UPDATE: Please sign our petition against providing our children's confidential data to private corporations!
Yesterday, I spent several hours at the Shared
Learning Collaborative “camp” held in midtown, where the Gates Foundation people
invited teachers and developers to brainstorm new “learning
apps” to take advantage of all the confidential student data that they will be
“holding” in their “data bank”. (See our press conference, media coverage, and videos, during which we released a letter to the State Attorney General and the Regents, protesting the unprecedented agreement of NYC and NY State to provide confidential teacher and student data to this
data bank without parental consent. Four other districts and states, including Illinois, Massachusetts, and Colorado are also participating in this project, and Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky and
Louisiana have agreed to follow soon.)
The Gates Foundation identifies their role as
“facilitating” the transfer of this data to commercial developers so they can invent learning
products aligned with the Common Core; to aid in encouraging “efficiency” in “addressing the individual
learning needs of students.”
I walked in late to the morning session, and after asking
a question about the risks to student privacy, they seemed to identify me as a
person of interest. I’m not sure if they recognized my name when I signed
in, or realized this from my question, but after the session was over,
someone from their PR firm buttonholed me and asked me if I wanted
to speak privately with Sharren Bates, who is one of the leaders of this
project for Gates Foundation. I said sure.
I had asked my friend Justin Wedes to attend this “camp”
too, who is a techie and has done work for Class Size Matters. The two of us sat in a room with the PR rep
and Sharren, and we tried to explain our myriad privacy concerns, both the risk of unauthorized
data leakage but also why the transfer of confidential student information to commercial
enterprises without parental consent is not okay.
I repeatedly asked why they needed this confidential data to build their “learning tools”, and Sharren said something about “modular”
and “interoperability” which I didn’t understand. She said all this was being done to “personalize”
instruction, and I said I agreed with the goal but not the way they were doing
this. (Of course, the Gates Foundation
has opposed class size reduction, which is really the best way to
achieve personalization; instead, they seem to think that technological tools
can somehow substitute for the sustained contact between teacher and student.)
In response to our questions, Sharren told us that
Amazon.com would be housing the “data store”, and a firm called OmniTI
would be in charge of operation
of their API (Application programming interface) - managing help tickets, debugging, etc. Murdoch’s Wireless Generation has also been involved in helping to build
the structure (to the tune of $44 million!), but Sharren insisted that they would not have
access to individual student data--- that is, I suppose, unless they
contract with DOE to build some learning apps, which seems quite likely.
We went over our concerns again and again, which related
to both the risk of data leakage but also the “authorized” transfer of our
children’s confidential information to commercial enterprises, without parental
knowledge or consent. I asked what information would be available to these vendors in their “data store.”
She said that student test scores, grades, their special
education status and IEPs, as well as disciplinary records would all be included, and all of this shared with for-profit corporations, as long as the district consented. I asked about student medical and/or counseling
records, and economic data included in free lunch forms. She said that would be essentially left up
to the district, but anything that might be "helpful" for teachers to
know about their students could and should be part of the “data store” and made available
She also insisted that the district would continue to “own”
the data and that it already makes much of it available to vendors. I said that even
if this is true (which I don’t know is the case), this did not make us feel better; and that the Gates' role in facilitating the process of data sharing with multiple vendors would likely exponentially increase the chance of this data
When she asked us what process we would want them to
follow instead, Justin said the legal process now required in sharing medical
records: i.e. no information about our
kids should be shared with any third
parties without our consent. Sharren looked very blank at that
moment and seemed averse to discussing this possibility any further.
At one point after talking about their “customer” which
is the “district,” I asked her exactly what she meant by the “district” and she
said the superintendent. I said, you must mean the chancellor in NYC, because
here superintendents have completely been stripped of their powers.
I then assumed she was not familiar with DOE and the way things work
here. I tried to explain to her why her statement that they would leave it
up to the district to decide which vendors get this data did not help allay our
concerns, since parents do not trust DOE officials and do not think they act in
our children’s interests.
I described how parents feel totally disempowered and
disrespected by DOE, assuming she was not aware of these issues. I even
mentioned the $80 million boondoggle that is ARIS. However, when I got home I looked her up and
it turns out she had worked for
DOE for almost two years and had been in charge of the ARIS
She did say that soon, she will post new documents that
will describe in more detail the project’s privacy protections, and after that,
she would be willing to talk again with me and/or other parents about these
When I mentioned how this was all being done behind our
backs, she suggested that perhaps there could be an “app” that would inform parents
what data is being housed at the SLC, and which data is being shared with other
companies for what purpose. I don’t know if she was
trying to quiet me down or co-opt me, but when she asked me if I would stick
around to help develop the idea I agreed.
She then brought in one of their consultants from Alvarez
and Marsal to “work” with me. After
I explained to the consultant our concerns, it was clear he had never thought any of this
through (he is new to the project). He seemed honestly floored that the Gates
people were intent on sharing all this stuff with third parties without
parental consent. He said he used to work for a telecom company and no sharing
of confidential information was allowed without the customer’s affirmative
buy-in. But the problem in this case is they consider the “customer” DOE, not
Here is what he started drawing, under my direction, in
terms of a parent “app”:
Here is what
I later added (all the lines coming out of the boxes meaning potential data
After we had worked on this a little, the consultant told me to sit
in on a session about the Common Core for a few minutes and he would get me
together with one of their app developers to work more on this idea.
After I sat listening to a woman from SED, a man from
DOE, and yet another person from some private company, droning on about the wonders of the Common Core, I looked for the consultant from Alvarez and Marsal. When I found him, he conferred with a higher level techie
from Gates, who said they really weren’t ready to think about designing apps for parents yet,
since their top priority is to work with districts, “on behalf”
of teachers and developers, to design learning tools.
I told him they should be thinking about privacy
protections, and they needed to include parents in the entire process – which has
not yet occurred despite their PR spin. (See how parents are included on the sign to the left.)
In short, the Gates people and consultants were all very
nice, but they seemed oblivious to our concerns and why we might feel outrage about the enormous
violations of privacy involved in this project.
As Julie Cavanagh pointed out in our press release, teachers should also be very concerned.
While Sharren asserted that at this point, the system is not being used for
teacher evaluation, it could be in the future.
If districts and states decide to share this information,
they could even set up a “black list” of teachers who had received low ratings
based on unreliable value-added measures across districts and states –
especially given Gates’ intense focus on the importance of imposing test-based teacher
As Stacey Childress, the head of this
project for Gates, (who is a former board member of Wireless Generation, a business professor and entrepreneur) has written,
“With respect to what the SLC is building, teacher evaluation tools are
not a function of the core technology. The purpose of the technology is to
bring together data from many sources and instructional resources from many
providers in a way that helps teachers better address the individual learning
needs of their students. However, some states and districts may ultimately
choose to build SLC-compatible applications and tools for other purposes.”
Whether any of this is legal or not (and our attorney Norman Siegel should have a definitive statement on this soon), parents should be
demanding from the state, the city and the Gates Foundation that they have the right to opt-in, to decide for themselves whether they want their children’s confidential
data to be shared with these companies. There should also be ,an advisory board of
parents/teachers/students, to oversee the granting of access to confidential data for the applications the SLC will be "facilitating", so they can weigh the risks and potential benefits
of such disclosure.
the Gates Foundation is truly acting in our children’s interest – as they claim
– instead of merely encouraging an open marketplace where our children’s data is exploited
for profit, they should NOT hesitate in granting
us this right.
Gates Foundation folks: please correct or clarify the above account, if I have gotten anything wrong. Techies who may be reading this, can you explain in clear simple language why commercial developers need children's confidential information to design these "learning tools," unless they intend to bypass the classroom altogether to market their products directly to parents?