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Friday, January 1, 2016

Part II of the inBloom saga: what NYSED emails to the Gates Foundation from 2011 reveal


A few days ago I posted Part I of this saga, about how NYSED officials delayed for a year and half the release of their FOILed emails to the Gates Foundation, Wireless Generation/Amplify, and inBloom Inc. about their plans to share personal student data with these private corporations.  Some of those emails were finally released to our lawyers on December 11, 2014, the day after John King announced his resignation as Commissioner.  Part II  is below, with excerpts from the their emails sent in 2011.

When my FOIL was finally responded to I received hundreds and hundreds of pages with printed out emails to and from NYSED and the Gates Foundation mostly; offering all-expense trips for various meetings about teacher evaluation, data collection, and other issues, as well as a pile of contracts and agreements.  It took weeks just to sort them and start to look through them.  Sadly there were no emails from Merryl Tisch’s account, as I had asked for; and no emails from most of the state officials whose communications we had FOILed.  But we did find out some juicy details; here are some excerpts:

1/6/2011: The first email that refers to the incipent inBloom project is sent to John King, then
Stacey Childress led the inBloom project for Gates Foundation
Deputy Commissioner,
from Stacey Childress, who led the data-sharing project for the Gates Foundation.  She asks to schedule a “time to talk” about the “intersections between your RTTT instructional improvement plans and a project we are working on Gates.”

1/25/11:  Joe Scantlebury, Senior Policy Officer of the Gates Foundation, thanks Commissioner Steiner and Deputy Commissioner King for joining a call this morning; he adds that “the foundation is supportive of your interest to implement your P-16 data plans.”

1/26/11: The next day, John King drafts a request to the Foundation to use the leftover funds they had received for the Regents Research fellows to be used to hire a “project manager” for a state longitudinal database:  

In November 2007, The University of the State of New York – Regents Research Fund was awarded approximately $3 million in grant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the design of a comprehensive School Improvement organization within the Department. [Or was this really an embedded Gates operation inside a state agency?]. At this time, an unexpended balance from this grant exists in the amount of $561,000, which includes interest earned on the grant and The University of the State of New York – Regents Research Fund requests a no-cost extension for the unexpended balance of the above-referenced grant for four years until December 31, 2014.  As described below, the Department proposes to use such funds to continue the work outlined in the original grant application.

With support from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the department , together with the Parthenon Group, the State University of New York (SUNY) , the City University of New York (CUNY), the NYC Department of Education and the Yonkers and Syracuse City School Districts, have collaborated to develop a design and implementation plan for a statewide P-16 Data System.  NYSED is actively leveraging these design plans and governance model as it implements $115 million in data system development work over the next three to four years, including funds received from two federal Institute of Education Science grants, a Race to the Top Award, and NYS matching funds.”
Ken Wagner, then NYSED Asst. Commissioner for Data
 
5/23/11: John King, now the Education Commissioner following David Steiner's resignation, drafts a statement and sends it to the Gates Foundation for approval.  It says that to help “our teachers prepare students to meet the CCSS [Common Core State Standards]” they need an “integrated and flexible student data system” whose cost will be minimized by partnership with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and support by Gates. 

This system will integrate “data sharing and instructional practices in all regions of the state” as the most “cost effective to provide students, parents, teachers, administrators and policymakers in NY with the educational information they want and need.”  Deborah Robinson of Gates replies that he should “focus more on the benefits to teachers” and “draw less attention to the data/infrastructure aspects”.  This would become a repeated theme of the Foundation; persuading the state to deliver their preferred narrative: that this huge data system resulted from express desires of teachers, rather than their own grandiose plans to encourage the rapid spread of instruction via software and computers.  

5/24/11:  In a “Software Transfer and License Agreement” NYC DOE transfers all the software developed as part of their ARIS system to NYSED.  The agreement reveals that NYC DOE “intends to “cut over” to the NYSED EDP [Education Data Portal, one of the many euphemisms for the state data system] once it is up and running all NYCDOE functionality has been launched…NYC DOE will be responsible for all costs associated with integrating ARIS Reports and ARIS Learn into the SLI [Shared Learning Infrastructure] environment.” 

5/27/11: In one of the first news articles on this, Ed Week has an article describing a project being developed by Gates, Carnegie and the Council of Chief State School Officers to provide a “common dashboard” to impart the elements of the Common Core: “CCSSO and the states of New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Colorado will take the lead in helping design and pilot the platform, with financing promised by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Four other states—Delaware, Kentucky, Georgia, and Louisiana—are planning to take part in the near future, with the goal of implementing it in all nine states by 2013.”

6/2/11: A contract is drawn up between Wireless Generation for the NYSED Education Data Portal or a separate internal data system, the first of many that erroneously states that the contractor was a non-for-profit corporation.  Whether inBloom was eventually intended to replace this internal system never became clear.

6/6/11: Ongoing negotiations over the Memorandum of Understanding between NYSED and the Shared Learning Collaborative LLC (the company that would later be called inBloom).  As we will see, NYSED continues to argue with Gates Foundation officials for months, mostly around the issue of confidentiality. Ken Wagner says he is concerned about the way the agreements mandates full confidentiality:  We cannot build support for NY’s participation, including with our State [Regents] board, if we cannot share detailed information to explain the benefits.”  Yet the Gates Foundation appears intent on protecting their own privacy, especially  as concerns details of the Shared Learning Collaborative, which they call “the Company”, an LLC recently formed in Washington by Gates and Carnegie.  

The Gates Foundation insists that NYSED agree to a MOU that NYSED cannot make any facts known about the project, even those “already publicly available” without ”the Company’s priori written approval.” Their hubris is stunning; demanding such secrecy from a governmental agency that is supposed to be responsive to the public.  The arrogance and secrecy of Foundation officials combine to intensify opposition in the months to come.

The  Foundation drafts a separate MOU between the SLC LLC and Wireless Generation to develop the infrastructure to store the records for up to 20 million students, including “enrollment, achievement and biographical data for all participating states and school districts.”  This will also somehow be used in connection to the project to build an internal state system: “In order to avoid the duplication of effort and consolidate the use of funding, NYSED desires to leverage the Data Infrastructure to be developed by the Company. “  The negotiations over the MOU go on for nearly a year.  

6/14/11: Daily News breaks the story of a proposed no-bid contract between Wireless and NYSED for their internal data system, with the title, "Company Overseen by Joel Klein Poised to Clean Up with $27M No-Bid State Contract."
Joel Klein, former NYC Chancellor & then head of Wireless/Amplify

Much controversy ensues, primarily as a result of conflict of interest concerns. Six months before, Wireless Generation had been bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, just days after Joel Klein announced he would resign as chancellor of NYC schools, to run Wireless (later renamed Amplify) and head up NewsCorp's new “educational” online division and “overseeing investments in digital learning companies.”

6/24/11 – Tom Dunn, NYSED chief communication officer, tells Debbie Robinson, Gates Foundation senior communications officer, that they have been contacted by Stephanie Saul, a NY Times reporter. Robinson tells Dunn that Saul has already called Wireless, and that she didn’t ask anything about Gates Foundation or Carnegie Corporation (the other backed of the data project) and that the communication person at Wireless, Joan Lebow, has found Saul to be “fair, balanced and thorough.”

Stephanie Saul of the NY Times
Later that day, Dunn writes Robinson that Wagner’s conversation with Saul lasted 75 minutes, and that she did “not have a good understanding of scope of what we seek to do.”  Saul apparently asked whether they were “advised to avoid WG [Wireless Generation]” and if “Parthenon [another Gates consultant] had advised them against Wireless because they had been involved in developing ARIS (NYC DOE’s expensive and widely considered defective NYC data system.)  

Tom Dunn, NYSED Communication Officer
Dunn writes: “Ken laid out the Parthenon role in bringing us together with NYC to talk about ARIS.”  Saul then asked him about the fact that Stacey Childress, head of the data project for Gates, was also a Wireless board member.  Ken said he had been unaware of this, and told Saul that “the most important considerations was saving taxpayer $$$.”  Saul asked if NYC was driving the bus.  Wagner said that they “were influential.”  She asked when the program will be announced and how much Wireless was getting for the project.  Ken said that was a question for Gates.  “All in all Ken did an outstanding job with her,” says Dunn. It appears that none of Saul’s questions related to data privacy, security or parental consent. 

6/27/11: Ken Wagner drafts follow up talking points for Stephanie Saul and sends them to Debbie Robinson of Gates, who makes some suggested changes, adding how the data system will “Provide support for teachers by giving them the tools they asked for” and that the “Cutting edge technologies” that will hook into the SLC will be “differentiated and tailored to students.” 

She adds that “teachers have requested this support, in order to prepare student to meet the Common Core standards.”  As before, this mantra is central to the Gates PR -- to make it appear that these intrusive data collection and sharing systems were created at their behest of teachers, rather than to mechanize education and abet the outsourcing of instruction to software vendors.  The Gates talking points also emphasize how much better the “Education Data Portal” constructed by Wireless Gen would be than ARIS.

Stephanie Saul ends up not writing anything about the project.   When I contact about her about the risk to student privacy nearly a year later in May 2012, she responds that she had looked into the project, but “At the end of they [sic] day, I didn't know what the story was. There was no clear wrongdoing and lots of innuendo.”

 (The NY Times refuses to cover any aspect of the inBloom controversy or the topic of student privacy until more than two years later, in October 2013, after I contacted Natasha Singer, one of their technology reporters on Twitter, who confirms that none of the education staff is interested in the issue.  Even then, though Singer writes several stories, she mentions New York’s involvement in the data-sharing project only in passing, and focuses instead on Colorado.  Because of their lack of interest, the Times education staff  missed out on what soon became one of the biggest national stories – the exploding concern with student privacy – even though this debate started in their own backyard.)

Rachel Monahan, formerly NY Daily News
7/28/11:  Laurence Holt of Wireless emails Ken Wagner about a story that Rachel Monahan of the Daily News is working on, focused on the no-bid nature of the contract NYSED has awarded Wireless to build a (separate) state data system.  Holt points out that there were 17 bidders on the initial contract.  Monahan is said to have asked him if it was more “cost-effective” for New York, given their involvement in the Shared Learning Collaborative.

Holt says to Wagner he will direct her to NYSED to answer her questions.   Again, as in the case of the Times reporter, Monahan’s focus is on the potential conflicts of interest and not the privacy implications– the issue which eventually kills the Wireless Contract the following month, when the State Comptroller cancels the contract.  

Soon, Class Size Matters, later joined by the Working Families Party and NYSUT, the state teachers union, begin a campaign to ask the State Comptroller DiNapoli to cancel the contract.  He has the authority to do this due to its no-bid nature. Our campaign is focused on the fact that Wireless is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, which has already been implicated in a huge scandal in the UK, with one of its papers accused of violating privacy in numerous ways, including hacking into a murdered child’s cell phone
Rupert Murdoch at UK hearings on phone hacking  in July 2011

8/ 25/11: Comptroller DiNapoli informs NYSED that he is rejecting their contract with Wireless because of privacy concerns: “in light of the significant ongoing investigations and continuing revelations with respect to News Corporation, we are returning the contract with Wireless Generation unapproved.”  

Not until nearly two years later, on March 13, 2013 does the Daily News report on the parent opposition to inBloom due to privacy concerns.  The Times and Daily News lack of interest in the privacy issue are shared by other media outlets; one of the editors of GothamSchools (later Chalkbeat NY) tells me that she doesn’t believe that student privacy is a real issue. 

CORRECTION: Rachel Monahan, now working as a reporter in Portland OR, reminds me that she wrote a story focused on the privacy implications of the original Wireless deal (as opposed to the separate inBloom deal) in July 2011 -- thank you Rachel!

8/24/11:  NYSED officials are invited to a “convening meeting” is held at Allegro Hotel in Chicago with the participants in the data project, with all expenses paid by Gates Foundation.  “Regarding your travel arrangements, the Shared Learning Collaborative will cover all expenses related to your travel to and from the meeting, including meals and hotel.”

The focus is “to help state teams form an understanding of their role and the resource commitments required” – because states and districts will soon have to pay a per student fee for the SLC to collect and share their data when the Gates funding runs out.  In addition, breakout sessions on communications are led by PR flacks Katie Ford and Barbara Grimes of Waggener Edstrom.  
Henry Hipps of the Gates Foundation

8/31/11 – “Looking forward to the NY launch,” writes Henry Hipps of Gates to Ken Wagner,”though I know questions have been raised with the recent news about your contract…. [Wireless cancellation by the Comptroller], but we are committed to helping you and your team remain in Phase I” of the Shared Learning Collaborative. 

At that time Phase I states are CO, IL, MA, NC, NY, while Phase 2 states include DE, GA, KY, LA.  (Much later, reporter Stephanie Simon reveals in a tweet that Phase 2 states never made a real commitment to share student data, despite Gates Foundation claims.) 

11/2/11: Mary Ann VanBlarcom of NYSED writes to Gates officials that they need to know if their travel expenses to yet another meeting in DC will be picked up by the Foundation, as “staff travel in NYS is working under very stringent travel restrictions.”  Seven NYSED staffers are planning to attend, with expenses that need to be covered : Kate Gerson and Julia Rafal, Regents fellows, Ann Murphy, Associate Commissioner, Allison Armour-Garb of the Office of Teaching, Elean Bruon, Project Coordinator for Educator Effectiveness, and two “District Based Practitioners”: Michael Schmidt from Syracuse and Shaun Nelms from Rochester.  Christina Esquivel of Gates responds promptly that “The Foundation will cover the cost of travel for all participants.” 

Gene Wilhoit of CCSSO
As of this date, Gene Wilhoit, head of the Council of Chief State School Officers, seems to be also influential in terms of carrying out this project, and is in regular communications with the state education chiefs who are participating, including King.  He informs them that yet another meeting is scheduled in Phoenix, and again, outlines the need to develop “revenue sources” to cover the costs of the data project.  He also alerts them to “a governance advisory group” that would consist of him, representatives from the Carnegie Corporation and Gates Foundation, as well as “key subject matter experts.”

12/8/2011: Wireless writes NYSED that they may be in the process of preparing one or more bid documents “that may bear some relationship to the contract for the Electronic Data Portal” that the Comptroller has rejected.  Wireless warns them against from sharing certain details related to assessment and cut scores that were part of their previous contract.

12/31/11: According to its IRS 990 form, the Gates Foundation has already spent an astounding $76.5 million on the project during the 2011, described as “a direct equity program related to build, related investment to build, manage, and promote the Shared Learning Infrastructure (SLI).”  They would eventually spend over $100 million on this effort before inBloom collapsed. 

Now check out Part III which reveals how NYSED and Gates officials react to questions about their plans  in 2012, and Part IV that recounts the launch of inBloom in 2013, soon followed by increasing controversy in the media and parent protests, leading to its collapse.

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