The Student Data Grabbers Are Back in Washington — And They Want More


Despite Bill Gates tacit admission that his Common Core experiment failed (which is true of every other education experiment he has tried), he and his data grabbing grantees in academia and foundations along with allies in the federal government are still after our children’s data like a crack addict after his next hit. Last week, Gates announced that the next $1.7 billion he will spend on education will be heavily focused on student data collection.

Now, Professor Morgan Polikoff — an education professor and researcher whose work on implementing Common Core and developing assessment-based teacher accountability systems (a huge failure) is funded by a Gates grant as well as the U.S. taxpayers — is teaming up with the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) — which has received nearly $19 million from Gates — to go to Washington to further weaken an already quite weak update to the nation’s student privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

FERPA desperately needs to be updated because it was passed in 1974 — way before interoperable and longitudinal databases and all of this online curriculum and affective data gathering. To make matters worse, the Obama administration severely gutted the privacy protections that were present via regulatory fiat, making data far too widely and easily available.

The bill that Polikoff and the DQC want to further weaken is HR 3157, introduced in the last Congress by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), chairman of the House’s Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. Although the legislation does make some positive changes, it has numerous other grave concerns for parents and privacy advocates:

  • It does nothing to stop the egregious expansion of data collected on children, especially including social emotional learning (SEL) assessments and surveys that were unfortunately greatly expanded under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This is because data use without consent may still be used to for audits and evaluations of any federal, state or local education program, including those in ESSA.
  • The list of exceptions to parental consent requirements for researchers and government entities is still disturbingly large. And there is still no good definition of “legitimate educational interest” — allowing anyone, including corporations and “volunteers” using those magic words to be able to obtain access to the mother lode of student data without the inconvenience of obtaining parental consent.
  • There is no private right of action for students and families harmed by misconduct of researchers or corporations that misuse student data. Penalties for misconduct go to the federal government for “technical assistance” instead of the aggrieved students and families whose privacy or lives can be and have been seriously harmed by this data free-for-all.

Polikoff and DQC want to make the bill even worse by:

  • Removing the limitation on research to improve student academic outcomes to merely “improving student outcomes,” which means they want researchers to be able to use any data to look at any aspect of a student or family’s life that they can get their hands on — all without consent. In their eyes, everything affects education and education affects everything, so they feel entitled to data to monitor and research everything.
  • They don’t really want any new privacy protections or pesky restrictions like parental consent on their data mining, just more taxpayer dollars spent for “technical assistance” to help them comply with what they call “complex” laws and regulations.
  • They want research without consent to extend to community programs like after school and tutoring, which will result in even more entities having access to our children’s sensitive data.
  • And to continue the view that children are nothing more than “products” (Rex Tillerson) or fuel for the “talent supply pipeline”(US Chamber of Commerce), they want to be able to access college and workforce data to see how their allegedly marvelous manipulations in K-12 are working. Never mind that doing is currently prohibited in federal law.

Related to that last item, there is also a push to pass the College Transparency Act that gets rid of that annoying barrier to womb-to-tomb data collection called the prohibition on the student unit record system. Emmett McGroarty, Jane Robbins, and I have all written extensively about the dangers of this idea in analyzing the bill and in testimony to a national data commission. Besides the initial loss of privacy, the bill’s supporters want to share data with multiple federal agencies, many of which have had major data security breaches. The bill would also create the opportunity to review and expand what data is collected every five years, opening the door to even more sensitive SEL and personality data.

Polikoff justifies his not well-concealed effort to continue making his living by grabbing our children’s sensitive data with the following statement:

Families, educators, and the public must be able to trust that student data is used ethically and protected. Well-designed FERPA improvements can help build that trust and ensure that schools, districts, and states are able to use data to improve learning and strengthen education without compromising student privacy.

Here are the cold, hard facts of which Polikoff is either unaware or in denial, as outlined in our national coalition’s letter to Congress:

1.) Americans already don’t trust that student data is used ethically and protected. The parent takedown of inBloom and the blockage of Strengthening Education Through Research Act that federalizes social emotional research for an entire session of Congress are prime examples of that distrust.

2.) Parents believe that student privacy and parental consent should always be considered pre-eminent over the research desires of the government or private sector, especially in the realm of psychological profiling.

3.) The federal government should not be using any data — and especially SEL data — to “improve learning,” because the federal government has no constitutional authority whatsoever to be involved in education.

4.) There is no need for more data collection and invasion of privacy, because the research is already conclusive that federal education programs “protected” by FERPA are disastrously ineffective. This is true of ESEA, Race to the Top/Common Core, Investing in Innovation, Head Start, and home visiting, to name just a few.

5.) The government has no constitutional, statutory, or moral right to collect highly personal and sensitive social emotional data on our children.

Therefore, it is imperative that you contact your Representative, Senator, and President Trump immediately and in uncertain terms tell them that you want the following done to protect student privacy:

  1. Oppose both the Student Privacy Protection Act (HR 3157) and the College Transparency Act (HR 2434/S 1121).
  2. Return the FERPA regulations to their pre-2011 state.

Feel free to remind them that close entanglements with Big Data were politically harmful both to Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, that privacy is an extremely important issue to parents of all political persuasions, and that you will be watching closely as the 2018 elections approach.

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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