The controversy surrounding federal data collection has spilled over into education, prompting debates over student data collection. NPR reporter Cory Turner spotlighted critics and defenders of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which seeks standardized curricula across state educational systems.
Opponents charge that central planners have used the initiative to intrude on citizens' privacy by soliciting information about students' and parents' religious views, voting habits, income level, blood type, and health history. Defenders dispute that improper data is being collected or that information being gathered differs from what schools have collected for decades.
The controversy isn't likely to diminish, so it's important for parents, students and voters to know the facts and their implications.
The Common Core program is sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and promoted by the U.S. Department of Education through Race to the Top grant incentives. States participating in Common Core receive support from the federally-funded Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).
In response to charges that Common Core calls for collecting personal information, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan denied the initiative called for federal collection of student data. Duncan insisted the federal government wasn't allowed to do this and wouldn't do it. But Turner's investigation found the facts didn't neatly fit either Duncan's denial or opponents' charges.
SBAC does solicit data about students' sex, age, race, ethnicity, and lunch discount qualifications. However, the data is collected in clusters and stripped of individual information, such as names and Social Security numbers. There was no evidence that the initiative collects individual information about blood types or voting records.
Turner also quoted state educational officials who pointed out that state systems have been collecting information for decades about student attendance, grades and disabilities. However, critics such as Michigan State Representative Tom McMillin remain unpersuaded that such information is not open to abuse.For states' rights and local government advocates, one concern is that Common Core's practices bypass constitutional protections against unwarranted federal search and seizure by outsourcing data collection to states.
States participating in Common Core programs receive funding from the ED Recovery Act under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, through the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund. This empowers the DOE to award $48.6 billion to governors supporting reforms affecting all levels of schooling, from early learning through post-secondary education. These include an Early Learning Challenge program to reshape state pre-school programs.
Common Core thus empowers federal authorities both to collect student data and to determine what will be taught for all ages. To critics, governors' participation in the program could be seen as surrendering individual and states' rights to the federal government in return for funding.
Another issue is whether the data collected is really as anonymous as defenders say. Educational data services seek to provide sufficient data for teachers to work with individual students and parents to address not only learning concerns, but also disciplinary issues. If local and state school systems can collect this information, what prevents it from being passed on to federal agencies?
Another risk is data leaking through the private sector to government or business entities. One partner supporting Common Core is inBloom, a nonprofit seeded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in cooperation with the Carnegie Corporation of New York and state school officials. Together, inBloom and its educational software partner, Compass Learning, offer Common Core participants data collection tools geared toward collecting enough information to provide each student a personalized learning experience, delivered through an online gateway.
What protections are in place and what recourse does the public have if privacy leaks occur? Prevention is always the best solution and one alternative is for parents and college students to seek educational solutions that fall outside Common Core's scope. These include homeschooling, private schools, and online educational opportunities such as those available through CollegeOnline.org and similar services.
Common Core defenders stress that educational data is subject to privacy restrictions, such as those protecting medical information. Given this, the same set of issues that drive the debate over health care privacy are likely to fuel educational controversies as well. While no solution to either issue appears imminent, perhaps a positive outcome of the debate is public awareness that educational data faces the same challenges, and also needs to be addressed.