data dump

More lawmakers call for SED to halt data-sharing plans

The State Education Department is facing increased pressure to curb its student data-sharing plans.

Last week, Republican Senator John Flanagan introduced a bill to address looming concerns around the plan’s data privacy and security. He also called for the state to halt the initiative, which is scheduled to begin next month, for at least a year.

Now, a group of Democratic lawmakers, including Speaker Sheldon Silver and  Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan, are raising their own red flags. Like Flanagan, they want the state to halt the plan, but they are also suggesting that they might not ever want to see it start up again.

The controversy is over an initiative funded in part by federal Race to the Top grants designed to help districts use information about an individual student’s personal and academic history to create more individualized lesson plans and inform a teacher’s instruction. Some data elements being collected include test scores, report card grades, information about special needs, attendance records and disciplinary records.

To help districts with the initiative, the state has partnered with an outside technology vendor called inBloom. The vendor’s database can be used by districts, especially small ones without a capacity to collect longitudinal data on their own, to contract with technology companies to help digitize learning.

But the plan has sparked concern from parents, district officials and lawmakers who have expressed doubt that data will be kept secure as it is passed back and forth between inBloom, districts and other third-party vendors. They have also raised questions about contracting with private vendors, some of which could be for-profit, to make data-driven decisions about teaching and learning.

“We do not believe the State EducationDepartment should share this information with InBloom, especially not at this time,” read a letter that Nolan and 49 other Assembly members have signed and sent to Commissioner John King.

New York State is the last state that is working with inBloom on the data initiative. Eight other states that were involved in the project have pulled out due to similar concerns.

Silver endorsed the letter, but isn’t among its signees. In a press release, Silver said it was the legislature’s job to protect “personally identifiable information from falling into the wrong hands.”

Until we are confident that this information can remain protected, the plan to share student data with InBloom must be put on hold,” he said in an emailed statement.

Paige Kowalski, director of state policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign, a lobbying group that supports the data-sharing initiative, said she feared the push back in New York would feed a false narrative that using any data in schools was wrong.

“I don’t think anybody wants to move back to a time when we didn’t have credit cards or the internet,” Kowalski said.

The Data Quality Campaign has received funding from the Gates Foundation, which also funded the inBloom project.

Advocates who have fought the data plan praised the Assembly members and called for the state education department to comply with their concerns.  

“I hope the Commissioner and the Regents listen to the Speaker and our other elected officials, and pull out of inBloom immediately, as they have so far refused to do,” said Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson.  

The State Education Department did not respond to requests for comment.


defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.