Education

Will Rupert Murdoch's Media Empire End Up Owning Your Child's Student Data?

Where is the balance of power between commercial vendors and the public school system?

Photo Credit: By World Economic Forum via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a fascinating story on the controversy surrounding inBloom, which promises to serve as a one-stop warehouse-in-the-cloud for student data, but which many educators and parents worry might compromise the privacy of kids in grades K-12. Like a number of major education-reform ventures, this one was launched by a group of funders led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Now that most states have signed onto the Common Core State Standards, which will use computerized assessments, the allure of creating a central repository of student data is more compelling than ever.  The NYT lays out the potential benefits of the inBloom system, including the ability to store large amounts of student information and provide tools for analyzing the data–information that will be available not only to educators, but also to education-technology developers who can tailor products to student and school needs. The article also explores the privacy concerns raised by the easy access that large numbers of companies will have to a vast array of information, ranging from academic achievement to disciplinary problems, for potentially tens of millions of students.

The story touches, though only obliquely, on important questions about the balance-of-power between commercial vendors and public schools and school districts, which inBloom is supposed to facilitate.

But one of the most intriguing aspects of the story is one the NYT does not address at all. Nowhere does the NYT mention that the operating system for inBloom is being developed by the Amplify division (formerly Wireless Generation) of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. This is a striking omission given that that the NYT is the paper of record in New York City where the CEO of Amplify/Wireless Generation, Joel Klein, recently served as schools chancellor. And this despite the fact that New York is one of only three states out of an original nine that, according to the article, “continues to pursue the service.”

In a brief phone conversation, Natasha Singer, the author of the article, explained that the aim of her story was to focus on “one small district in Colorado” and how technology and privacy concerns associated with inBloom play out in an area with much fewer resources than New York City. She also noted that, as is often the case, much was cut from her original story during the editing process.

inBloom itself seems eager to downplay News Corp./Wireless Generation’s involvement, in the venture, even though it wasa key partner in the Shared Learning Collaborative, which gave rise to inBloom. (inBloom was launched earlier this year with $100 million in funding.)  Although a March press release announced that Wireless Generation would be one of 24 software providers, the “partner” and “provider” tabs on the company’s website list 21 providers, but not Wireless Generation or Amplify.

For New Yorkers, inBloom may seem like something of a son-of-Frankenstein B-movie sequel, as inBloom traces its roots to a technological lemon: Several years ago, IBM and Wireless Generation developed ARIS (Achievement Reporting and Innovation System), a portal for the New York City Department of Education, which was widely seen as a failure.

ThenCisco began building a rival prototype portal that the company offered to the NYCDOE and that many teachers and principals said was much more useful than ARIS; but the city killed the project in August 2010. At the time, officials at the NYCDOE said that when work on the Cisco portal fell behind schedule, the education department pieced together an in-house version and took over the professional training Cisco had been providing for schools that were part of the much ballyhooed innovation-zone (or izone) initiative. More recently, NYCDOE insiders have said the department pulled the plug because of investments it had already made in ARIS, which came to total about $100 million.

The Murdoch connection, then and now

In 2011, the Daily News disclosedthat Wireless Generation was poised to wina no-bid $27 million contract to build an ARIS-like portal for New York State as part of the requirements for the state’s Race-to-the-Top bid. Joel Klein had just left his post as schools chancellor to become CEO of Wireless Generation. (The company noted that it had been in talks with the state long before Klein officially departed the NYCDOE for News Corp. in November of 2010.)

Following the hacking scandal at News of the World, a News Corp.-owned British tabloid, New York State declined to approve the Wireless Generation contract.

But by then, the Gates Foundation had already announced plans to help fund and develop the data-collection platform that would become inBloom and that would have a Wireless Generation-developed operating system. At the time, Sharren Bates, the official who had “launch(ed)” and “led” NYCDOE’s ARIS, was working as a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation. Earlier this year Bates became the chief product officer for inBloom.

Much of the NYT’s story focuses on the privacy concerns of both Coloradans and New Yorkers (including the indefatigable Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, one of the leading crusaders for children’s privacy rights) about inBloom’s plans to store student information in the cloud (on Amazon’s cloud servers, it turns out, though this is not mentioned in the NYT) and to allow private companies access to that data.

These concerns include the fact that new laws no longer require states to obtain a parent’s permission before sharing information in a child’s records:

“Recent changes in the regulation of a federal education privacy law have also helped the industry. That law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, required schools to obtain parental permission before sharing information in their children’s educational records. The updated rules permit schools to share student data, without notifying parents, with companies to which they have outsourced core functions like scheduling or data management.”

Then, too, there’s the question of what kind of data inBloom encourages schools to collect. It’s not just grades and attendance, but disciplinary records and family arrangements. Says the NYT:

"InBloom seems designed to nudge schools toward maximal data collection. School administrators can choose to fill in more than 400 data fields. Many are facts that schools already collect and share with various software or service companies: grades, attendance records, academic subjects, course levels, disabilities. Administrators can also upload certain details that students or parents may be comfortable sharing with teachers, but not with unknown technology vendors. InBloom’s data elements, for instance, include family relationships (“foster parent” or “father’s significant other”) and reasons for enrollment changes (“withdrawn due to illness” or “leaving school as a victim of a serious violent incident”).

Ms. Barnes, the privacy lawyer, said she was particularly troubled by the disciplinary details that could be uploaded to inBloom because its system included subjective designations like “perpetrator,” “victim” and “principal watch list.” Students, she said, may grow out of some behaviors or not want them shared with third parties. She also warned educators to be wary of using subjective data points to stratify or channel children."

Public-private partnerships are a much-touted way to infuse the public sector with both private-sector money and know-how. As ARIS’s history shows, quality problems can plague both public- and private-sector projects (more on this below). Moreover, not only are there serious balance-of-power issues in such arrangements, as inBloom illustrates; the power of private-sector partners creates challenges that, in the rush to adopt online technology and ed-reform, many localities have not adequately grappled with.

Taking a page from Apple’s iTunes

The publicity surrounding inBloom suggests that its platform will make it almost as easy to find customized software based on student and school needs as it is to build a playlist based on songs bought from Apple’s itunes store. That should worry schools, school districts and families. After all, the major music companies found that they were powerless in the face of Apple’s online music-shop monopoly; just imagine where inBloom leaves schools and school districts, which will provide the raw data for those educational innovations.

While inBloom itself is a non-profit, one of its expressed aims, as the NYT points out, is to “bolster the market for educational products.” The K-12 education software market alone is estimated at $8 billion according to the Software and Information Industry Association. Murdoch, however, has pegged the education-technology market, which also includes hardware and networking technology, at $500 billion.

And while information gleaned from individual students is supposed to provide the vital information need to develop and hone products, schools will pay dearly not only for the products that are made possible by inBloom, but for using the portal itself. As Leonie Haimson notes, starting in 2015, inBloom says it will charge states and districts between $2 and $5 per student each year for storing data on the site.

Nor do technology companies need inBloom in order to innovate and “customize” software. As part of New York City’s technological push during the Klein years, the city purchased masses of software for online learning. As the largest urban education market, that presented a unique opportunity to examine and customize products for the needs of city kids. Yet, one of the major complaints about the NYCDOE portal and the education software available to New York City public schools was that most software developers did nothing—and the NYCDOE did not use its clout to force them—to tailor programs, which were originally designed for the home-school market, for the needs of inner-city kids.

Common sense suggests that states and school districts should be championing both the educational and privacy interests of their students—especially if they want to benefit from the technology synergies of products like inBloom. But that doesn’t seem to be happening—at least not without considerable public pressure—in part because of the close ties between government officials and industry.

Consider the strange case of Louisiana, where Joel Klein’s former NYCDOE deputy, John White, is the superintendent of schools. This article describes a remarkable string of email exchanges among White, Amplify/Wireless Generation, the Gates Foundation and New Schools for New Orleans, a leading charter-school gatekeeper. It shows how the close ties among state officials and the private sector led Louisiana to become one of the first to give inBloom access to all of its student’s data. Four months later, following widespread protests, Louisiana removed the kids’ information from the inBloom database.

Meanwhile, during the last legislative session, the New York State legislature failed to pass bills that would have protected student privacy.

New York has a history of making hasty education decisions. It was one of the first states to push through a new “common core”-focused standardized test last spring. The assessments were rushed through before teachers had any meaningful training in the new standards and before students had much exposure to them. The result was much anguish on the part of students, families and teachers; a huge drop in test scores without much apparent benefit; as well as an open rebellion by principals.

As the NYT suggests in its inBloom article, schools and parents should be both aware and wary:

“Ms. Bates of inBloom said it was important for school districts to define their own legitimate uses for their students’ data and to develop policies to manage them.

“’We don’t have all the answers,’ she said."

Concludes the NYT: “Educators, in other words, are on their own.”

Andrea Gabor is the Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism at Baruch College/CUNY. Her website is: www.andreagabor.com
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