Last week, students across New York finished a set of tests taken over a two week period designed to measure their proficiency at reading and math against new federal college readiness standards known as Common Core. Some parents opted their children out of the exams in protest against what they described as the school system's over-emphasis on testing and its use of data as the principle indicator of their children's achievement.
Starting next year, those scores, along with students' personal information – race, economic background, report cards, discipline records and personal addresses – will be stored in a database designed by Wireless Generation, a subsidiary of media mogul Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.
That's right, Rupert Murdoch can read your child's report card anytime he likes and he knows where your kid is sleeping. The database will be managed by inBloom inc, a non-profit outfit that, like Wireless Generation, is under the domain of billionaire Bill Gates – who, together with the Carnegie Corporation and other philanthropic organizations, set up the company via his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
inBloom is receiving $50 million for their services from the New York Education Department through a contract awarded last fall. Data analyzing firms, educational software designers and other third-party venders, both for and not-for-profit, will be granted access to student information.
New York is not alone in turning to student data tracking system to measure performance. Some 200,000 U.S. teachers use Wireless Generation software as part of a national trend in which education administrators are increasingly turning to data analysis to grasp why America's pupils are flunking when compared to the rest of the world.
“I am a deep believer in the power of data to drive our decisions,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan shortly after his appointment to the post in 2008. “Data gives us the roadmap to reform. It tells us where we are, where we need to go, and who is most at risk.”
But the consolidation of individual student information has been raising eyebrows — and sparking a backlash. The Electronic Privacy Information Center is suing Duncan's Education Department for amending privacy regulations in 2011 that allow student data to be accessed for non-educational objectives without informing parents — a violation, EPIC contends, of the Family Educational Rights Privacy and Privacy Act.
Last week, New York parents sent a letter to the Board of Regents, which oversees the state's public schools, decrying the “plan to share highly confidential, personally identifiable student data” with inBloom. They expressed fear that the company intends to share their children's information “with for-profit vendors without parental notification or consent.”
After parents in Louisiana raised similar concerns, plans to hand over student data to inBloom were put on hold two weeks ago. Contrary to statements from Louisiana Education Superintendent John White, the state has not cancelled its contract with the company, according to a spokesperson for inBloom.
The spokesperson also said it is up to inBloom's clients, not inBloom, to determine what data the company possesses and who is granted access. In Louisiana, that could include student social security numbers, which double as student ID digits in most districts.
Besides New York and Louisiana, inBloom has contracts with seven other states. All are part of the Shared Learning Collaborative, a pilot program set up by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to help implement Common Core standards through the tracking of student data. The Council of Chiefs, also a non-profit, is composed of the heads of America's state school systems who work together with corporations to collectively design education policy, in mold of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
CCSSO's corporate partners include Microsoft, Apple, Wireless Generation, IBM and Discovery Education – a spin-off of the television channel that gave us Amish Mafia. Then there are the big publishing houses: McGraw-Hill, Scholastic, and Pearson that design the standardized tests that produce the data which feeds inBloom, Wireless and others. Together, these tech, media and publishing corporations work with policymakers to integrate their products into curricula.
“I used to think there would be an uproar if I made this stuff public,” said one programmer who designs student tracking systems, and who wished to remain anonymous in order to protect his job. “Then, I discovered that it's all already public. They're devising extra-governmental systems to handle student learning right before our eyes. The state is using its monopoly on education to benefit certain corporations.”
Pearson, however, might have pushed its buddy-buddy relationship with education administrators a little too far. The publisher, which recently received a $32 million contract to design Common Core test prep materials for New York, is currently under investigation from the state Attorney General's office for using its nonprofit wing, the Pearson Foundation, to finance trips abroad taken by NYSED officials.
Yet, for the most part, by cloaking its aims in the guise of philanthropy the private sector has successfully nuzzled its way into the sphere of public education. And there are big bucks to be had.
“When it comes to K through 12 education,” Rupert Murdoch put it upon acquiring Wireless Generation in 2010, “we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching.” To help ensure that News Corp. gets its share of the education pie (translation: "to extend the reach of great teaching"), the media baron tagged an industry insider to do his bidding, taking on former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein as an adviser.
“Government and for-profit education businesses are becoming ever more inextricably inter-connected,” commented Michael McGill, superintendent for schools in Scarsdale, New York, upon learning of the state's plan to house his students info with the Murdoch/Gates start-ups. “This is a development that merits public concern and close public scrutiny."
What some critics find most troubling is not simply that corporate interests are collecting student personal information, but how that information is being used. As the anonymous programmer put it, “I don't think a lot these products are going to work. Teachers aren't going to like them, but that doesn't matter. These are essentially accountability systems.”
Some school districts have released statistical teacher evaluations as a way of holding teachers' feet to the fire and to justify layoffs. In Los Angeles, one teacher committed suicide after the city paper published his score. In New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere, data standardized tests results have been used to shutter schools and replace them with charters, often sponsored by hedge funds.
There are other ways, of course, to improve schools, says the programmer. Rather than shutting them down, giving teachers the slip and hiring corporate data tracking firms, policy makers could invest in improving the quality of life in the neighborhoods surrounding schools. Also, “they could just hire more teachers.” He insisted on anonymity for fear of retaliation from his employer, because such comments could cripple the programmer's entire profession, if heeded.
Increasingly, parents are refusing to feed the statistical machine. Over the last two weeks, several hundred in New York opted their children out of Common Core tests. In Chicago last week, parents also refused to allow their children to be tested. These boycotts were inspired by a school-wide refusal by teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington, to administer standardized exams to students.
“Arne Duncan has called education in America today 'the civil rights issue of our time',” said Jesse Hagopian, a Garfield teacher who helped initiate the school-wide test refusal last fall. “And I agree with him. Only I think his methodology is flawed. Because I know what the actual Civil Rights Movement was built on.”
Just as a bus boycott helped launch the Civil Right's Movement, Hagopian hopes that a test boycott will help launch a grassroots education reform movement.
“Parents, students and teachers need to band together,” he says, “and boycott tests that are designed to rank and sort our children and label them failures rather than provide them educational equity. These tests can't measure leadership, civic courage, creativity, the things we're going to need to solve the problems in the world today like endless war, mass incarceration and climate change.”