(Editors Note: This is the second in a two-part post on the issue of data mining plans for school children in New York State, and parents’ and educators’ concerns regarding the program’s implementation. Part I ran yesterday on Information Space.)

Data mining can be used to better understand information, identify patterns and achieve great things. Regarding student education, it has great potential for improving education, helping teachers, and creating opportunities for students.

New York State has adopted a “data driven instruction and inquiry” to provide educational assessment, analysis and action driven by data and to better support teachers in supporting student success to meet the Common Core Standards. The State is quickly moving ahead with plans to upload data on nearly all its 2.6 million students statewide to the cloud.

(Note: in the last few days, the New York State Assembly and Senate have passed legislation prohibiting the release of personally identifiable student information where parental consent is not provided. The Assembly passed the bill June 21, and the Senate approved it on June 25. The bill now sits on the governor’s desk for action.)



New York is one of the states that is working with inBloom (a non-profit created and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) even though other states have backed off doing so. inBloom is developing database and software tools for educators. It envisions making it simpler for teachers to get a more complete picture of where students need extra attention, identifying learning materials that match each student’s learning needs, and making it “easier for teachers, parents and students to be more involved and informed, track student progress and make learning more engaging for students by creating the technology ‘plumbing’ that connects the different tools and systems.”

Reuters reports that inBloom’s database will facilitate the tracking of a student’s academic career from kindergarten through high school by recording myriad data points such test scores, learning disabilities, discipline records, economic status, race and other metrics. While inBloom claims it is not building a database of students’ educational and personal information for New York State, the news and critics have interpreted those efforts as exactly that.

Reuters also reported that nearly $100 million has been invested into a database to “store extensive records on millions of public school children.

inBloom offsets criticisms, saying:

  • It is not developing a database, only the technological tools and software that will help parents and teachers navigate the data.
  • It will not allow (other than their own) third-party access to the data unless authorized by a school.

(It is interesting that it is the school educational board and not the parents determining this.)

  • It is not its policy to collect/store social security numbers.
  • That while it is impossible to guarantee 100% security of the data, it is adopting the highest security measures, beyond what is federally mandated, to protect student data.
  • On its compliance with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), inBloom adds:

“inBloom is fully compliant with FERPA. FERPA regulations expressly authorize disclosures of personally identifiable information (PII) from student education records to an educational agency’s own officials with a legitimate educational interest in the data, including contractors who perform outsourced services for the educational agency. Like any organization, school districts are not necessarily best equipped to design or implement the technology they need, so it’s important that they be able to contract with the best providers of those services, rather than building everything in-house.”

Parents, Teachers, Privacy Group Opposition

Image licensed under creative commons.

Advocacy group Stop Common Core opposes the database and data mining of student information because they view it is an overreach of government into student privacy through dubious methods:

“1) DOE [Department of Education] is weakening longstanding student privacy protections by greatly expanding the universe of individuals and entities who have access to PII and by broadening the programs whose data might be subject to this access; and

2) DOE is attempting to evade Congress by pushing through radical policy changes through regulation rather than legislation.”

Photo via digitaltrends.com

Photo via digitaltrends.com

Concerns About Oversight, Privacy

The fact that I cannot easily find information of an oversight body holding inBloom or the New York State Education Department accountable for the security of this data, nor of plans to ensure the security and privacy of student data in the short and long term, is shocking.

When you are accessing and mining people’s private data, the subjects should at least be informed, and there is a responsibility to protect that data. On research projects I have participated in where potentially private personal data was collected, the team always put security measures in place, was held accountable by an overseeing committee, and made sure participants understood and consented to the data being collected.

Other troubling issues relating to privacy that have not been sufficiently answered relate to inBloom’s:

  • Plans to ensure long-term security of the data
  • Future use of the data
  • Ownership of the data (parents or state)
  • Ethical and legal responsibility of the state to protect the data
  • How the state and inBloom are held accountable (if at all)
  • Recourse options of parents.

We also don’t know the specifics of what data inBloom can view/access, for instance:

  • Is it simply the metadata, or does inBloom have access to the actual data of students?
  • What is done with those records upon students’ graduating/leaving the education system?
  • Will the data follow students for the rest of their lives (and become part of the infrastructure of a national big brother database)?

Another extremely troubling aspect is that all this sensitive data may be stored in the cloud and parents are being forced to trust third-party cloud servers to keep the data secured and private. The cloud may provide a cheap means of storage, but it is a very new technology that is still developing.



Questions include:

  • How secure are Amazon’s cloud servers where the data is reportedly to be stored?
  • Can New York guarantee Amazon will never peek at students’ data and their servers will never have a security breach?

These are a lot of unanswered concerns! Normally I am behind the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but this entire initiative is not transparent and lacks accountability.

My Opinion as an iSchool Grad

Data mining can identify patterns and factors that both positively and negatively influence students over their academic lifetime that otherwise could not be identified. Big data analytics and technology has the potential to further personalize education as well.

Regardless, the lack of transparency regarding security measures, what data is being amassed, long-term use of the data, and disregard for the privacy concerns of parents and educators has me against this initiative. I would opt my child out of this database, but parents don’t have that option. While the potential to achieve great things for children is there, New York and inBloom have not given proper consideration to these issues.

I hope the security and privacy issues can be resolved. There is great potential to provide teachers, parents and communities with really good data to improve education. But in its current form, children’s privacy is not adequately protected, parents have no rights regarding the utilization of their children’s data, and there is no oversight committee holding New York State or inBloom accountable for protecting and being transparent with the use of the data. I find all of those things to be both outrageous and unethical.

Have an opinion on this proposed plan or data mining information of minors without permission?  Share in the comments.