so much research in the first place?

Ms. Leong, the “responsible” thing would be for the federal government to pull out of education altogether, as it has no constitutional authority to be involved. Short of that, it might consider honoring the petition by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) to enforce FERPA as written, and following these recommendations from our review of that March House Hearing on SETRA that include removing the social-emotional language from SETRA and strengthening of FERPA and PPRA to prohibit the collection of this socio-emotional data. That would go further than lectures from Ms. Leong in increasing parents’ trust that their children’s privacy is safe.

Dr. Karen Effrem is trained as a pediatrician and serves as president of Education Liberty Watch and the executive director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition.