90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Monday, February 24, 2014

Sharing Student Data In The Cloud: Should We Be Worried?

Students take a quiz in Eric Miller's eighth grade algebra class at Lakes Magnet Middle School in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. (Jessica Robinson/Northwest News Network)

The majority . (Jessica Robinson/Northwest News Network)

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is addressing educators in Washington today on the issue of student data — everything from attendance and health records to test scores and disciplinary data.

There’s a big fight going on in many states over whether that data should be stored online and managed by third parties like inBloom, a nonprofit funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Inbloom declined Here & Now’s request for an interview, but we are joined by two people with very different views on this: Mary Fox-Alter, superintendent of schools in Pleasantville, N.Y., and Aimee Rogstad Guidera, executive director of the Data Quality Campaign.

Interview Highlights

Mary Fox-Alter on why the sharing of student data concerns her

“We firmly believe that the release of student data into this big gigantic data storage facility called inBloom has devastating consequences for children in three areas: the area of privacy, the area of profiteering and the area of profiling. The idea that this big data box that doesn’t have any windows, just one door with a secure access, often equated to a super big Costco and then any software vendor can get a key to that door and have access to all of this data and they will come out with this inBloom certified stamp of approval on that. You can have access to student transcripts, you can have access to student suspension records. A teacher of a next year student can take a look at their discipline files, and again I believe that that is profiling. The state of New York actually says that results of the 3 through 8 tests which will be in there that will tell a second grader, a third grader, a fourth grader whether they are career and college ready at a very young age.”

Aimee Rogstad Guidera on the benefit of sharing student data

“We believe that data is the great equalizer, and you know the truth is we’ve always had data in education but we’ve never used it to really change conversations, to change actions and to change outcomes. And we’re now on the cusp and it’s starting to happen around the country where we’re starting to see where educators and families are having access to quality, actionable information. And as a result, it’s changing the teaching and learning process, it’s providing better transparency about whats going on, it allows us to have richer conversations about accountability, and most importantly it’s empowering individuals to make great decisions for their own kids. And I just want to reinforce, this is about — more than anything — empowering parents with actionable information about their own kids that they’ve never ever had before.”

Mary Fox-Alter on parents already having access to the data they need

“We’ve been monitoring fluency rates and how kids read and reading levels for a number of years now. All of that information is revealed to parents right now. A parent can log on in my district, log on to a teacher grade book and and look at all of the information. They could look at attendance records. I pay good solid money for that. This whole idea that we have to take all of this information, put it up into a big cloud called inBloom, pay additional money per child for doing this — it’s a waste of tax payers money, it’s a redundancy and it’s based upon assumptions that aren’t valid.”

“Do you realize that this new system is going to allow the collection of student suspension records by name? I put forth that this system does not afford the same protection to children’s privacy as our criminal justice system. So a child that might, for example, get an in-school suspension as a seventh or eighth grader or a high school student. And a child who’s been out in the criminal justice system will have his or her records sealed if they’re in the criminal justice system, but not in my student data inBloom cloud? It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Aimee Rogstad Guidera on many schools not yet providing this data

“Not every family is as lucky as those that get to live in Mary’s district. The vast majority of parents and families in this country do not have access to the information that Mary just said her families do in Pleasantville. And that’s a travesty. We shouldn’t limit the access to information based on where you’re lucky enough to live in a zip code that provides the kind of of information that Mary has. And that is an important role of the state education agencies — to ensure that they can guarantee that every parent, every citizen gets the information that they need to make informed decisions. And that’s a critical role of the state to play that.”

“On the issue about privacy, we believe so strongly — protecting and safeguarding data is a critical part of promoting the effective use of data. No one is going to use data that they believe is going to hurt their kids, or that’s going to come back and hurt them. And we need to do everything possible in the education sector to ensure parents and teachers and students themselves and taxpayers and citizens, that this sensitive data is being private and secure and confidential.”

Guests

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. It's HERE AND NOW. And there are a lot of big stories in the news today; we're following all of them, including the latest from Ukraine, where the country's new leaders have issued an arrest warrant for ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

HOBSON: We are also keeping an eye on Egypt, where the entire cabinet resigned today.

CHAKRABARTI: And in Washington, a proposal today from the defense secretary that would shrink the Army to its smallest size since before World War II. But there is something else happening today that may have just as big an impact on our lives here in this country and probably won't be in the headlines.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is addressing educators in Washington on the issue of student data.

HOBSON: We are talking here about everything from attendance records to health records to test scores and disciplinary data. There is a big fight going on in many states, including New York, over whether that data should be stored online and managed by third parties like inBloom. That is a nonprofit funded by the Gates Foundation, and it's going to be used in New York state.

Now inBloom declined our request for an interview, but we are joined now by two people with very different views on this. Mary Fox-Alter is superintendent of the Pleasantville, New York, school district. Mary Fox-Alter, welcome.

MARY FOX-ALTER: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

HOBSON: And we are also joined by Aimee Rogstad Guidera. She is executive director of the group the Data Quality Campaign. Welcome to you.

AIMEE ROGSTAD GUIDERA: Thanks so much, Jeremy, I look forward to the conversation.

HOBSON: Well, superintendent, I want to start with you. You and several other superintendents in New York state are asking the state's board of education not to release your student data to this nonprofit repository called inBloom. Why? What are you worried about?

FOX-ALTER: We firmly believe that the release of student data into this big, gigantic data storage facility called inBloom has devastating consequences for children in three areas, the area of privacy, the area of profiteering and the area of profiling. The idea that this big data box that doesn't have any windows, just one door with a secure access, I often equate it to like a super-big Costco, and then any software vendor can get a key to that door and have access to all of this data, and they will come out with this inBloom certified stamp of approval on that.

You can have access to student transcripts. You can have access to student suspension records. A teacher, a next-year student could take a look at their discipline files. And again, I believe that that is profiling. The state of New York actually says that the results of the three to eight test, which will be in there, will tell a second-grader, a third-grader, a fourth-grader whether or not they are career and college ready at a very young age.

HOBSON: And this is happening not just in New York state but in other states, as well. Aimee Rogstad Guidera, I imagine you disagree with some of the sentiments there. And I want you to make the case for us, first of all, of why we need to be collecting and sharing the data of kids.

GUIDERA: Sure. So I'm an unabashed advocate, and we all are at the Data Quality Campaign, for changing the use of data in education. We believe that data is the great equalizer. And, you know, the truth is we've always have data in education, but we've never used it to really change conversations, change actions and to change outcomes.

And we're now on the cusp, and it's starting to happen around the country, where we're starting to see where educators and families are having access to quality actionable information. And as a result, it's changing the teaching and learning process. It's providing greater transparency about what's going on. It allows us to have richer conversations about accountability.

And most importantly, it's empowering individuals to make great decisions for their own kids. And I just want to reinforce this is about, more than anything, empowering parents with actionable information about their own kids that they've never, ever had before.

HOBSON: Well, give me an example of that, of how exactly this data could be used to help parents and their kids.

GUIDERA: Well number one, you know, I'm a mom, and the number one question I want to ask my teachers, and I ask them constantly, you know, in my teacher conferences, but every time I have a chance to talk to them, how is my kid doing. Is my kid on track to be ready for this, you know, knowledge economy that they're going to be going out into? And how do I know?

And rather than in the past where teachers would say trust us, we're doing the right thing, everything's going to be OK, they now can provide me data showing how's my kid doing not just compared to other kids in her classroom but also in the school. But also, we're now able to get this actionable information that shows, because we do have this ability to look and know that if a kid is scoring at this point in the third grade, you know, for a real data point, we know if kids aren't reading on grade level by third grade, the chances of them graduating from high school are diminishing.

And so that's real data that we can tell parents that we need to get your kid reading on grade level by third grade, or we know that the results aren't going to be great. And while that may be scary, as, you know, as the superintendent just talked about of being profiling, we think it's much more empowering when you start thinking about that power of data put into the hands of families so that they know how they can be the best advocate for their child.

And when teachers are given that information and given the training to know how to use it, it empowers them to not just teach the whole class in a cohort but to really focus the teaching process on individual needs and to make sure that every kid is getting what they need and are ready to be prepared and to live up to their potential.

HOBSON: Mary Fox-Alter, what about that, that this empowers people to have this kind of data?

FOX-ALTER: Well, I find the comments actually incredibly surprising. My community would vote down every single budget if we weren't doing that right now. School districts should be doing that right now. Ours does. Ours is a parent portal. We've been monitoring fluency rates and how kids read and reading levels for a number of years now. All of that information is revealed to parents right now.

A parent can log on in my district, log on to a teacher grade book and look at all the information. They could look at attendance records. I pay good, solid money for that. This whole idea that we have to take all of this information, put it up into a big cloud called inBloom, pay additional money per child for doing this, is a waste of taxpayers' money, it's a redundancy, and it's a - based upon assumptions that aren't valid.

HOBSON: But aren't you better off, though, if you take all the data from all kinds of districts all across the country and throw them together so that you can really see, in a more specific way, how students are performing?

FOX-ALTER: I can see that already. I actually got a call last week, an email from a school district in Wisconsin, that noticed Pleasantville's performance over a five-year period. And they sent me a lengthy survey asking me for the type of materials and tools that we are using within our district to get that level of performance.

Again, I come back to risk versus rewards. Since that information is already readily available to parents, to teachers, to students, to many educators, it's available, it's public information, you can download it off the state education website, all of this exists currently right now.

The thought now of taking our children, our most vulnerable of people, up into a data cloud, a national cloud, which isn't going to protect my kid's privacy the way I can - do you realize that this new system is going to allow the collection of student suspension records by name? I put forth that this system does not afford the same protection to children's privacy as our criminal justice system.

So a child that might, for example, get an in-school suspension as a seventh or eighth grader or a high school student, and a child who's been out in the criminal justice system, will have his or her record sealed if they're in the criminal justice system but not in my student data inBloom cloud? It's absolutely ridiculous.

HOBSON: We're speaking with Mary Fox-Alter, the superintendent of the Pleasantville, New York, school district; and Aimee Rogstad Guidera, who is the executive director of a group called the Data Quality Campaign. Aimee, what are your thoughts on what we've just heard?

GUIDERA: Not every family is as lucky as those that get to live in Mary's district. The vast majority of parents and families in this country do not have access to the information that Mary just said that her families do in Pleasantville, and that's a travesty.

We shouldn't limit the access to information based on where you're lucky enough to live in a zip code that provides the kind of information that Mary has. And that is an appropriate role of the state education agencies, to ensure that they can guarantee that every parent, every citizen, gets the information that they need to make informed decisions. And that's a critical role of the state to play that.

And it turns out that when you ask parents what they need, what they really want to know is how well do the kids do in this high school or the school system that my kid's going to graduate from, how they do in the real world. That's information that a district by itself cannot provide, and only the state can do that because the state has the ability to follow students after they leave a high school and follow them into post-secondary education and training.

And on the issue about privacy, we believe so strongly, you know, protecting and safeguarding data is a critical part of promoting the effective use of data. No one is going to use data that they believe is going to hurt their kids or that's going to come back and hurt them. And we need to do everything possible in the education sector to ensure parents and teachers and students themselves and taxpayers and citizens that this sensitive data is being kept private and secure and confidential.

And there's a way that we can do that, and...

HOBSON: Well, do you think that way includes new regulations at a federal level?

GUIDERA: I think perhaps at the federal level, but where we're also seeing a lot of activity, which is really important, is at the state level. We now have almost half the states thus far in this year's legislative session, we're seeing legislative conversations about this very topic so that there's a better understanding of what data is being collected on my child.

How do I know who has access to it? What's it being used for? How do we make sure it's being kept private and secure? And that's how we're going to start getting a different conversation, where it's not scaremongering, why it matters for me as a parent, as a taxpayer, as a mom, to have access to this information. I think that's the first part, and as part of that step is how do we make sure that you can safeguard my kid's data, as well.

HOBSON: Mary Fox-Alter, let me finally go back to you and as you this. This sounds very similar to the debate over data that was taken by Edward Snowden and released and this question about whether we're safer because we have more data, and it can help prevent terrorist attacks, or whether we've got a real problem with privacy.

And a lot of people are angry about it. They don't want to hear that the government is using their data in this way. But they'd rather have it be used and at least feel safer. Doesn't it feel like this is moving away from the privacy argument and more towards that we need more data to help us do things in a smarter way?

FOX-ALTER: Oh, my goodness, Jeremy, I'm an American. For crying out loud, I believe in local control. I believe in state constitutions. And anyone who puts forth the argument that privacy is dead really needs to just wake up and smell the coffee and get rejuvenated about what we are as Americans. I put forth that the model is flawed. There are no data privacy assurances with any of this rollout.

There is no direct notification to parents if there's a breach. I put forth that this has not been well thought out, that all the things that Aimee has mentioned have not been put in writing. There are no assurances in place, and everything should be put on hold until all of that happens.

And public school districts that aren't sharing information with parents right now should be held accountable to that. Early warning tracking systems do exist. They're part of state law, and they should be enforced.

HOBSON: Well, we will have to leave it there but a debate that will continue for a long time, I'm sure, as this new world of data in education gets sorted out. Mary Fox-Alter, superintendent of the Pleasantville, New York, school district; and Aimee Rogstad Guidera, executive director of the Data Quality Campaign; thanks to both of you for joining us.

FOX-ALTER: Thank you, Jeremy.

GUIDERA: Thanks so much, Jeremy.

HOBSON: And after hearing those two sides of that debate, let us know what you think about this, about the balance between having more information and having adequate privacy. You can go to hereandnow.org and leave a comment, or you can tweet us @hereandnow. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

October 23 Comment

New Documentary Profiles Human Rights Watch Team

An elite group known as the E-Team travels across the globe documenting human rights violations and war crimes.

October 23 Comment

Bottom Of The Sea Is ‘A World Of Surprises’

The world's oceans cover nearly two-thirds of the Earth's surface, yet little is understood about the ocean floor.

October 22 13 Comments

Colorado Backs Away From Pot Edibles Ban

Critics say a ban would violate the state's voter-approved legalization of recreational marijuana, which took effect in January.

October 22 4 Comments

Modest Raise For Social Security Recipients

Economist Diane Swonk says the 1.7 percent cost-of-living increase falls short of the inflation older Americans actually see.