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Student Data Collection and Data Sharing… and Corporate Profits

June 18, 2015

I read earlier this month week that NYC schools recently replaced their student data web site, as described in this paragraph from the NYTimes article:

The city’s Education Department created NYC Schools to replace Achievement Reporting and Innovation System, or ARIS, a data system built at great expenseunder Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration that was used by only a small fraction of parents. At the end of last year, the department ended its contract with Amplify, the company that maintained ARIS and is run by Joel I. Klein, who was schools chancellor during the system’s creation. Since then, parents have not had a way of viewing their children’s information online.

As one who began my college career as an engineering major and who ended up with a major in Humanities and Technology, I’ve long been an advocate of the power technology could bring to education. When I was Superintendent in upstate NY from 1997-2002 I aggressively expanded the use of technology in our offices and schools. With the technological capability to collect and use data, my staff and I sought ways to use data warehousing to improve our tracking of student progress and management of the reams of information we collected on our students. When I concluded by career working in an interstate school district in Hanover NH and Norwich VT we instituted the use of Powerschool, Apple’s data management system, It helped us schedule MS and HS students, maintain a common set of baseline information on students, and made each student’s grades available to parents through the use of a password protected portal. Both states in the interstate district developed (or bought) and ultimately required the use of on-line IEP programs and both states developed (or bought) management systems that enabled teachers to use data from State assessments to inform their instruction.

The introduction of technology was difficult in both venues. In New York, where the implementation preceded the widespread use of cell phones, I-pads, or even lap top computers, the daily or even periodic use of computers in lieu of paper was new and different and resisted by teachers, administrative assistants, and even parents. A decade later when we instituted the use of the parent portal the debates had more to do with security (e.g. are we SURE that a hacker won’t get into this?), the change in work expectations (e.g. you mean I have to post my grades on-line within a week of giving a test?), and process (e.g. we usually use a democratic process at THIS school to decide issues like the parent portal!). 

To those who questioned security I indicated we WERE acting on faith that Apple had thought this through and was confident their system was secure— much the same way we took on faith that Amazon, our local banks, and our credit card companies are secure.   

To those who questioned work expectations I responded in honest bewilderment. “I hope you don’t expect me to defend your right as a professional to make a student wait a week to find out how they did on an examination or a term paper… because I can’t.” Fortunately the professionalism of the great majority of the staff stopped that rebuttal in its tracks.

To those who questioned the process I had to acknowledge that decisions about what kind of operating system we would use had to be made in a hierarchical fashion…. and computers made it imperative that we abandon the old days where each school had its own system of listing and collecting names, addresses, and other baseline data which then required the successive school and/or teacher to needlessly re-enter the same information in a different format. This was a clear waste of staff time and resources. Of course this also meant that everyone would need to adapt to whatever changes resulted from the new system that was dictated from our office. While each Principal was involved in the decision regarding the kind of system we would design or buy… once the decision was reached EVERYONE had to use the same system. Bottom line: Choosing the system was democratic; implementing the system was dictatorial.

It’s been four full years since I led a school district, and much has changed in that time period. Indeed, even as I was leaving the office I had a sense that change was in the offing relative to data warehousing and student management systems. The small operation that offered the district in NYS a free demo on school warehousing got bought up by a bigger organization and the last I read they were somehow connected with Pearson. Oh, and Pearson bought Powerschool and became the developer of the assessments whose results would be stored on Powerschool… along with lots of information about a student’s health and well-being. And then I read blog posts like the one in last week’s Mathbabe that included this provocative information:

EBay and PayPal recently changed their user agreements so that, if you’re a user of either of those services, you will receive marketing calls using any phone number you’ve provided them or that they have “have otherwise obtained.” There is no possibility to opt out, except perhaps to abandon the services. Oh, and they might also call you for surveys or debt collections. Oh, and they claim their intention is to“benefit our relationship.”

(And) Given how much venture capitalists (who have invested in many on-line services) like to brag about their return (on investment), I think we have reason to worry about the coming wave of “innovative” uses of our personal data. Telemarketing is the tip of the iceberg.

Schools have a trove of electronically stored information that parents and teachers clearly need and want to use… and private for-profit corporations are gobbling up these services and, as the Mathbabe notes, when they DO take them over they can unilaterally change the see agreements.

There IS a solution to all of this… and that is to pass some kind of legislation to regulate the use of student data so that it is not sold or disclosed to anyone. We can’t go back to filing cabinets stuffed with reams of papers that are impossible to sift through and expensive to keep… but we don’t want to compromise the confidentiality that paper documents generally provided.

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