The Dark Side of Student Data Mining



Janice Gobert’s recent op-ed in US News & World Report is another classic example of the huge disconnect between parents and the big government and corporate education-technology “Big Data” machine. Big Data seems to believe computers can teach children better than teachers or parents. It also claims entitlement to constant data from our children, including psychological data, handsomely profiting corporations and government but destroying privacy and the student-teacher interaction, all without evidence of effectiveness. This is why informed parents and teachers in droves are rejecting the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), Common Core State Standards (CCSS), high-stakes testing, and “competency based” (“individualized”) education.

Gobert, whose company develops the software she lauds (no conflict of interest there), attempts to justify both the invasive data-mining and the NGSS, which have received poor reviews from many, varied organizations. She raises the favorite bogeyman of the establishment — American students’ 21st place in international rankings of science performance, supposedly endangering US global competitiveness. Yet, she ignores contrary data and research showing no correlation between these rankings and national economic performance.

More alarming is this paragraph, containing the kind of language that sends parents running for the exits of public schools and possibly towards attorneys:

Educational data mining offers more than the traditional statistics used on typical, multiple-choice tests. These high-fidelity data are in the form of log files from mouse clicks within the digital learning environment. They also measure and monitor things like students’ saccadic eye patterns as students learn from visual and textual information sources, data from sensors tracking facial expressions and posture, and more. These data are all fine-grained, reflecting students’ learning processes, knowledge, affective states . . . . [emphasis added].

Such devices were illustrated and described in a 2013 report called Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century by the US Department of Education’s Office of Technology (USOT) (since removed from the website due to parental backlash):


Alarmed parents across the nation were ridiculed for citing this report as obvious evidence of the dangers of CCSS and its aligned competency-based education (CBE). The Data Quality Campaign, lavishly funded by Big Data, claimed that the Grit report “is not related in any way to Common Core standards or assessments or any data collection.” Yet, that very Grit report admits:

“…21st-century competencies (which encompass a range of noncognitive factors, including grit), and persistence is now part of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics” [Bold emphasis added and italics in original].

The USOT further explored the glories of affective data-mining in a different report, Expanding Evidence Approaches for Learning in a Digital World.

Despite Big Data’s sense of entitlement to and profit-driven eagerness for this “affective” data to promote so-called individualized learning, there are enormous problems with its collection and use:

  • The data is gathered without parental consent or explanation of what is collected, who sees it, or how it will be used. Justifiable furor over similar concerns, not even including affective data, brought down the for-profit Gates/Carnegie/Murdoch cloud database called inBloom.
  • The vast majority of parents send their children to school to learn academics, not to have their heads shrunk by Brave New World. They are infuriated that the allegedly academic CCSS and CBE are in fact all about psychological manipulation, as admitted by the American School Counselors Association and numerous other organizations:

    “ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors align with specific standards from the Common Core State Standards through connections at the competency level.”

  • This affective data gathered for supposedly academic purposes could also be used to inculcate controversial government-approved beliefs. One example is human-caused global warming, taught prominently in the NGSS, an attitude the Obama Justice Department is looking to enforce via criminal prosecution among scientists.
  • Prominent educational researchers such as Angela Duckworth and David Yaeger are issuing grave warnings about the subjectivity of the survey instruments and dangers of using affective data for accountability purposes, causing Duckworth to withdraw from such a California effort.

Sadly, due to CCSS and CBE, the time-tested, effective ways of educating our children are rapidly becoming unavailable in most public schools. This is likely one of the major reasons that CCSS-free private schools (such as those educating the children of Bill Gates and Barack Obama) or home schools are experiencing dramatic increases in enrollment. Proven methods of education — teaching by human beings, plus focus on handwriting, classic literature, standard algorithms, and actual content knowledge — instead of skills-training and constant invasive psychological manipulation and assessment, are what already available data shows are effective.

This, Ms. Gobert, is what parents want.

Dr. Karen Effrem is trained as a pediatrician and serves as president of Education Liberty Watch and the executive director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition.

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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