2013-4-30-inbloom
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NYC Parents Raise Questions About InBloom

Brooklyn meeting airs concerns about database of student information


The education data portal, inBloom, raised hackles this week among a group of New York City parents and educators who worry about the nonprofit’s plans to compile student information into a wide-ranging education data portal--and they’re organizing against it via email listservs, open forums and legislative bills.

Local community opposition to the inBloom plan was palpable on Monday (April 29) night in the Brooklyn Borough Hall at a "student privacy town hall meeting" devoted to the issue. Around 150 people gathered to express their frustrations and hear from New York Department of Education representatives. Holding handmade posters with slogans like “Our kids, not your data,” the group voiced unease about the creation of the portal, which many fear is gathering too much data about their children, will sell information to commercial vendors and will be vulnerable to hacking. 

New York is one of eight states, including Illinois and Massachusetts that is participating in inBloom’s pilot tests this year before the software is rolled out more broadly. On April 19, Louisiana Department of Education Superintendent John White withdrew his state's participation in inBloom.

On Monday, the New York City DOE tried to allay fears by outlining the privacy and security laws (namely FERPA) that inBloom and other contracted vendors will have to follow when accessing student data. The DOE also talked up the portal’s expected benefits to students, parents and teachers, such as more personalized learning. But since the DOE had only one speaking representative at the town hall event, comments from parents and local officials dominated the meeting.

Those comments were occasionally shouted. Before the meeting even began, a Queens parent yelled to the crowd: “It’s an outrage, an outrage what’s happening here!”

He was referring to the fact that inBloom had not sent a representative and the two New York State representatives in attendance were there only as observers and would not take questions. Similar outbursts occurred throughout the event, often accompanied by applause. Leonie Haimson, a parent advocate and education activist who organized the town hall, says she invited inBloom and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which partly funded inBloom, but both declined to appear.

In a recent piece by blogger, Audrey Watters, an inBloom spokesperson offered these comments:

inBloom is not creating a national database. It is providing a secure data service to help school districts manage the information needed for learning, and to support local educational goals. Only school districts decide who has access to that information and for what purpose. Student data will not be combined across states; each participating state and district will have its own protected space in the inBloom service, and they will continue to manage and control access to their student data based on local policies. There is no public or third-party access to data unless it is authorized by a school district or state educational agency to support a local priority. inBloom does not offer any research or aggregated reporting beyond what school districts or state educational agencies implement.

The town hall, which lasted about two hours, was a mix of speeches, presentations and Q&A time. “I know this is an incredibly volatile issue,” said Margaret Kelley, the education policy analyst for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.

New York’s Learning Disabilities Association was more direct in its resistance. Executive Director Stephen Boese argued that disclosure of a student’s learning disability is solely the right of that student or that student’s parent(s), not a “third-party entity” like inBloom. “There is still a lot of discrimination regarding learning disabilities,” noted Boese. “We see abuse of children when the wrong information gets out in the cybersphere.

Haimson underscored those points in her presentation, which listed the many types of data inBloom could potentially assemble about a student, including race/ethnicity, disciplinary records and economic and disability status. Haimson also characterized data storage ‘in the cloud’ as risky. “This could damage our children’s prospects for life if it leaks out,” she asserted.

In a slide entitled, “Though risks to privacy great, benefits hypothetical,” Haimson questioned the claims of greater efficiency, data integration and more personalized learning tools proposed by inBloom and its advocates. One cited reason: the NYC DOE has operated a student data system called ARIS since 2008, but Haimson and other parents say it is not helpful and hardly used.

What most angers Haimson is the lack of parental consent. Since school districts own and control student data records, parents can’t opt out of New York’s education data portal or other inBloom-based systems. InBloom’s online FAQ instructs worried parents to contact their school districts to “inquire about their policies.”

Adina Lopatin, the NYC DOE’s deputy chief academic officer, spoke after Haimson. Lopatin characterized the upcoming education data portal as similar to ARIS, though more fully-featured. She said the portal, which is currently under construction, would “support instructional planning and better meet student needs” while saving New York money and enabling common data standards for the entire state. 

Lopatin also said inBloom and other vendors will have to comply with FERPA regulations regarding data privacy and security, that contrary to rumors, none of those entities would ‘own’ or ‘sell’ student data  and that New York City and State were only supplying some student demographic, participation and performance information to inBloom, not the full gamut of data inBloom is capable of processing and storing.

Regarding parental permission and legality, Lopatin said FERPA has two provisions that allow this type of data outsourcing (both located in the Act's part 99.31). InBloom is only gathering educational records--no HIPAA information, according to Lopatin. She also clarified that New York has already transmitted student data--from across the state--to inBloom. That disclosure provoked an impassioned response from the audience, which thought the data was still being prepared. 

During the lengthy Q&A that followed Lopatin’s presentation, more than 20 attendees detailed their inBloom worries. One retired educator posited teachers are the best insight into students’ needs. “No database is going to be of any use for that,” she said. Several attendees exhorted the crowd to “take to the streets” and “stand up and fight back.” “Don’t just get angry, call the politicians, tweet about it,” urged one mother. “We should be screaming from the rooftops…this is scary stuff.”

Haimson is working hard to mobilize parents and ended the meeting by encouraging attendees to ask their state senators and assembly members to cosponsor two pending student privacy bills. Introduced in March, the companion bills S04284 and A06059 would essentially block inBloom by prohibiting the release of personally identifiable student information without parental consent. Haimson also recommended contacting New York Regents, who supervise educational activities within the state, and the New York City Schools Chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott. To organize efforts, Haimson has created an email listserv dedicated to student privacy issues.



About the Author

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Elizabeth Woyke is a technology and business reporter. She has a strong interest in edtech and the New York tech community. In addition to EdSurge, she writes for Fast Company, Inc. and Money.

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