A new study released by the Boston-based Pioneer Institute finds that new technology development that has been encouraged through the use of federal grants has served to threaten children’s privacy by allowing the collection of data on every child.
Authors of the study Emmett McGroarty, Joy Pullmann, and Jane Robbins make the case that by means of the nationalized Common Core standards, which states were lured into adopting through competitive grants in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top (RttT) stimulus program in 2009, the federal government has used grant funds to induce states to build identical, increasingly sophisticated student data systems.
McGroarty, executive director of the Education Project at the American Principles Project (APP), said the study, entitled “Cogs in the Machine: Big Data, Common Core, and National Testing,” exposes “an idea that dates back to the Progressive era.”
“It is based in a belief that government ‘experts’ should make determinations about what is successful in education, what isn’t,” he said, “and what sorts of education and training are most likely to produce workers who contribute to making the United States competitive in the global economy.”
Though violations of citizen privacy have become major news stories of late, the federal government has urged private sector design of student data collection systems at the same time it encourages individual states to participate in data collection initiatives such as the Data Quality Campaign, the Early Childhood Data Collaborative, and the National Student Clearinghouse, all of which help to increase the collection and sharing of children’s data.
In addition, the National Education Data Model suggests that states provide for the collection of over 400 data points on every child in the construction of their data systems.
Last year, Congress gutted the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), leaving protections for student data significantly weakened. As more private companies donate education apps to schools in exchange for children’s information, the increasing threat of hacking the data of vulnerable children has become very real.
The U.S. Department of Education (USED), however, in its report published last year and titled “Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance,” expressed a strong interest in monitoring students’ “beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, values and ways of perceiving oneself” and to measure non-cognitive attributes such as their “psychological resources.”
USED goes on to suggest that researchers employ “functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and physiological indicators [that] offer insight into the biology and neuroscience underlying observed student behaviors.”
“This sort of character development and monitoring has traditionally been the domain of parents,” says “Cogs in the Machine” co-author Pullmann, research fellow of the Heartland Institute. “But the Grit report clearly implies that families can’t be trusted to inculcate values and attitudes.”
In addition, co-author Robbins, an attorney and senior fellow with APP, observed the “fine-grained” data that can be collected on non-cognitive attributes through children’s interaction with certain digital-learning platforms.
“The manufacturers of these technologies certainly know what they mean for classrooms,” Robbins said. “But few teachers are aware of it and even fewer parents are.”
Pioneer Institute notes the connections between the Common Core standards and the student data collection.
“Any information from the data initiatives mentioned above that is given to the two federally funded national assessment consortia aligned with the Common Core State Standards will be made available to the USED,” Pioneer observes.
The national standards will also create a unified “taxonomy” that facilitates creation of common instructional materials and data-collection technology. Because Common Core focuses not on academic knowledge but rather on “skills” that involve attitudes and dispositions, it paves the way for national assessments and digital platforms that measure such attributes.
Authors McGroarty, Pullmann, and Robbins suggest that, to protect children’s privacy, parents should ask the types of information that are being collected on digital-learning platforms and whether the software will record data about their children’s behavior and attitudes as well as academic knowledge. Parents should opt out if they object to such data collection.
Furthermore, the authors urge state lawmakers to pass student privacy laws and Congress to correct the 2013 relaxation of FERPA.
“A person’s right to his own information must be considered a property right. Especially in the area of education, laws must change to grant parents control over the collection and disclosure of their children’s data,” the authors write. “And parents must educate themselves about what is really happening in the schools, so that they can know what types of data are being collected and what is done with it. Parents must be empowered to draw the line.”