Reframing the Data Debate

Opinion | Big Data

Reframing the Data Debate

An open letter to the education industry

By Steve Rappaport     May 30, 2014

Reframing the Data Debate

The uses and misuses of student data have become the focus of an increasingly bitter debate in the education community and the nation. Fears about misuses of student data feed into larger narratives about dangers to privacy and the security of data fueled by revelations about the NSA, Target, etc., and their fervor makes it impossible to dismiss them as ill-informed rants. Related concerns about large, impersonal entities threatening the independence and integrity of our system of education--inBloom being the most recent culprit--are fraught with emotion because they resonate with fears about threats to local control of education.

The education industry has become a target as well. The hundreds of companies that make the products and services upon which our system of public education depends have at times been painted collectively as a rapacious “education industrial complex” bent on seeking profit at any cost. These rather nebulous attacks on our industry are not new, but fears about threats to privacy and the security of student data--both real and perceived--have provided critics with an issue they have used effectively to crystalize attacks into a more focused campaign.

How has the education industry responded? Insufficiently. We have allowed vociferous opponents of the use of “big data” in schools to frame the debate in terms of threats to privacy and the security of student data, and we react by focusing on legislative, regulatory, and other means of addressing those potential threats. The latter remedies are terribly important--no one disputes their need--and our industry must play an active role in shaping them, but we must do more than react defensively to an agenda that is defined and driven by opponents of the use of data in education.

First, we must recognize that what motivates many of our opponents is not only legitimate concerns about the potential for unintended negative consequences, such as data breaches and other threats to privacy and the security of student data, but also a profound mistrust of the intentions of companies in the education industry, decrying “data-mining vendors...eager to make money off of student information in the name of ‘big data’ and ‘personalized’ learning.” We believe that most of those claims are grossly overstated, but that does not make them any less problematic, in part because narratives about misuses of data can be used to undermine the value of products--and the credibility of companies that make them--that use data to, among other things, inform instruction.

Then, we must reframe the debate, broaden the conversation so that it is not focused chiefly on concerns about privacy and the security of student data. To do that, we must develop another narrative, one that explains why data have been and always will be central to the mission of public education. We know that without data, student information systems would not function, buses would not run, schools would have no funding, but the centrality of data in educational operations--both academic and administrative--is not properly understood and we must do a much better job of educating stakeholders in the education community about the mission-critical role of data in our educational system.

This must be more than a compilation of best practices. Rather it should be a comprehensive overview of the many ways in which data are used in our schools, a narrative that explains ultimately why our schools could not function without data and the various enterprise systems that use data. What would happen, we might ask rhetorically, if the hundreds of companies in the education industry said, “Okay, we’ll stop collecting and processing data”? We all know what would happen: our schools would stop functioning. That is what must be made clear to critics who perceive data as a threat to our system of public education.

The narrative must also comprehend the positive role of companies in our educational system, an issue with which we seem reluctant to engage. We are stakeholders in public education--we make the books that students read, the enterprise systems that manage instruction and schedule classes, the software that teaches language and math, the computers and other essential tools used every day in hundreds of thousands of classrooms. And because schools cannot function without the products and services we make, we have a right to a seat at the table where important educational matters are discussed as well as the respect due any stakeholder committed to improving the quality of teaching and learning.

This is not to say that the critics are entirely wrong. Concerns about privacy and the security of student data are real and recent reports have made clear that many companies are as lax as school districts about the use of student and other types of data. We have a responsibility not only to engage in constructive dialogue about privacy and the security of student data but also to clean our own house, take whatever steps are needed to ensure that student data are secure and that privacy rights are respected. We will forfeit trust if we do not, and as we all know, trust once lost is very difficult to regain.

Rahm Emanuel famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” We must find ways of making this a teachable moment, seize it as an opportunity to educate stakeholders in the education community about both the myriad ways in which data are central to the mission of public education, and how we can work together to ensure--as best we can--that data can be used in the service of teaching and learning without sacrificing privacy or the security. I believe that the overwhelming majority of educators, parents, and other stakeholders would welcome that message, and that by articulating the centrality of data in administrative and academic operations, it might contribute to a much-needed change in the dynamics of the debate over the role of data in public education.

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