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Federalism is intended to promote citizen-directed government and to protect individual liberties. Unfortunately, elitists have undermined the constitutional structure to the point that now states have become supplicants of the federal executive and the people have only a nominal voice.
A prime example of the deterioration of the constitutional structure is the federal high-handedness on education matters and the collection of sensitive, personal student and family information.
The progressive-education establishment, which includes not only the U.S. Department of Education but also many, if not every, state department of education, is abuzz with the concept of “personalized learning.” Personalized learning, we are told, will “transform” education. It will meet students where they are and gently coax them down the path to true education, evaluating them at each step to ensure they’ve mastered the “competencies” the government requires of them. Who could object to that?
But if you think this means a teacher will pay extra attention to your child and work with him or her to overcome difficulties and inculcate knowledge – think again. “Personalized learning” in many respects replaces teachers with machines – and it runs on intrusive data-collection that builds a psychological dossier on each student. This is the dirty little secret the education establishment, and its comrades in the ed-tech industry, won’t tell you.
Personalized learning is accomplished primarily through digital platforms – not alternative means of accessing text, such as a Kindle, but interactive platforms that give a student a prompt, to which he responds, which generates another prompt, and so on. As explained in a U.S. Department of Education report entitled “Expanding Evidence: Approaches for Learning in a Digital World,” such software will record how long the student takes to respond to each prompt, how often he skips a question and returns to it later, how many “hints” he requires, etc. These are “sophisticated systems capable of collecting large amounts of fine-grained data as users interact with them… [L]earners will generate vast quantities of data…” And that data will give the experts a window into the child’s brain.
Some of this “fine-grained data” will consist of physiological observations and measurements. The “Expanding Evidence” report waxes enthusiastic about a University of Massachusetts project that “combin[es] data from sensors that detect learners’ facial expressions and physical activity with data from the intelligent tutoring system Wayang Outpost to identify in real time whether a learner is feeling excited, confident, frustrated, or bored.”
In other words, this “fine-grained” data will show not what the student knows, but how he thinks and what he feels. And all of that information will be recorded and analyzed.
Lest we think this is merely hypothetical research, not something that is actually contemplated or advocated by the federal government, we need only peruse the education blogs and see where the attention (and the money) is focused. For example, at the U.S. Department’s “Datapalooza” in October 2012, ed-tech representatives wowed the audience with the Brave New World capabilities of their cutting-edge digital platforms.
Consider also the National Science Foundation’s recent grant of $4.8 million to a coalition of prominent research universities to help them build a massive database for storing, analyzing, and sharing the fine-grained data given off by “digital learners.” As described by Education Week, this “LearnSphere” database will house “digital-interaction data generated by students using digital software… chat-window dialogue sent by students [in online courses and tutoring, and] potentially, ‘affect’ and biometric data, including information generated from classroom observations, computerized analysis of students’ posture, and sensors placed on students’ skin.”
But these technocrats will anonymize the data, so parents can certainly rest easy, right? Not according to most IT professionals, who laugh at the claim that such a multitude of data can be de-identified.
The techno-progressive educrats justify this astonishing invasion of privacy by envisioning the educational wonders that can result from knowing almost everything there is to know about the workings of a student’s brain. But they don’t really make this argument to parents, for one simple reason – they don’t tell parents what’s happening. Parents are left to believe that the digital-learning platforms are simply great new ways of helping their children learn, with no downsides. By and large, parents have no idea of the data-collection and sharing that forms the foundation of this 21st-century “education.”
Parents have the right to this information. They have the right to weigh the benefits against the costs and to refuse to let their children participate in such programs. But they won’t be able to do this until, as the Framers intended, their governors and legislatures stand at the constitutional line and push back against the federal Department of Education.
Emmett McGroarty is the Director of Education of the American Principles Project.
Jane Robbins is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project.