Category Archives: dystopian

Something messed up is happening somewhere, large our small, roughly pointing us toward one or more dystopian futures. Read this if you are in the mood to fix something you cannot accept.

Parents, who’s got your kids’ student data?

Schools collect a whole lot of information about their students: demographics, grades, test scores, special education status, discipline information, medical information, and lots, lots more.

What’s their privacy policy?

Ask.

Seriously. Because they’re not going to tell you, unless you ask, that they can and do disclose personally identifiable information to the private sector.

I covered the “can” in another post, What are our students’ privacy rights, really? The short version is that recent changes to the federal privacy law (FERPA) allow schools to disclose personally identifiable information to “school officials” without parental consent, with “school officials” being defined to include people in the private sector.

Here is the “and yes, they do” bit. And yes, they do, without even telling you. If you are a parent with a child at any of these schools, your child’s data has been released to the Community Center for Education Results. It’s for a research study aimed at increasing the number of kids ready for college in South Seattle and districts farther south in King County. 

Schools whose data was released:

  • Aki Kurose Middle School
    Arbor Heights Elementary School
    Beacon Hill International School
    Brighton Elementary School
    Cleveland High School
    Concord Elementary School
    Dearborn Park Elementary School
    Denny Middle School
    Dunlap Elementary School
    Emerson Elementary School
    Franklin High School
    Garfield High School
    Gatewood Elementary School
    Gatzert Elementary School
    Graham Hill Elementary School
    Hawthorne Elementary School
    Highland Park Elementary School
    John Muir Elementary School
    Kimball Elementary School
    Leschi Elementary School
    Madrona
    Maple Elementary School
    Mercer Middle School
    Orca @ Whitworth
    Rainier Beach High School
    Roxhill Elementary School
    Sanislo Elementary School
    Sealth High School
    Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center
    South Lake High School
    South Shore K-8 School
    Thurgood Marshall Elementary
    Van Asselt Elementary School
    Washington Middle School
    West Seattle Elementary School
    Wing Luke Elementary School

And here is a link to the authorization form signed by a previous interim superintendent, Susan Enfield, in October of 2011. It authorizes the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to release data from the 2009-2010 school year through the 2011-12 school year such as:

  • student and staff schedules
  • student enrollment and demographic information, including special programs information
  • state test data
  • student grades

If it had been available, student discipline data would also have been included.

Was it a good thing to release this data? Do the benefits of the research outweigh the privacy concerns? Was there a need to release personally identifiable data (as opposed to de-identified data)? Were enough safety precautions taken with the data? 

I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know.

But I do think that parents should have had the opportunity to decide whether or not this was an appropriate release of information. However, they weren’t even notified. Nor are they being notified about the follow-up data release authorized by current superintendent Jose Banda in Sept 2012. It permits release of data through the 2019-20 school year.

Nor are they being notified that Seattle Public Schools is telling third-party organizations that they can get access to private student data. In this Power Point presentation, the district explains that they will share data as allowed by FERPA to “school officials” including “third parties to whom the school or district has outsourced institutional services or functions.”

What about the security of data, when it’s shared? The SPS Best Practices are woefully inadequate. For example: “Never send your student level data through email without it being password protected.” Sorry, but password protection just doesn’t cut it.

Have there been other releases of information?

I don’t know the answer to that, and this worries me.

What are our students’ privacy rights, really?

As a parent, I want to know that my children’s information is kept private. I tell them not to put their birthdates on any Web pages that ask for them, I keep their names out of this blog, and I have filled out FERPA opt-out forms to prohibit disclosure of student information.

But there are some things I can’t control, and information given away by my child’s school to the private sector is one of them. That’s because of recent changes to the federal privacy law (FERPA). These changes were made right around the time that it became possible to build massive databases of student data — databases that can be shared across states and over the life of my child, from cradle to grave. Let’s take a quick look at the law, to see where the weaknesses are.

A summary of the FERPA law is available here. It tells when schools need permission to disclose information, and when they don’t.

  • Generally, schools must have written permission from the parent or eligible student in order to release any information from a student’s education record. However, FERPA allows schools to disclose those records, without consent, to the following parties or under the following conditions (34 CFR § 99.31):

    • School officials with legitimate educational interest;
    • Other schools to which a student is transferring;
    • Specified officials for audit or evaluation purposes;
    • Appropriate parties in connection with financial aid to a student;
    • Organizations conducting certain studies for or on behalf of the school;
    • Accrediting organizations;
    • To comply with a judicial order or lawfully issued subpoena;
    • Appropriate officials in cases of health and safety emergencies; and
    • State and local authorities, within a juvenile justice system, pursuant to specific State law.

Schools may disclose, without consent, “directory” information such as a student’s name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance. However, schools must tell parents and eligible students about directory information and allow parents and eligible students a reasonable amount of time to request that the school not disclose directory information about them. Schools must notify parents and eligible students annually of their rights under FERPA. The actual means of notification (special letter, inclusion in a PTA bulletin, student handbook, or newspaper article) is left to the discretion of each school.

Note that organizations conducting studies on behalf of the school can get access to this data, and it’s nonconsensual — meaning that parents can’t opt out.

There’s also a little something in there that’s extremely misleading. School officials can get access. That’s reasonable, right? But wait — how are “school officials” defined?

For that, we have to check out the actual text of the law (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99). Under paragraph 99.31, it says, “A contractor, consultant, volunteer, or other party to whom an agency or institution has outsourced institutional services or functions may be considered a school official under this paragraph provided that the outside party—”

(It goes on to list the specific conditions that have to be met.)

That’s awfully misleading.

There are also conditions under which this information can be redisclosed by “school officials” to other parties. That gets tricky and complicated.

Paragraph 99.33(a)(1) says:

An educational agency or institution may disclose personally identifiable information from an education record only on the condition that the party to whom the information is disclosed will not disclose the information to any other party without the prior consent of the parent or eligible student.

That makes it safe, right?

Oops, no. Paragraph 99.33(b)(1) says:

Paragraph (a) of this section does not prevent an educational agency or institution from disclosing personally identifiable information with the understanding that the party receiving the information may make further disclosures of the information on behalf of the educational agency or institution if—

To make a long story short, there are times where a school can disclose personally identifiable information, such as social security numbers, to third parties in the private sector, and then those third parties can then disclose this information to somebody else. And this can be done without parental consent.

Even worse: if you dig into some other privacy laws, such as those protecting medical information and those protecting students with disabilities, you’ll find that they all point back to the FERPA law. This means that information can be shared to third parties as well.

Now we know this can be done. But is it?

The long answer is a subject for another post. But the short answer is “yes.” There have been different releases for different regions of the U.S. In the Puget Sound region (Washington State), this data has been released to a nonprofit called the Community Center for Education Results for all students attending in public schools residing in these areas:

Image

If you live in any of the affected areas and want to know more, post a comment and I’ll get back to you.

Are nonprofits our frenemies?

In yesterday’s post, Mysterious timing for Chicago school closures, I talked about how the Teach for America Board of Directors sat down at a planning table and projected that they would be staffing 50 new charter schools in Chicago . . . several months before 50 public school closures were announced. The question is, did they help cause the closures?

I say yes, absolutely. Privatization of public schools is in their mission statement. Their board of directors is responsible for planning and strategy. They benefit financially from the conversion of public schools to charter schools, because they staff charter schools far more often than they staff public schools. And they have the means to influence public policy, through financial and personal ties between TFA, charter school organizations, and public officials. These ties are well documented here, here, here, and here.

However, “TFA is evil” is not the lesson we need to take away from all this. The lesson to take away is that 501c3 nonprofits make good frenemies. They can have a beautiful awe-inspiring mission statement. They can have lovely documentaries on PBS and Univision. And they can still be acting against you.

Why?

It’s because of what 501c3 nonprofits are. They’re organizations that claim to have a social benefit, and maybe they do or maybe they don’t. They’re tax-exempt because of that supposed benefit. Donations made to them are tax-deductible, making them a playground for the ultra-rich with their charitable foundations. And they live or die by their funders. That means their funders have to like the work they do in some way, shape, or fashion. The board of directors is responsible for making sure that a nonprofit follows its mission statement, and even more importantly, pleases the funders.

Maybe it pleases the funders and has a social benefit too. Yay. Except not exactly. Unlike the public sector, which is accountable to the public, the nonprofit sector has no accountability to the public or to the people it is “helping.” What’s lost here is the power of self-determination.

So to know what a nonprofit is really doing, you need to look at the funders and the board of directors. This is easy to do. Google “Teach for America donors” and “Teach for America board of directors” and there you have it. You can learn some interesting things that way. Well, here’s what I learned, starting from the Lines of Influence diagram made by Dora Taylor and Sue Peters, and going from there. I’ll start with a diagram and then explain a few of the highlights.

Image

The first thing to notice is that TFA’s big funders include the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation (owners of WalMart). Those three philanthropies hold enormous amounts of money — tax-free. They get the tax exemption because of their supposed social benefit. And they get to advance their aims, which in this case involves the privatization of public schools and teachers.

The second thing to notice is that these three funders donate both to Teach for America and to charter schools. In practical terms, that means that they have the power to use any of the organizations to advance the aims of any of the other organizations. And they do.

The third thing to notice is that charter schools and TFA have a symbiotic relationship. Charter schools provide opportunities for the TFA teaching corps, whereas TFA provides low-cost, inexperienced teachers to charter schools. So they have a natural tendency to help each other out.

The fourth thing to notice, Paul Finnegan, was just a sideline for me. It’s the kind of thing you find out when you go peeking into boards of directors and seeing what their members do. I have to be careful not to do too much of this, but since I looked at him, I might as well explain the connections.

I have to pause here and say I have not found a smoking gun or anything earthshattering or anything like this. This is just the normal way a nonprofit does business. The members of its board of directors often come from leadership positions in the private sector, because managing a nonprofit is a whole lot like managing a for-profit. And the members of its board of directors often come from funders, because after all, what happens if you say no to a funder who wants to sit on your board of directors?

Okay, so Paul Finnegan. He is the regional chair for Chicago. So of course, he makes strategic decisions for Chicago. I imagine he must have sat in on that board of directors meeting in January where they discussed the plan for 50 new charter schools.

When you look at his name on the TFA Board of Directors web page, you see the words “co-chair, Madison Dearborn Partners”. Well, what’s that? Bless you, Google and Wikipedia, for magically providing an answer:

Madison Dearborn Partners (MDP) is a private equity firm specializing in leveraged buyouts of privately held or publicly traded companies, or divisions of larger companies; recapitalizations of family-owned or closely held companies; balance sheet restructurings; acquisition financings; and growth capital investments in mature companies.”

I have to admit, a lot of this is gobbeldygook to me. But you know what isn’t?

“Total assets: 14 billion”

Holy cow! This guy is the co-CEO of a company with 14 billions of dollars worth of assets. That means he controls 14 billions of dollars worth of assets, as well as all the subdivisions and acquired companies and so forth.

I’m sort of starting to understand why a person like that wouldn’t care about the closure of the 50 public schools or the impact it will have on the communities, children, and displaced teachers. He just plain lives in a different world, that’s all. I just wish he would stay there and quit messing with things he doesn’t understand.

That was the big reveal there. 14 billion dollars. But it’s worth digging a little deeper. Madison Dearborn Partners own at least two interesting things:

  • Univision, a Spanish American TV company. Free PR for whatever nonprofit he wants to support! Yay!
  • CDW. Who-what? Wikipedia to the rescue again. “CDW Corporation, headquartered in Vernon Hills, Illinois, is a provider of technology products and services for business, government and education.” That’s profiting off another kind of privatization, outsourcing, but really beyond the scope of this post.

And they donate to something interesting as well: Chicago International Charter School (CICS). Haven’t I seen that somewhere before? Oh yeah, I have.

It was in this spreadsheet of charter schools that are expected to open. Six new schools, serving 3500 students, and providing a whole lot of jobs to TFA.

That’s convenient.

To recap: a 501c3 nonprofit, whatever its social benefit, is ultimately accountable only to its funders and its board of directors. And to understand what a nonprofit is up to, you don’t have to look any farther than that. Friend or frenemy? Check them out.

Next up: How to check out a nonprofit and How to check out a nonprofit, part two

Playing computer games at school

Starting this year, there’s been an increase in the number of computer games at school. They’re called “educational software,” but that’s debatable. Honestly, I think my kids are learning more from games like Katamari and Plants vs. Zombies.

Here’s an example. Go to ABCya dot com and click on sugar_sugar.htm. It’s a “physics game.” Basically, sugar comes down from the top of the screen and you have to divert it into the right place. That does sound fun and interesting, but marginally educational. I didn’t appreciate my kids coming home from school and wanting to play it. I don’t appreciate having their valuable school time being used playing games, especially when the time they spend in “technology” class is time they used to spend in gym – which is now two days a week.

Here’s something that’s educational, but the ratio of wasted time vs. learning time is too high. STMath dot com. Our school district spent money on it. It’s an “intervention” for struggling students. It teaches math using visual concepts and lets kids progress to the next level when they have “mastered the concept” as measured by their success at correctly answering ten questions with one or fewer mistakes. So, for instance, you know carrying in addition? (That’s now called regrouping, by the way.) It used to be so simple. You line numbers up in neat little columns and follow a pretty simple process that works just as well for ten-digit numbers as for two-digit ones. In this game, though, it’s all based on flower petals. Flower petals represent the ones place, flowers represent the tens place, and bundles of flowers represent the hundreds place. To do the regrouping correctly, you have to count the petals and flowers and bundles accurately and “regroup” them into one number. Now, my second grade daughter knows regrouping. But she can’t “master this concept.” Why not? Because it’s hard to count flower petals that are scattered all over a computer screen!

Meanwhile, I doubt it’s helping the struggling students. They could probably shuffle flowers around, but without direct instruction it can’t be easy to translate this into a concept that can be done with pencil and paper in neat little rows. And if you’re going to have a teacher who can do the difficult job of translating the visual concept into the numerical one, what do you even need the computer program for?

The claim on the website is that “schools which implement more than 50% of the program get fewer students at the lowest performance levels, and more at the highest performance levels. Schools below 50% proficiency to begin with have averaged 15 to 20 point gains in proficiency within two years.” Hard to say what that means. What does it mean to implement more than 50% of the program? How much time is involved? What is the scale being used for this “15 to 20 point gains”? In other words, is this real, or is this rhetoric?

Delving more deeply, I clicked on the page that discusses research done with Arizona schools. (By the way, was this research vetted by a Human Subjects Research committee?) Here’s what it says:

“The grades implementing ST Math on average grew 6.9 points in the percentage of students at level MS or above (student passing standard), as compared to an average increase of 3.6 points for the comparison group (p-value = 0.28).”
 
So okay, there was a gain as measured by the company that sells the project. Hooray. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that there was no test bias or cheating and that this gain is higher than the standard measurement error and that the company is reporting all the research studies, not just the ones that showed positive results.
That still doesn’t prove the software works, because these studies involved not only the software, but also teachers who were specifically trained in mapping these visual concepts to “connect to the conventional language-based instruction.”
 
Is it possible that the software had absolutely nothing to do with the gains, and it was the instruction instead? Having an entire school trained in one type of math instruction is rare.
How many hours were put into this software, and how much did it cost, and how much did the trainers cost?
 
With that money, how many tutors could have been hired? 
Our school districts and school administrators need to be asking these questions. But I don’t think they are. I think they’re looking at glossy charts and making decisions based on numbers that look good. And if that’s true, then it’s up to parents to monitor what kinds of software the school district buys and why. 

Online marketing to kids

Our school’s Tuesday afterschool class had an offering that was basically sewing things for a stuffed animal called a Webkinz. If you took the class, you got a stuffed animal . . . with an activation code for an online experience. In a moment of parental inattention I now regret, I said “yes.” I had absolutely no idea how aggressively an online site could market to kids. Now I know . . . and I realize that there is a whole brave new world of predatory online practices.

Of course once you get on there are a bazillion other stuffed animals you can buy and things you can sign up for, and there is a lot of advertising. That part’s pretty easy to say no to. One part that’s not going to be so easy is when a year’s up and the activation code expires . . . from what I’ve heard, you can only get a new one by purchasing another stuffed animal. But that’s still not the hard part.

The hard part is that the site has mechanisms to keep kids coming back for more . . . and more . . . all of them having to do with Kinzcash. You can use Kinzcash to buy clothes and food and furniture and toys and rooms for your Webkinz, and for a host of other things as well, like a movie studio where you can make your own animations. How do you get it? By playing games, or by doing gambling-type activities, or by logging on every single day of the week. I can’t even begin to say how many bad messages this is sending our kids.

What are we going to do? Limit its use? Quit cold turkey? Turn off the modem and pretend our Internet is broken? Let it expire? Let them use it but pair it with information about how they are being manipulated? Offer the kids a hundred dollars to quit it? Look for an online game without the gambling/cash component?

Anyhow, as parents we’ve learned our lesson. If kids want to do something online, vet it beforehand. It’s scarier out there than we thought.

Genderfail Sucker Punch!

Couple caveats: #1 I don’t know the whole story so I’m sure I left out important bits; and #2 that I don’t blame any individual people for this. It’s societal.

A sucker punch is “an unexpected blow” but to me holds the additional connotation that “you should’ve expected it, sucker!” When I think of a sucker punch, I think of Charlie Brown still trying to kick that football Lucy is holding.

Genderfail is Internet slang for some sort of failure to appropriately address issues of gender. To my mind it’s a sister term to “racefail,” which can be absolutely epic. For an example of racefail: “RaceFail ’09 is one of the names given to a large and tangled snarl of racism, misunderstanding, culture clash, poor behavior, and hurt which consumed several interconnected corners of fandom in early 2009.” (This is from http://fanlore.org/wiki/RaceFail_%2709)

So now I can explain how I’m using these terms in this blog post: a snarl of feminism, misunderstanding, culture clash, poor behavior, and hurt — that came as a surprise blow to me even though I really should have known better.

My suspicion is that any political organization comprising both men and women is going to have a genderfail at some point. I mean, how do you avoid it, really?

So anyway, there was a political organization. I joined it because although it was male-dominated, it had a core of feminists, and I thought that would be enough to bring real change. Then some things happened, and I went inactive. This part wasn’t genderfail, it was just your basic organizational dysfunction. (Note to self: if it takes an organization more than six months to make a new member packet, it’s time to run.) So I was on the listserv but mostly not paying attention.

Another woman went inactive after having a baby.

Meanwhile, the organization kept on doing what it was doing. Let me make a metaphor here. Let’s suppose that you have built a house, and some people have moved in. Then some more people have moved in, and it is determined that the house needs an add-on, which will take about three to six months. People get out of the way to accomodate the add-on. Maybe a couple people take temporary housing (that would be me) whereas others just move out and move on. Suddenly you don’t need the add-on, but you keep going. And it takes a year and a half, by which time other people have left. Meanwhile, next door, there is a high-rise condo going up. It is determined that the community who lives in the house will take part in the building of the high-rise condo, and about half the people go off and do that.

I guess I was waiting for the high-rise condo to be finished so I could move back into the house.

But meanwhile, back at the house, there was some bickering. Which wouldn’t have been so bad, except then the mansplaining set in, and then the resulting concerns were put down to interpersonal conflict, which was true enough, but not nearly as true as that there was a genderfail in the making.

The sucker punch is this: there were four women who could have stepped in to help, but instead, one bore the brunt of it alone.

Here’s the other reason it was a sucker punch: This house was a rebound relationship for me. The last house I was in had more women than men. It still had genderfail, and it still had racefail too.

And here’s why it was a sucker punch for the activist community as a whole: back then, when I related the genderfail to an activist from the 1980s, she nodded her head and said “Of course!”

We’ve come a long way, baby!

(Or not.)

Scored by Lauren McLaughlin: Some Thoughts

Note: This is an expansion of a book I reviewed on the blog post “Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012” on aqueductpress.blogspot.com.

Scored by Lauren McLaughlin
(http://www.powells.com/biblio/62-9780375867910-0)

This YA novel is the dystopia for our time. What happens when you put together No Child Left Behind high-stakes standardized testing with surveillance measures like spy-cams and GPS monitoring of cell phones, and then introduce a company whose product is a single score for every child, which colleges and corporations will then use to sort people?

That is the reality for Imani LeMonde, a high school student whose scores put her on track for a college scholarship — something that is otherwise out of reach for all but the very rich. The scores are supposed to establish a meritocracy to replace our system of inequalities, but something else is going on. Scores update minute-to-minute, and they depend not only on school performance but also day-to-day activities and peer group associations.

Imani’s troubles begin when her score drops precipitously because her friend Cady is kicked out of her house and moves in with a boy. This takes her off the college track, and if her scores drop farther, her only options will be welfare or the military. She has a choice to make — but it’s not the simple moral dilemma of whether or not to denounce Cady to regain her score, because that option is not open to her. Instead, she has to look deeply into the scoring system to understand how it works — and what matters to her.

The society pictured here is not far off the mark. Our teens and children will be subject to more surveillance than we ever imagined. Case in point: school records are kept in “longitudinal databases” where they can be tracked over long periods of time and across school district and state lines. And by school records I mean test scores, tardies, absences, ethnicity, dental records – you name it. (For a sneak peek of the hundreds of items that can be collected, visit http://nces.sifinfo.org/datamodel/eiebrowser/techview.aspx?instance=studentElementarySecondary.)

This information is being provided to the private sector without public comment or scrutiny. For example, the Seattle Public School district signed a Memorandum of Understanding with an organization called the Community Center for Education Results, indicating that the district would be sharing its database of student information with CCER. This database excludes “personally identifiable” information about the students according to the federal FERPA law, but because it is so specific, it is potentially identifiable information, particularly if you are nonwhite, use special education services, and so forth. Also, private sector organizations could easily combine this information with other databases.

(Thanks to the mirmac1 for her comment on Feb 21, 2013 on the blog saveseattleschools.blogspot.com.)

Just as one example among many, yesterday I went to the Pacific Science Center and visited an exhibit called “Professor Wellbody’s Academy of Health and Wellness.” This is a grant and foundation-funded exhibit. As part of the exhibit, children can join the “Academy” by entering information about themselves – first name, school attended, and health habits such as diet and sleep. So now there’s a database about kids per school, and a certain lack of clarity about who will get that information.

Ten years from now, could a prospective employer check the database for these types of information about my children? I bet. Could they get a score? I bet.