Saturday, March 23, 2024

DOE's irresponsibility in employing AI products regardless of whether they protect student privacy

A week ago, the NY Post featured an article about a new AI program call Yourai sold by a company called LINC, or The Learning Innovation Catalyst, that the DOE is piloting in some Brooklyn schools.  The product is supposed to help teachers develop their lesson plans.  On Twitter last week, I pointed out the idiocy of the DOE administrator who claimed this would help teachers "think creatively."

I went on to point out that two of the three testimonials on the website from NYC teachers appeared to be fake, as I couldn't find their names in a list of DOE employees.

Today, the NY Post followed up with another article, pointing out that there were apparently eight fake testimonials from NYC teachers on the website, and that after being asked about this, the company said their names "were anonymized for compliance purposes," and have now been taken down..

Apparently, the co-CEO of the company, Jason Green, is a close pal of the Chancellor, and he and his family vacationed with the Chancellor's family on Martha Vineyard last summer.  The article added that LINC has received $4.3 million from DOE since 2018 for "professional development and curriculum," including $2.3 million so far  this school year.

What they did not mention is that, aside from the likely shoddiness of the product and the fake hype surrounding it, there are real concerns about these sorts of products including the risk to student privacy, as I pointed out on twitter.  

AI products are  well known for gobbling up huge amounts of personal student data, and then using it to improve their products and create new ones.  Yet this is specifically prohibited by the regulations of NY State's student privacy law, Ed Law § 2-d.

These regulations clearly state that "Third-party contractors shall not sell personally identifiable information nor use or disclose it for any marketing or commercial purpose" and that "Commercial or Marketing Purpose means the sale of student data; or its use or disclosure for purposes of receiving remuneration, whether directly or indirectly; the use of student data for advertising purposes, or to develop, improve or market products or services to students [emphasis added]."

I also pointed out that any district vendor or other third party with access to personal student data by law is supposed to have a specific privacy addendum to its contract.  This addendum is supposed to be posted on the DOE website here, but none can be found for LINC or YourAi.  Sadly, DOE continues to flout the law when it  comes to protecting student data and the transparency required by Ed Law § 2-d, as we have noted in the past.

On twitter, I highlighted specific weaknesses in LINC's online privacy policy, including that they allow other companies to track user behavior, including “3rd parties that deliver content or offers” meaning marketing.

I also noted that the Privacy Policy said that the company reserved the right to change it at any time for any reason without prior notification to users by changing wording online.  This violates FERPA, because then, districts are not in control of how student data may be used or disclosed.


After noting these red flags on twitter, the co-CEO Jason Green DMed me:

We are a minority company that has been partnering with NYCPS for years. Our mission is to help teachers better support learners. I am also recently married and a dog-lover. Would you be open to learning more about us? I would love to better understand your perspective as well.

I said sure, and then asked to see his contract with DOE, to ensure that it contained the required data privacy and security protections.   I didn't hear back until yesterday, when he said he was "working with his team" to get the contract, but assured me that they don't "directly" collect or use student data.  

When I asked what "directly" means, he said they don't collect student data at all.

Then, later that day, on Friday March 22, I went back to look at the company's Privacy Policy and noticed it had been updated that very day:

Low and behold, there was a bunch of new sections added, including that the company indeed "may have access to student data" or "teacher or principal data" as defined under Ed Law § 2-d

They had revised the section that previously said the company may change the Privacy Policy without prior notice.  It now says  "We will send advance notice of any upcoming changes to our Privacy Policy via e-mail."  The section about allowing other companies to use user data for marketing purposes was taken out, but this passage that replaced it is not much more reassuring:

Also, Third Party Companies may want access to Personal Data that we collect from our customers. As a result, we may disclose your Personal Data to a Third Party Company; however, we will not disclose your Personal Data to any Third Party Company for the Third Party Company’s own direct marketing purposes. The privacy policies of these Third-Party Companies may apply to the use and disclosure of your Personal Data that we collect and disclose to such Third-Party Companies. Because we do not control the privacy practices of our Third-Party Companies, you should read and understand their privacy policies.

So what does it say in the actual, DOE contract with LINC, that  legally binds their use and protection of student data?  Sue Edelman of the NY Post FOILed the contract from the NYC Comptroller and sent it to me on Friday.

To make a long story short, the only LINC contract the Comptroller's office had was this one from 2020, which never mentions Ed Law § 2-d, though law was passed in 2014, and doesn't contain its required provisions.  

Instead, the contract glosses over the entire issue of student privacy, and says instead that it complies with Chancellor’s Regulations A-820 "governing access to and the disclosure of information contained in student records." Yet Chancellor's Regulations A-820 has not not been updated since 2009. 

In his blog today, Peter Greene has one of his excellent take downs of the whole notion of AI producing better lesson plans than actual living teachers.  He includes this   quote from Cory Doctorow:

We’re nowhere near the point where an AI can do your job, but we’re well past the point where your boss can be suckered into firing you and replacing you with a bot that fails at doing your job.

But beyond the lamentable mechanization and degradation of education that is being promoted by NYC and other districts nationwide, in the name of mindless innovation, the DOE apparent lack of interest in protecting student privacy and following the law remains appalling.  

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Talk out of School: concerns with NYC's mandated reading curriculum, plus student comments below

Check out the latest Talk out of School featuring a discussion of NYC's most widely used reading program, HMH Into Reading, with NYU researcher Flor Khan, Brooklyn parent Alina Lewis and teacher Martina Meijer.  Below is a short summary of Alina's concerns, along with some comments from fifth and 6th grade students at the Brooklyn School of Inquiry. Below that are some newsclips related to the reading curriculum as well as other news items mentioned on the show.


In May of 2023 we were informed that our school, the Brooklyn School of Inquiry, would need to replace our existing literacy curriculum with HMH’s Into Reading for grades K-5, and that our middle school would need to adopt HMH’s Into Literature for grades 6-8.

The Brooklyn School of Inquiry is founded upon progressive education principles, and has a long standing tradition of student centered, inquiry driven pedagogy. Our literacy curriculum, honed by teachers over many years, was developed with our specific students in mind and embodied the spirit of inquiry and progressive education embedded in our mission. It is this tradition of inquiry that draws parents from all over Brooklyn to our school, and the curriculum has served our community extremely well.

Students are highly engaged in meaningful learning, well prepared to succeed in rigorous high school classrooms, and 91% of our students are at or above proficient (ELA state test, 2022-2023). We have been forced to abandon our curriculum and adopt HMH, a scripted, test prep style literacy curriculum that does not include real books, only excerpts from passages.

Instead of engaging deeply with the themes embedded in rich literature such as A Raisin in the Sun, our kids now read three and a half page articles about Instagrammers. Instead of reading the Diary of Ann Frank at BSI, our students read bland two page excerpts such as “Challenges for Space Exploration,” from the HMH workbook. There is simply no way that such a curriculum will prepare our students to be the thinkers, change makers, and citizens that we want them to be.

It's unconscionable that HMH is being pushed onto students, teachers and families in the name of “literacy” when it contains no substantive literature. It's unconscionable that HMH is being billed as “research backed” with no extant, rigorous data to support its effectiveness and quality (Wexler, 2024). Below, please see some qualitative data about Into Reading and Into Literature, gleaned from students direct experiences. Please consider if this is the type of literacy education we dream of for our public school kids in New York City.

I have always loved reading. You can ask anyone in my family, and they will tell you that. And I can also tell you that this curriculum has no real reading.

-       Will, 5th grade


Overall, the Into Literature book has you repeat what it just stated, feeding you words to the answers and saps your writing of creativity and self expression. This is why I don’t think I am learning very much.

-       Penelope, 6th grade


In years past, ELA was fun! We would read real books and short stories. Now we read mostly excerpts in our HMH workbooks or online…Next year I will be in 7th grade. I was so excited to hear about Ms. Mia and some of the things that she does in her ELA classes, such as a unit where students put Christopher Columbus on trial. I am a Native American/Puerto Rican girl with Taino ancestry - what a  unique and personal experience this could be! I would be so disappointed to have this learning opportunity with my classmates taken away and replaced with excerpts and assessments from HMH.

-       Kira, 6th grade


In the fifth Harry Potter book, the Ministry of Magic installs a mundane curriculum for the students of Hogwarts in Defense against the Dark Arts. In this curriculum, you study defensive spells, think about defensive spells, and write papers on defensive spells, but you do not actually get to do defensive spells. In my opinion, this curriculum is not unlike the HMH curriculum. We are thinking about books, and we are reading excerpts, but are we are not actually reading books.

-       Isabel Carlos, 5th grade


So, to sum it all up, it's just not challenging, fun or exciting. It feels like I’m getting half of the ELA sixth grade experience. Half of a story, half of a piece of writing, only half of a curriculum. I really hope you will let my school keep teaching me and my classmates in a way that is both educational, exciting and fun.

- Carlo, 6th grade


I miss reading whole novels and discussing them in class like we did in elementary school. Now in middle school we read excerpts from the books and are asked simplistic questions about them…You can't get to the point and the idea of the book through reading just a part of it. You need to read books in their entirety and if you have a teacher to guide you and your friends to discuss the book with, it makes you want to read more.

-       Ethan, 6th grade


Sunday, February 25, 2024

Success Academy's three-card monte: their Fort Greene middle school vanishes & turns into their Sheepshead Bay elementary school, more than 7 miles away

 Note: Gary Rubinstein writes about this issue on his blog as well.

UPDATE, 3/5/24:  Yet another wrinkle to the story below.  A Brooklyn parent sent me the following info:

SA Fort Greene was the infamous "got to go" school and was an elementary school in D13, at 101 Park Avenue, co-located with a public middle school. My guess is that it was sited where it was to draw from some of the low-performing District 13 schools in the general area, as well as others in District 14. But as those neighborhoods have gentrified and local schools have drawn more parents with fundraising capability, SA has looked less appealing to elementary school parents. There are also a couple of charters in the neighborhood, Compass and Community Roots, that have drawn a diverse and more affluent base of families. I have no idea when it closed, but it's not on the SA website. The school's still listed on Inside Schools, however, and the parent comments on that site will give you an idea of the controversy.

So Success Fort Greene was originally an elementary school in D13 with a terrible reputation, that was was somehow transformed onto a middle school in D14, nearly two miles away, and now is magically turned back into an elementary school once again, and transported to Sheepshead Bay, eight miles away -- all without somehow changing its actual identity, according to the State Education Department, or SUNY, its authorizer.  What a shell game!


About a month ago, teacher and blogger Gary Rubinstein sent me an email, asking if I knew that Success Fort Greene Middle School had closed, and asking me if I knew where to access their test scores and past enrollment.  I sent him some data showing their declining enrollment, and then went on a search myself to try to find out more information about this school, but what I discovered was very confusing and contradictory.

It is true that Success Academy seems to have quietly closed their Success Academy Fort Greene MS last year, located at 700 Park Avenue in Brooklyn in D14, even though they were actively recruiting more students to the school as recently as last March, according to their Facebook page. According to their state report card as of 2022-2023, Fort Greene had a sharply declining population of 5th-8 graders.

But Success is still intent on expanding the number of its schools, despite a cap on charter schools. This year, they opened up a new elementary school in Sheepshead Bay HS complex at 3000 Avenue X,  in Brooklyn.  

Last year, a lawsuit was filed to block this charter co-location, focused primarily on the fact that the DOE's Educational Impact Statement did not even mention the new class size law, and instead its analysis that there was available space in the building for the co-location relied upon an assumption that current class sizes in the existing schools would persist forever, even though many of their classes were far above the levels mandated in the class size law.  I wrote an affidavit in support of the lawsuit. The Judge ruled that this lawsuit should have been filed as an appeal to the Commissioner instead, and now the plaintiffs, including the UFT, intend to appeal his decision to the Appellate court.

But to go back to the journey I embarked on when looking into the mysterious disappearance of Success Fort Greene school:

  • Strangely enough, the SED charter school directory still has Success Fort Greene open and located in D13, despite the fact that last year it was in D14 and is now closed anyway. See the Excel spreadsheet of the NYS Charter School Directory (As of October 17, 2023)
  •  On the DOE website,  they also  list Success Fort Greene still open, but instead of a middle school, they describe it as including grades K-1, and located at the Sheepshead Bay address in D22 at 3000 Avenue X in Brooklyn. 

  •  The DOE charter report from December 2023 similarly  lists Success Fort Greene as still open, but also located at the Sheepshead Bay address at 3000 Avenue X, Brooklyn.  The spreadsheet shows it as enrolling mostly K and 1st graders; but also one 6th grader and one 8th grader – which is very peculiar, unless this is to maintain some sort of fiction that it is still partially a middle school. 
  • Its authorizer, the SUNY Charter center, also still lists Success Fort Greene as open, but sited at two different locations: first,  at the now-closed address at 700 Park Ave., with both K-1 grades and 5th-8th grades and in D13.  This is despite that its last location was in D14, and the school enrolled no K or 1st graders as far as I know, and is now closed. 

Even more weirdly, under the same heading of Success Fort Greene, SUNY also lists it as Success Sheepshead Bay in a subheading, located at the 3000 Avenue X address - and at both locations having the same principal, Shannon Beatty. 

Clicking on the original proposal as listed at the bottom of the list above, one can see that Success Academy Fort Greene  as originally approved by SUNY was for an elementary school in either District 2,4, 13, 16 or 17 ---to open in 2013-2014.  No middle school is mentioned, and no school in either D14 where it was last year, or D22 where it is supposedly now.
Even more confusingly, I cannot find any authorization by SUNY or the Regents of a Success Academy Sheepshead Bay, after doing a search on their websites. However, in October  2023, SUNY authorized a revision to Success Fort Greene charter, to lower its enrollment at the address where it no longer existed by that point: at 700 Park Ave. Brooklyn.  

This revision says the school was originally chartered to serve both grades K and 5-8  and can now expand to a K-4 school but with a lower enrollment, to serve 126 students in K-1.  It mentions no new Success Academy at Sheepshead Bay, even though that school had already opened in September, the previous month:

Success Academy Charter School – Fort Greene is located at 700 Park Avenue, Brooklyn, New
York 11206 in CSD 14 and is chartered to serve 296 students in grades K and 5-8 for the 2023-
24 school year growing to serve 552 students in grades K-8 for the 2026-27 school year, the
final year of the current charter term. The school requests an enrollment decrease to serve
126 students in grades K-1 for the 2023-24 school year and 538 students in grades K-4 for the
2026-27 school year.

Now, if one takes a look at the Success Academy website instead, there is no longer any listing for Success Fort Greene, but it does list Success Sheepshead Bay , an elementary school with K-1 students at 3000 Avenue X  in the Sheepshead Bay complex, which is far more accurate than the other fictional listings on the DOE, NYSED and SUNY websites.  

This new elementary school, Success Academy Sheepshead Bay is also cited in their Federal replication grant application, as one of four new elementary schools that Success was planning to open  this year with 180 seats.

So on its own website, and in order to get a funding through a federal grant, Success  portrays this as a new elementary school.  But to DOE, SED, and SUNY, its authorizer, it is a but a branch of an already defunct middle school.

What is the explanation for this confusing three-card monte game? I suspect that Success is trying to maintain the fiction to New York authorities that their new Success Academy elementary school in Sheepshead Bay is the very same school as their now-defunct Middle school more than seven miles away, because they are bumping up against the charter cap and do not want to use up one of their valuable  slots– and SUNY is actively involved in helping them participate in this scam.