Sunday, October 21, 2012

Parents, do you know where your child's data is? My interesting but not reassuring afternoon with the Gates Foundation's Shared Learning Collaborative

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 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 to vendors. 
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 being misused.
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 project.  Oops!
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 issues.
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 us! 

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 leakage):

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 evaluation schemes.
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. 

If 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?


Dora said...

Great article. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

As a teacher, I am offended that the Gates Foundation thinks they are acting on my behalf. I in know why condone the behavior and data-centric shift in our educational system. I find it ironic that men who have made their billions by creating/selling electronics are trying to make us believe that their best interest is in what's in the best interest of the children, and educational system.... If this is how the Gates Foundation is 'helping' education, they can keep their money. -- They are not providing funding, they are buying the education system, and therefore controlling it/running it like a business.

Anonymous said...

edit above should read: ** I in no way condone**

Sheila said...

Frank Catalano explains SLC & answers your question about WHY SLC needs student data. See excerpt:

[Since the bucket of student data is explicitly tied to the Common Core standards, and the second bucket of content in the SLI is also tied to the same Common Core, connecting the two could create a clearer path to what needs to be learned based on what a student has shown he or she (or a group of students with similar learning patterns) does, or doesn’t, understand. As Brandt Redd, senior technology officer for education programs at the Gates Foundation, noted in a presentation at an education industry conference, SLI is part of the cycle, “How did I do? What don’t I know? How do I learn this? … That data isn’t getting back to the teachers and students.”]

Anonymous said...

I was having dinner with a high school science teacher friend. We were discussing student evaluations (tests). At one point, he gestured in exasperation toward the other diners in the restaurant and said, “any one of these people could, in the first three days in my classroom, know which kids are going to struggle and need extra help, which will need extra challenges, and which are going to do just fine. This isn’t rocket science. Now,” he said, "ask me what I can do for them.” I waited for him to continue. “No, ASK me what I can do for them!” So I did. “What can you do for them?” “Nothing.”

The time and precious dollars we waste on trying to discover why kids are failing instead of actually helping them not to - well, it’s a phenomenon of our time and it’s simply repugnant. Every employee at the BGMF should be turned into a tutor. They’d do so much more good. But, then, they wouldn’t feel half so important nor be nearly as well-paid.

And, by the way, I’m not a privacy freak - I’ve accepted personalized ads popping up everywhere I go - but the breach here is can not be tolerated. I hope you get up a good, highly-publicized lawsuit.

Good for you, Leonie, for getting and staying inside this thing. Thank you.

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