Sunday, September 15, 2019

Talk of out School - join us next Wed. on WBAI at 10 AM with Wendy Lecker and Senator John Liu

Next week on Wednesday Sept 18 at 10 AM, I will have two guests, "Talk out of School": attorney Wendy Lecker of the Education Law Center, who will bring us up to date on the class size lawsuit of on nine NYC parents vs the state and city of New York for their failure to lower class size.

My other guest will be  Senator John Liu, chair of the NYC Education Committee in the State Senate, who will tell us what new laws, funding levels and other developments we may expect in the coming legislative session that affect our public schools. I always find what goes on in Albany to be very mysterious - hopefully straight-talking Senator Liu, who was formerly a City Council member and NYC Comptroller, will help us undo some of that mystery.  Please listen in at 99.5 FM or at and call in at 212-209-2877.

Also, if you haven't yet, please check out our first show from last Wednesday, co-hosted with Carol Burris.  We focused on the diversity and integration proposals of the School Diversity Advisory Group, with guests Shino Tanikawa of the SDAG, and Alex Rodriguez and Tiffani Torres of Teens Take Charge.  You can livestream or download the program here.

Shino and co-host Carol Burris at the WBAI studio - check out the words on the wall we aren't allowed to say on radio.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Make your voices heard! Urge NYSED not to weaken the state privacy law by allowing companies to sell or market personal student data

Update: On Wednesday, Sept. 11, the Washington Post Answersheet reprinted this blog post with responses from the College Board and ACT.  I didn't find their statements very convincing; let me know what you think! 

The New York Board of Regents is currently considering whether to approve a radical weakening of the state student privacy law, which would allow the College Board, the ACT and other companies that contract with schools or districts to use the personal student information they collect for marketing purposes – even though the original New York law that was passed in 2014 explicitly barred the sale or commercial use of this data.

Parents and all others who care about protecting children’s privacy should send in their comments to the state now, by clicking here or sending their view to Deadline for public comment is Sept. 16. More on this below.

Starting in 2014, many states, including New York, approved legislation to strengthen the protection of student privacy, due to a growing realization on the part of parents that their children’s personal data was being shared by schools and districts with a wide variety of private companies and organizations without their knowledge or consent. The US Department of Education had weakened the federal student privacy law known as FERPA twice over the past decade, rewriting the regulations during the Bush and Obama administrations to allow for non-consensual disclosures for different purposes.

At that time, few parents were aware how federal law had been altered to allow their children’s information from being passed into private hands. Then controversy erupted over the plans of nine states and districts to share personal student data with a comprehensive databank called inBloom, developed with more than $100 million of funding from the Gates Foundation.

InBloom Inc. was designed to collect a wide variety of personal student data and share it with for-profit vendors to accelerate the development and marketing of the ed tech industry, to facilitate the adoption of online instruction and assessment. As a result of widespread parental activism and concerns, all nine states and districts that had originally intended to participate in the inBloom data-sharing plan pulled out, and 99 new state student privacy laws were passed across the country between 2014 and 2018.

New York was one of the first to pass a new student privacy law. In March of 2014, our State Legislature approved Education Laws § 2-c and §2-d , which among other things, prohibited the state from sharing student data with inBloom or another comprehensive databank, and also regulated the way schools and vendors must secure student data, including imposing a complete ban on the sale of personal student information or its use for marketing purposes .

As a result of these provisions, New York received a grade of A- in the category of “Limitations on the Commercial Use of Data” in our State Student Privacy Report Card, released last January by the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy (PCSP), which I co-chair, and the Network for Public Education. In turn, this high mark raised New York’s overall grade for protecting student privacy in our rating system to B-, the second highest grade of any state after Colorado. (You can check out the interactive map that grades every one of the fifty states on its student privacy laws, overall and in seven different categories).

Yet to the frustration of many parents and privacy advocates, it would be nearly five years before New York State Education Department drafted any regulations to implement its 2014 student privacy law. In October of 2018, NYSED finally released proposed regulations for public comment. In March 2018, PCSP along with the statewide coalition New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), submitted recommendations on how to strengthen and clarify those regulations, as did more than 240 parents and privacy advocates.

After the initial period of public comment had ended, instead of strengthening the regulations, the NYSED gutted them, and now proposed allowing student data to be used for commercial purposes as long as there was parental “consent” – a huge loophole that would create the opportunity for districts, schools and vendors to misuse this data in myriad ways.

In their rationale to the Board of Regents, posted here, NYSED officials were frank about their reasons for revising the proposed regulations in this way: to allow the College Board and ACT to offer “college search services to students and parents who consent to the release of college entrance test data to colleges and higher education institutions by college admissions testing companies.”
Yet the College Board and ACT do not just share the test score data in the ordinary ways that parents expect, that is, send these scores to whatever specific colleges that their children have applied to attend. They also sell personal student data to many unspecified organizations and institutions which then re-sell it to unscrupulous for-profit companies.

In particular, the College Board makes untold millions of dollars from marketing personal student data through their “Student Search Service”. Much of this confidential data is deceptively harvested through surveys administered to students right before they take the PSATs and SATs, or when they register for the test online, a practice that we have written about previously and more recently has been criticized by the US Department of Education.

In May of 2018, the Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) of the US Department of Education released guidance that if states and districts contract with the College Board or ACT to give these exams to students, as is increasingly the case across the country including in New York City, they may be violating federal privacy laws in several different ways.

First of all, as PTAC officials pointed out, the supposedly “voluntary” surveys given to students before taking the PSAT or SAT may include questions relating to highly sensitive issues including their religion, grade point averages and/or family income. Often, it’s not clear to these students that they have a choice not to offer this information, and since they are already feeling high levels of anxiety before taking these exams, they may feel pressured to do so. They certainly are not told that the data is sold will be sold at a profit by the College Board. In any case, some questions relating to sensitive issues cannot be asked legally of students who are under 18 without the prior notification and opt out or consent of their parents, according to the federal law known as the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA).

As the PTAC guidance document also makes clear, “the testing companies then sell [personal student] information to colleges, universities, scholarship services, and other organizations for college recruitment and scholarship solicitation.” If students are asked to take these exams by their districts, and the data is offered to third parties without explicit parental consent, this widespread practice also likely violates both FERPA and IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the latter which has special provisions to protect the private data of students with disabilities.

To make things worse, the College Board is deceptive about whether this data is actually sold. In the College Board privacy policy for the “Student Search Service,” they falsely reassure parents that “The College Board does not sell student information.

Yet on another page on their website, they hedge this claim by saying they don’t “sell information about participating students to any third party without the student’s permission.” [Never mind that many of these students have not reached the age of consent.]
On a different, third page on their website designed for potential commercial customers, the purchase price of this data is made clear: 47 cents per student name.

The College Board is just as cagey and at times contradictory about what specific student data is shared with third parties through their “Student Search Service.” On their privacy policy page, they say the data may relate to the students’ “academic and extracurricular interests, career and field of study interests, family income, and religious preferences.”

A longer and more specific list of data is listed on the Student Search webpage, revealing that, depending on the test taken, it may include student email addresses, ethnicity, GPA, sports, or “educational aspirations.” On that same page, the College Board affirms that “we never share” information through this service relating to a student’s “disability status, self-reported parental income, Social security number, phone numbers, or actual test scores.”

Parents are forced to dig even deeper into a SAT registration booklet, to discover that while their child’s “actual test scores” may not be sold to third parties, “Colleges participating in Student Search … can ask for names of students within certain score ranges[emphasis mine].”

So unknowingly, students who are asked to answer questions from a survey before the administration of these exams may at the same time be unknowingly giving their permission to sell their data to a variety of institutions and organizations, who in turn, may then redisclose the data to other organizations and/or for-profit companies.

Last summer, in July of 2018, in an explosive article entitled “For Sale: Survey Data on Millions of High School Students,” the NY Times exposed how the College Board sells the personal information they collect via these surveys to various “partners,” who in turn may re-sell the data to for-profit companies, allowing them to use the information to market their dubious products and services to unsuspecting families.

The article described how thousands of students attended a “Congress of Future Science and Technology Leaders” costing $985, run by the for-profit National Leadership Academies. The company had bought their names and other data from an unnamed university, which in turn had purchased it from the College Board: “In filling out those surveys, the teenagers ended up signing away personal details that were later sold and shared with the future scientists event.” Once the data is sold by the College Board, it is nearly impossible to monitor any other use or redisclosures of the data.

College Board is far from the only untrustworthy actor in this regard. ACT has been similarly surreptitious about what personal student data is collected and sold to colleges and other third parties, through the survey on the online ACT Student Profile Section that students are asked to voluntarily fill out when registering or before taking the exam.

Without their knowledge, ACT allegedly identified student disability status through this information on the score reports sent to colleges and sold this information to colleges and other third parties. After this practice was discovered, a class action lawsuit was filed in August 2018 in the US District Court in Los Angeles. In a recent legal filing, ACT informed the court that it will no longer sell student disability status in the data collected voluntarily by students, but refused to admit to flagging its regular score reports with this information.

As Joel Reidenberg, a professor at the Fordham University School of Law, the head of the Center on Law and Information Policy told the NY Times, “The harm is that these children are being profiled, stereotyped, and their data profiles are being traded commercially for all sorts of uses — including attempts to manipulate them and their families.”

A research report co-authored by Professor Reidenberg found that there exists a thriving marketplace in student data, in which brokers offer a wide variety of sensitive student information for sale, including their ethnicity, income, religion, and interests, and that this data could “be used for a range of malicious purposes, including discrimination and identity theft.”

In 2014, after both New York and California passed laws prohibiting the selling of personal student data or their use for any commercial purposes, College Board and the ACT stepped in, realizing how these laws represented a severe threat to their thriving business in student data.

Their lobbyists persuaded legislators in several states, including Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, North Carolina, Texas and Washington D.C., to provide a special exemption from the law for their benefit – to allow parents or students over the age of thirteen to give consent to school vendors to “sell, rent, or trade” their information for the “purpose of providing the student with information about employment, educational scholarship, financial aid, or postsecondary educational opportunities.”

Now, these same companies, College Board and ACT, have apparently persuaded the NY State Department of Education to rewrite our state law by creating an expansive new loophole that would allow these practices to continue, by redefining the term “marketing” in the following way:

Where a parent or eligible student requests a service or product from a third-party contractor and provides express consent to the use or disclosure of personally identifiable information by the third-party contractor for purposes of providing the requested product or service, such use by the third-party contractor shall not be deemed a marketing or commercial purpose prohibited by this Part.”

As PCSP and NYSAPE wrote in a letter to NYSED after the new draft regulations were revealed,

“To create a new, huge loophole in the law that would allow the College Board, ACT or any other contractor or subcontractor to sell student data and/or use it for marketing purposes, by making the untenable claim that such sale or marketing purpose is not truly marketing if there is consent, is a drastic weakening of the law which should NOT be contemplated….

If the College Board lobbyists or its supporters would like to eliminate the prohibition of the sale or marketing of student personal data in the law, they should go to the Legislature and ask that it be amended. This should not be done through regulations or by attempting to redefine the meaning of the term “marketing.”

In fact this loophole could benefit many other vendors, and even perhaps schools or districts that may want to profit off the use of student data, by asking for parental or student consent in surreptitious ways, for example requesting that they click on a button to signal their “consent” without carefully reading the privacy policy. Even if students or their parents knowingly consented to the initial marketing use or sale of the data, once the transfer of information has occurred, it is nearly impossible to track how it will be commercialized from that time on.

This wholesale rewriting and evisceration of the New York student privacy law should not be allowed. The deadline on public comment on the new regulations is September 16, and the Board of Regents are due to vote on the new regulations during their monthly meeting on October 8-9. Parents and all others who care about protecting children’s privacy should send in their comments now, by clicking here or sending their view to

They should also call their Regents members, to urge them to reject these regulations which would violate the original intent of the law, and would open a Pandora’s box of an unfettered marketplace of personal student data, with potentially damaging results.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

What both supporters and critics of the proposal to eliminated gifted programs are missing

There's been a tremendous amount of rhetoric from both sides and from the media about the recommendations in the second report from the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG), focusing primarily on its proposal to eliminate gifted programs in elementary schools.

See for example the hyperbolic headline of NY Times article saying these changes would create "seismic changes" and a tweet from the reporter, Eliza Shapiro, that it would "blow up the system." A headline in the NY Post claims, even more hysterically, that "De Blasio is out to destroy public schools."

The reality is that only about four percent of NYC public elementary grade children are attending gifted classes right now, and in many districts there are practically none.

See the chart below - showing there are only two districts, District 2 and 26, in which the share of elementary grade students in gifted classes are above ten percent.  (We took out the citywide gifted programs for this district analysis -of which there are five: NEST, Anderson, TAG, BK School of Inquiry and Q300, the 30th Ave. School.)

It is true that the parents of these kids are an extremely vocal constituency - with political influence far beyond their numbers.  Yet to eliminate these classes would hardly represent a seismic change by any rational estimate -- for good or for ill.

This is not to reject the compelling points made by the adherents to eliminating these programs.  There is  no research to support the validity or accuracy of using high-stakes tests to assess kids as young as four years old for "giftedness," as in the current system;  and some parents do indeed enroll their children in expensive test prep programs to game the exam.

It is also true that many studies show that separating out students by ability -- "tracking them" - does little to improve overall achievement, even for the highest scoring kids; and instead tends to depress learning among those struggling the most.

Yet reaching students with a wide range of abilities can also be exceedingly difficult for teachers, especially given the large class sizes in most NYC public schools.  As Shino Tanikawa, a member of the SDAG and I pointed out in a Daily News oped, if you are going to integrate classrooms, lowering class size is even more critical.  Indeed, increasing diversity and class size reduction should go hand in hand. 

When the government in Finland wanted to stop tracking in the elementary grades, the national teacher union came back to them and said, we will consent but only if you lower class size at the same time.  The same process then occurred in the middle and upper grades.  As a result, Finnish students have uniformly small classes across the country, do not separate out students by ability or achievement, and surpass most every other country in international comparisons.

Similar results could be accomplished in our public schools if NYC decision-makers, including the Mayor and Chancellor, wanted to do right by our children.  Reducing class size would likely have a far greater effect on narrowing the achievement gap -- that is, if they wanted to enhance diversity, keep middle class parents in the system, and provide real equity to disadvantaged students at the same time.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

de Blasio continues to favor the privatizers by not requiring parent consent before giving charters access to DOE mailing lists

NeQuan McLean at April 15 protest vs charter mailings; credit: NY Daily News
Update:  NYC parents can opt out of the charter school mailings by entering their information online here To do so, you have to know your child's student ID number (OSIS number) which you can get from your school secretary or parent coordinator.

After vehement parent protests and a FERPA privacy complaint submitted to the US Department of Education, the DOE announced they will allow parents to opt out of charter mailings in the future, as the Daily News reported today.  This is NOT good enough, either from a policy or privacy standpoint.
Best practice to ensure student privacy would require parental consent, as the US Department of Education notes -  especially as many parents will not notice the opt out forms in backpack mail or their children may forget to share it with them.  
Best practice from the standpoint of good policy would be for the DOE not to allow charter schools to buy access to this information at all – which only helps them market their schools and expand their enrollment.
NYC is the ONLY district in the entire country that voluntarily helps charter schools expand in this  manner; even ostensibly pro-charter districts like Chicago don’t make this information available to charter schools. 
 At the recent NEA forum for presidential candidates, Mayor de Blasio aggressively postured about how he opposed charter schools:
“I’m going to be blunt with you, I am angry about the state of public education in America…“I am angry about the privatizers. I am sick and tired of these efforts to privatize a precious thing we need — public education. I know we’re not supposed to be saying ‘hate’ — our teachers taught us not to — I hate the privatizers and I want to stop them,” he said.

Charter schools already drain more than $2.1 billion from the DOE budget as well as take up valuable space in our overcrowded public school buildings.  Too bad that the Mayor continues to favor the privatizers in his actions, if not his words.

The email about this from Hydra Mendoza, DOE Deputy Chancellor is below.
---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: Mendoza Hydra <>
Date: Tue, Aug 27, 2019, 3:22 PM
Subject: Charter mailings
Hi All,
Per my “heads up” text regarding the changes to charter mailings through Vanguard, below please find more specific information.
  • Today we are announcing that parents will be able to remove their address from the parent contact list DOE shares with Vanguard.
  • Over the past several months, we've heard concerns from families about unsolicited outreach from charter schools as well as concerns from families who want access to this information. 
  • We believe creating an avenue for families to remove their addresses meets the needs of all.
  • Families will receive a letter and removal form in their back to school packet on September 9th informing them of their ability to remove their addresses. Families will be able to return the removal form within 30 days. 
  • Additionally, families will be informed that they can go on the DOE website at any time to remove their addresses from the list.  We will have a direct link.
  • Vanguard services for charter schools will be temporarily suspended until October 25 while refusal forms are collected and files are updated accordingly.  Charter schools will still be able to buy mailing lists as other organizations and companies do.
  • The DOE will refresh the refusal list  4x per year –  October, December, February and April. 
  • This information will be provided to all principals through the PWeekly.
Please let me know if you have any further questions!  Hope everyone is well and ready for the first day of school!

Thank you,

Hydra Mendoza
Deputy Chancellor
Division of Community Empowerment, Partnerships and Communication
New York City Department of Education
52 Chambers Street| Suite 320 |NY, NY 10007 | (212) 374-2486
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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The NYC School Survey: Changes over time leading to possibly skewed results and how the survey could be improved

The following was written by the new research associate for Class Size Matters, Emily Carrazana. Take a look!

Since 2007, the NYC Department of Education has issued something called the “Learning Environment Survey,” administered to students, parents, and teachers to collect their views about each school's quality and the system as a whole. Every year between 2007 and 2014, when parents were presented with ten choices, class size came out as the top priority of 21% to 24% of parents when they were asked “Which of the following improvements would you most like your school to make (Choose ONE)?”  

In 2015, this question related to parents’ top priority was completely left out of the survey, possibly because then-Chancellor Farina seemed uninterested in listening to parents in general and especially on the need to lower class size. In fact, her peculiarly unique view was that class sizes in NYC schools were too small 

  After significant pushback from Class Size Matters and others, this question was resurrected the following year, but with a few other "tweaks". While class size was still offered as one of the choices, options relating to more or less state test preparation were removed, and “a safer school environment” option was added. The phrasing on the choice of more enrichment programs was expanded from “Stronger enrichment programs” to “Stronger enrichment programs (e.g. afterschool programs, clubs, teams)”. 

This choice now became the only one that provided any additional descriptive information, including specific examples of what might qualify as an enrichment program. Before that point, the percent of parents choosing “enrichment programs” as their top priority had significantly fallen, from 19% in 2007 to 12% in 2014.  Unsurprisingly, in 2016 for the first time, the number of parents who chose enrichment exceeded those who chose class size –with enrichment the top choices of 23% to 27% of parents from that year onward, compared to class size at 20% to 21%.

Which of the following improvements would you MOST like your school to make?

(Take note of the sharp uptick in enrichment programs in year 2016, the same year that the wording changed)

This is not to downplay the importance that schools should place on improving their students’ access to extracurricular and afterschool programs, especially to parents, many of whom work a full day; but to highlight the way in which the question seems to have been altered that might have skewed the results.

For instance, it is reasonable to assume that had the option for smaller classes been elaborated on in a similar fashion, for instance - "Smaller class sizes (e.g. more small group instruction, one-on-one feedback from teachers,  resulting in a more cohesive class culture and fewer disruptions, all of which have been proven to result from class size reduction), more parents might have chosen this option as their highest priority. Admittedly, expanding each option into a long-winded description is not optimal or efficient for a survey design, and might have led to even more slanted results. Instead, all options should be presented in a manner that does not persuade respondents to distort their own priorities. 

Another change that may have resulted in smaller class sizes being knocked down from first place citywide was the rapid expansion of the preK program starting in the 2014-2015 school year, and the inclusion of the responses of thousands more parents whose children attended preK that year and the following one.  Moreover, only in 2015 did the DOE begin to include the responses in the survey results of parents at hundreds of private preK centers operated by community based organizations. 

PreK classes  are strictly limited by state law to class sizes of 18-20 students per class, depending on whether there are one or two teachers plus an aide; so it is not surprising that preK parents would not choose class size reduction as their top priority. The survey data also includes the responses from hundreds of thousands of parents of students with special needs who are in self-contained classes and/or attend District 75 programs, whose class sizes are limited to only 8 to 15 students.  

It is therefore understandable to see why these parents might not view lowering the size of their children’s classes as important as those whose children are crammed into classes of 25, 30 students or more; conditions which are quite common in NYC public schools.  To be more informative, it would be preferable to disaggregate and report separately the priorities of parents of students in District 75 programs and especially those enrolled in preK classes.

Information on how DOE officials analyze or use these survey results, if at all, is virtually untraceable. Any follow-up conducted by school administrators seem to be done on an entirely voluntary basis. While the DOE provides a few pre-populated worksheets and  PowerPoint decks with suggestions on how the overall results can be presented to and discussed by parents, nowhere in these documents can you find any mention that their priorities as reflected by their responses to this key question should be addressed. 

This is a disappointing omission, especially for an administration that claims to base their policies on a “Framework of Great Schools” centered on mutual respect and strong family ties,  and a Chancellor who often insists he wants to focus on “parent empowerment”.

If the Chancellor really wants this survey to be more useful, the actual structure of the question might also be changed. Parents are asked to choose from a list of nine options, all of importance, and select only one that they would most like to see improved in their child's school.  Instead of asking them to do the mental backflips needed to weigh the pros and cons of a safer school environment vs. more arts programs or hands-on learning, the question might allow them to assign corresponding priority levels to each area. For instance, 5 = Highest Priority, 4 = High Priority, 3 = Priority, 2 = Somewhat of a Priority, 1 = 1 Low Priority. This would be advantageous for administrators to inform decision-making at their schools.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

High levels of lead in water still at many NYC schools; check to see if your child's school is on the list!

In all the news about peeling lead paint in schools, there has been little attention given to the fact that there were more than 500 NYC public schools and/or preK centers in which lead was found in the water above the “action” level of 15 parts per billion. 
The DOE spreadsheet showing the lead test results of water outlets in 534 schools is posted on this page.  DOE says that “One third of all schools were tested in this round, with the remainder of schools scheduled to be tested in 2019 and 2020.”  Of those 534 schools, more than 80% had at least one outlet with elevated levels of lead.  The detailed DOE spreadsheet is here

We created a new spreadsheet, adding tabs for fixtures found to have lead above the action level of 15 ppb sorted by district and by concentration (with outlets found to have the highest levels at the top).  The new spreadsheet is here.
Some of the schools with the highest levels are listed below, showing outlets with lead at 54 to 873 times the action level, with the most alarming results from a cold water faucet in the 4th floor boys bathroom in Prospect HS.  This outlet emitted water with lead at an incredible 13,100 parts per billion.  In that same school as well, a hallway fountain (or “bubbler”) on the 3rd floor was found to emit water at 3,070 parts per billion. 

But there are schools in every borough showing extremely high levels of lead. The districts with the highest counts include District 31 on Staten Island with 171 elevated outlets, District 28 in Queens with 167 outlets; and District 17 and District 22 in Brooklyn with 151 and 140 outlets respectively.  You can check the spreadsheet for your child’s school and classroom.
Remember that these outlets either did not show elevated levels of lead last time or have been remediated at least once.  Someone really ought to ask DOE officials why there are still so many outlets releasing water at such high levels if they took corrective action on all affected outlets already, and what if anything they plan to do differently at this point to ensure that their methods of testing and/or addressing the problem are more effective.
NRDC has a model state bill that would require remediation through water filtration, which as far as I know, DOE has not done.  Their model bill would also significantly lower the action to 1 part per billion.  As NRDC water expert Joan Matthews pointed out to City and State, and as research shows, “There is no safe level of lead in drinking water for kids.”  
The model bill is posted on the NRDC website here.  Illinois has ordered that parents be notified if their children’s schools report levels of lead in water about 5 ppb; and D.C. has lowered the action level for lead to 5 ppb and requires filtration systems in all schools.  Vermont has lowered the action level for remediation to 4 ppb for all schools and child care providers.
In the meantime, NYC parents should probably send their children to school every day with a bottle of water every day, and get their blood checked for lead annually.

Please add your comments below if your child's school is affected; if the DOE or your principal has informed you of this fact, and what if anything they've advised you to do.