New York

State’s inBloom data-sharing plan under City Council scrutiny

An embattled data-sharing project that state education officials have repeatedly endorsed is on the hot seat today by local lawmakers.

City Council members on the Education Committee want to know more about the plan and how student data will be shared with third-party vendors. Specifically, the committee is reviewing a legislative proposal that would regulate the way that districts can share certain information about students. 

It comes as the state is poised to usher in a new era of how student data is used to inform decisions about classroom instruction. As part of its participation in Race to the Top, the New York State Education Department is using a $100 million database called inBloom that was developed and funded in part by the Gate Foundation. The database was designed to eliminate the data management barriers that face under-resourced districts and schools. 

But there are concerns about how that data will be shared, specifically when it comes to some of the education technology vendors that could contract with districts. Five states that were originally signed onto the project have withdrawn from it.

It briefly became an issue in the mayoral election, and Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio has said he backs efforts to prohibit data sharing without parental consent. 

State education officials vehemently object to the legislative efforts, which would either require parents to opt into the data-sharing or require schools to give parents the change to opt out. They have argued it would disrupt the way schools work with third-party vendors in many other ways, including transportation, school lunch and attendance. 

Comptroller John Liu, a former mayoral candidate, is among the opponents testifying today in opposition of the inBloom database. His testimony is below: 

Thank you Chairman Jackson and members of the Education Committee for holding this important hearing on protecting the privacy of New York City public school students. I submit this testimony in strong support of proposed New York State Legislation, A.6059-A/S.5932, and in strong support of City Council Resolution No. 1768-2013.  

A growing number of New Yorkers are deeply concerned about the New York State Education Department’s (NYSED) and the City Department of Education’s (DOE) decision to release personally identifiable student and teacher data without parental consent to inBloom Inc., a corporation funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I share these concerns as both a New York City public school parent and as comptroller.

The initial service agreement between inBloom and the NYSED involved no fee for service or any costs at all and therefore bypasses State and City Comptroller review and registration—though now we have been told that starting in 2015, the State and/or the City will have to pay a per student fee for inBloom’s services. The troubling lack of transparency with regard to what seems to be unprecedented disclosure of personally identifiable information raises grave concerns about the risks, safeguards, liability, and the long-term financial planning associated with this agreement.

Last May, I submitted a letter to NYSED Commissioner King and the Board of Regents urging them to withdraw New York State from this project, but the State is moving ahead with its plan. As of one of nine states to participate in the inBloom project, New York State students are guinea pigs for an operation that is driven as much by profit potential as it is for any educational benefit. Louisiana, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, and Delaware have all since withdrawn from the project due to privacy concerns, and there are strong indications that others will follow suit. Just last week, Jefferson County in Colorado, that state’s one pilot district, agreed to allow parents the right to opt-out of having their children’s data shared with inBloom.

While it appears that the NYSED and inBloom have satisfied the bare minimum legal standard of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), I am deeply disappointed that the NYSED has not chosen to adhere to a higher standard of protection for the personally identifiable information of the people it is meant to serve. By inBloom’s own admission, it “cannot guarantee the security of the information stored in inBloom or that the information will not be intercepted when it is being transmitted.” Additionally, save for an immaterial $1,000,000 to $5,000,000 that inBloom will set aside, the State and City have accepted near total liability. In the agreement, inBloom and its third-party partners (whoever they may be) reject just about any liability.

Despite the fact that the goal of this project is for inBloom to create a “data store” where third-party providers will use student data to develop products, NYSED and inBloom officials have stated that there is no necessity for parental consent.  In fact, the state has already uploaded or is in the process of uploading personal data from all the public school students in the state, even though hundreds of parents have asked to opt out. 

NYSED is also requiring that nearly every school district, including NYC, sign up with one of three companies that will produce “data dashboards” that will be populated with personal data from the inBloom cloud. A few districts that refused Race to the Top funds are exempted from signing contracts with these companies, but their student data is being shared with inBloom anyway. Why must districts that do not want to participate still be required to upload the data? Moreover, starting in 2015, districts will have to pay fees for the use of these dashboards, in addition to the fees charged by inBloom. NYSED is also encouraging districts to share even more personal student information and sign up for even more software tools from vendors who will be provided with this data, through the inBloom cloud, all without parental consent.

Indeed, NYSED has told districts that there is no necessity to allow opt-out or seek consent before student data is shared with any vendor, but they have not absolutely barred districts from doing so. Sadly, the City DOE has chosen not to allow either parental opt-out or consent. All this is being done despite the fact that, the “educational benefits” of these dashboards and the other software tools that inBloom is supposed to facilitate are entirely theoretical. We’ve seen this before. In 2007, the DOE announced that the data-management portal ARIS would “revolutionize” the school system, but a 2012 audit by my office demonstrated that the system is rarely if ever used and appears on the brink of becoming obsolete.

As for inBloom, even with the potential of “educational benefits,” the “data store” would have a more immediate, commercial benefit for third-party, for-profit providers. Others concerned with this plan have adroitly pointed out that in light of the heavily commercial elements of the agreement, inBloom and the NYSED have failed to conform to child protection standards for Personally Identifiable Information set forth by the Federal Trade Commission. This is worthy of a deeper look. All of this is to say that the NYSED’s legal argument could put the State and City in risk of serious liability.

Also disconcerting is the fact that the service agreement clearly states that inBloom “cannot guarantee the security of the information stored in inBloom or that the information will not be intercepted when it is being transmitted.” The agreement further states that inBloom will take all “reasonable and appropriate measures” to protect the data. This is hardly reassuring language,especially when breaches of security and loss of privacy happen with increasing regularity even in the most secure domains.

Currently, inBloom is a lean operation and has sub-contracted with Wireless Generation (now Amplify) to help with the management and protection of the data. Wireless Generation/Amplify will or currently has access to student and teacher personally identifiable information without having to obtain informed consent. Wireless Generation/Amplify’s parent company, News Corporation, is in the midst of several high-profile criminal trials in the UK for egregious privacy violations and seems likely to undergo a full-scale US Senate investigation once those trials are finished. This raises further questions about the integrity of the inBloom agreement.

Additionally, settlements and liability claims for data breach are on the rise. A recent report about data security threats in the health sector finds that settlements have the potential to reach $7 billion annually. Many data breaches are not typically malicious or criminal in nature and are often accidental—lost computers, employee error, etc. The simple reality is that technologies that promise greater productivity and convenience especially through the use of file-sharing applications and cloud-based services are extremely difficult to secure. As you know, these are the exact services that inBloom and its third-party party affiliates are promising to New York.

Another concern has to do with the long-term financial plan for inBloom. As stated, inBloom intends to be financially independent from the Gates Foundation by 2016. Right now, it seems the Gates imprimatur is the glue that holds this agreement together, but what happens when Gates is no longer involved? How does inBloom guarantee that it will be sustainable and financially solvent—especially as most of the states that originally planned to participate have now pulled out of any data-sharing agreement?

People ought to have confidence in the State’s and City’s ability to effectively safeguard personal information, yet there is a troubling lack of transparency in what seems to be an unprecedented disclosure of personally identifiable information. I would like to reiterate what I asked the NYSED and the Regents to do last May:

1.      Hold public hearings throughout the State to explain why this agreement should be pursued, answer questions, obtain informed comment, and gauge public reaction;

2.      Notify all parents of the data disclosure and provide them with a right to consent;

3.      Define what rights families or individuals will have to obtain relief if harmed by breach, improper use, or release of their private information, including how claims can be made;

4.      Ensure that the privacy interests of public school children and their families are put above the commercial interests of inBloom, Wireless Generation, and all other third-party affiliates.

I would like to add to this list my support for the legislation being considered by the State, A.6059-A/S.5932, that would block re-disclosures with any third-parties, without parental consent, and would require vendors to indemnify the City and State for any breaches of data. Finally, in today’s technological age, people regularly broadcast personal information on social networking sites and provide information to internet vendors, but they do so willingly. No one wants to learn that their personal information, and especially their child’s, has been handed over to an anonymous marketplace without their prior knowledge or consent.

Thank you.


Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.