Privacy” by Isengardt.

July 19, 2017; Hechinger Report

“I can access data now with my right click that I used to have to access in a vault,” said Williams, a government and economics teacher at Appling County High School.

This statement may be thrilling or terrifying for you, depending on where you sit. The use of data to tailor instruction for individual students is an emerging concept. Time to Act 2017: Put Data in the Hands of People is a new report by the nonprofit organization Data Quality Campaign. DQC, according to its website, calls itself “the nation’s leading voice on education data policy and use.” The report summarizes states’ efforts to act on DQC’s previously released Four Policy Priorities and provides recommendations to fully realize the benefits of student data sharing in promoting positive educational outcomes.

Writing for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news website named for the former education editor of the New York Times and an advocate for public education, Nicole Dobo discussed the report’s call to action.

Using data and sharing it takes on renewed urgency due to new federal regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Among the changes are requirements that states track and publish information on specific kinds of students, such as those in foster care, by next year. At this point, just one state (Washington) publishes data on those students—although undoubtedly many more states are collecting that information. And Alaska is the only state that publishes data on students who come from military families.

Nearly all states collect and store student data, but few easily share it with parents and teachers, let alone a host of other vital stakeholders in promoting student success such as after-school programs. The report holds that the focus needs to shift from merely collecting data to prioritizing the effective use of data at all levels; apparently, the way it has been misused is no matter of importance.

That is where this new report appears to become stunted. It rightly decries how the data is used and misused, and how “it has primarily been used to punish educators rather than support student learning.” But the central (largely missing) issues have to do with student privacy laws and sentiment.

Strangely, no results emerge when placing the infamous word “inBloom” into DQC’s search window. NPQ reported about the brief lifespan of this “go big” $100 million student data project, as well as other well-meaning misfires by the Gates Foundation. The nonprofit inBloom launched in February 2013, and by May 2013, parent and teacher protests were bringing the initiative to an unexpected end. inBloom shuttered its open source platform for data sharing and other tools by April 2014.

DQC’s Time to Act 2017 report seems to long for the very same services that inBloom offered school districts and states. inBloom provided a way to maintain data from multiple systems in a common and accessible location. Using a set of application programming interfaces to enhance ease of use, inBloom gathered previously walled off state education data to accelerate the development of useful personalized learning tools and to help school districts meet their state and federal reporting requirements.

What inBloom did not anticipate was the public’s immediate and public intolerance for risk and uncertainty. It could be said that inBloom’s greatest mistake was its failure to communicate the benefits of its platform and its intentions to key stakeholders. Silicon Valley’s go-big (“fail early and iterate”) approach did not stand a chance against The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the risk-averse stance of states and school districts, let alone organized parents. At least one parent filed a restraining order against inBloom with the New York State Supreme Court. Lawmakers began to ask probing questions about the threat of the education technology industry outstripping federal student privacy rules. This letter from Senator Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, to Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, remains as relevant today as it was in October 2013.

DQC’s Time to Act 2017 report begins with and then explains this forceful statement: “The Big Idea: When students, parents, educators, and partners have the right information to make decisions, students excel.” The teachable moment of inBloom’s collapse shows that any new student data-sharing project needs to first win the trust of parents. It will more likely succeed if initiatives are calibrated carefully, and if they are closed, school district-specific, not cloud-based information systems managed by third party vendors. New initiatives need to be adopted piecemeal allowing stakeholders time to buy-in to the benefits of safe and secure data sharing. To date, apparently no large-scale data sharing technology initiative since inBloom’s demise has succeeded in American K-12 schools.

Perhaps DQC’s vision is too much too soon. The Data Quality Campaign’s greatest strength in promoting its agenda may be that it is primarily a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization. If DQC’s Time to Act 2017 report can be viewed as a PR initiative to keep their Big Idea of student data sharing alive, DQC’s report is spot-on. But their report would be more convincing if it also gave us a well-considered autopsy of the shocking $100 million failure of inBloom and, by extension, the Gates Foundation’s judgment. But, let’s get real: Gates has been a multimillion-dollar supporter.—James Schaffer