Technological Advances and Privacy Concerns Clash
With the shift to computerized testing, tablets in the classroom and digitized personal records, schools are collecting more data than ever on how children are doing.
Now, some educators believe, it’s time to put that data to use.
Every answer on a quiz can be analyzed to give teachers a precise picture of what their students have learned. A pattern of wrong answers is no longer just a bad grade; teachers can get clues to why students picked the wrong answer. Publishers can analyze which chapters in their textbooks are working, and which might need revising.
Steven Ross, a professor at the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, says using data to help tailor education to individuals will drive learning in the future. “Most of us in research and education policy think that for today’s and tomorrow’s generation of kids, it’s probably the only way,” he says.
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to using data in schools isn’t technological, though. Rather, it’s the fear that doing so will invade the privacy of students. Parents worry, for example, that details of a child’s early struggles with reading could hurt them with future employers—or with schoolyard bullies.
“It’s really invasive,” says Lisa Shaw, a parent in the New York City public school system. “There’s no amount of monetary funds that could replace personal information that could be used to hurt or harm children in the future.”
Over the past decade, schools have started using cloud storage or begun sending more data to state education departments for collection and analysis. The amount of data collected is expected to swell as more schools use apps and tablets that can collect information down to individual keystrokes, or even how long a student holds a mouse pointer above a certain answer.
Innovative education projects include Teach to One, a program run by New York City-based New Classrooms Innovation Partners. The company works with schools in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C., to track whether students have mastered math concepts. Through its software, students are given personalized quizzes and lessons that target their weaknesses. Students take classes in a few different settings—in a classroom with a live teacher, with a one-on-one tutor online or even through computer lessons—and the software aims to figure out which setting works best for them.
On a larger scale, Renaissance Learning, a testing and student-data company that recently was sold to a private-equity firm for $1.1 billion, has data on 10.7 million students across the country, who regularly take quizzes through the company’s portal. Chief Executive Jack Lynch says he believes soon it will be possible for the country to drill down to find out which states or districts are doing best at setting up their curricula or teaching fractions.
Some firms want to track students through their entire academic careers. ACT Inc., the company behind the ACT test, the competitor to the SAT exam, in April will launch a system to track students from third through 10th grades in English, math and science. ACT says the series of tests will help make sure students are ready to go to college and work. Another ACT product could help steer students toward careers that fit their skills.
Among their efforts to stave off privacy concerns, education-data companies are hiring chief privacy officers, testifying before state legislatures and reshaping their messages to emphasize their data security. State lawmakers are considering passing bills to rein in access to student data or allow parents to opt out of data collection.
Protests about data privacy have partly derailed one ambitious project, inBloom, a nonprofit with $100 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the nonprofit Carnegie Corporation of New York. InBloom wants to link education-tech companies with school districts—serving as a type of middleman for student data. Its system gives schools the option of uploading hundreds of characteristics about students, including disabilities such as autism or vision problems. Five states initially said they would work with inBloom. That number is down to three: New York, Illinois and Massachusetts.
In November, inBloom hired Virginia Bartlett as chief privacy officer. Ms. Bartlett says she sees a big gap in what parents and school district officials believe about student data and what is actually happening.
“There’s a lot of fear,” she says. InBloom officials, for example, don’t have access to the student data, and there isn’t a national database being created, she says. The data is stored through Amazon Web Services in what she describes as a safe-deposit box. Even if there was a leak of data, she says, it would be nearly impossible to use.
Mr. Lynch is also emphatic about security. He describes Renaissance Learning’s data as “hermetically sealed.” He says he understands parents’ concerns. Still, at a recent conference on the topic, he said: “It can’t mean rolling back the availability of technology. We know that’s a historical impossibility.”
Kathleen Styles, the U.S. Department of Education’s first chief privacy officer, says the biggest issue she has seen is schools don’t have rules or policies on how much data to collect, how long to keep it and who has access to it.
“The only way to make data totally safe is to not ever use it or keep it,” she says. “That’s just not an option.”
Ms. Fleisher is a Wall Street Journal reporter in London.