Connecting the Dots: Common Core, Race to the Top Money and Students’ Privacy

Part 3 of a 4 part series

BY CHERYL SLAVIN

Dr. Thomas Morton, superintendent of Clarkstown Central School District
Dr. Thomas Morton, superintendent of Clarkstown Central School District

url-1As the New York State Department of Education continues to develop the technological infrastructure necessary to support the application of Common Core Standards, many parents and educators have grown increasingly concerned about the impact these new technologies will have upon their students’ educational privacy. A data-driven machine, Common Core relies upon a vast abundance of statistics—everything from student performance, grades and test scores to gender, ethnicity and attendance records—both for its underlying structure as well as the means for measuring progress and success. However, the state’s decision to engage an outside third party to store, sort and disseminate this information statewide raises questions about whether student privacy will be compromised.

New York, as do the other states that have adopted Common Core, receives federal funding through the Race to the Top (RTTT) grant which it then disburses to individual school districts. The money is to be applied toward the training and curriculum costs associated with the implementation of the new standards. States which adopt Common Core must also create a statewide educational database accessible by all participating districts, and can use the RTTT funds to do so. Participating districts must agree to use a state-authorized “data dashboard” to access this wealth of information and resources in order to receive RTTT funds. New York’s “EngageNY portal” is the single log-in entry point to its “EngageNY” database.

Many agree that a state aggregated database is in and of itself a good idea. School districts are already required by State and Federal law to provide an enormous amount of information to the State Department of Education for tracking purposes. It makes sense, as Dr. Thomas Morton, Superintendent of Clarkstown Central School District, points out, to develop a single tool that would allow districts to “check and see anything, compare any districts, any concepts” in order to assess how well or poorly their district is doing and plan for the future. Such a shared database would also allow for greater communication and collaboration between educators throughout the state, as well as provide a means for students and parents to track student progress and flag potential problems earlier than before.

The problem is the state’s decision to engage outside third party inBloom, a private non-profit organization, to create and administer the EngageNY portal as well as other third parties to create and maintain the State sanctioned data dashboards. Notably, inBloom is heavily funded by the Gates Foundation, which has also provided funds to the NGA and the CCSSO, the creators of Common Core. Pearson Education, also financially linked to the development of Common Core, is one of the three sanctioned dashboard providers. Parents, educators and elected officials have all raised concerns about trusting such third parties with keeping sensitive student data out of the hands of other third parties such as vendors, social service agencies, law enforcement and standardized test companies.

Recently, after repeated unanswered requests for safety assurances, Clarkstown joined a growing number of other school districts, including Pearl River and South Orangetown, in opting out of RTTT money rather than agreeing to use a State database and dashboard administered and maintained by third parties. This action will not prevent inBloom from processing the information, which the districts must continue to report. However, Dr. Morton asserts that it is the “strongest way to make a statement that neither the State Education Department nor inBloom have adequately addressed our concerns about the safety of our students’ information.” The choice to opt out comes at a heavy price; the district will not be able to access the aggregate database, and will likely have to return any unused RTTT funds.

Dr. Morton is not alone in his frustration. State Assemblyman Sheldon Silver and 50 other legislators recently sent a letter to Education Commissioner John King calling for the suspension of the EngageNY portal until questions of adequate privacy safeguards have been addressed. State Senator David Carlucci has introduced legislation which would provide for parental consent to data sharing with a third party vendor like InBloom. At least 28 districts in the lower Hudson Valley region have also chosen to opt out over privacy concerns.

SED spokesman Tom Dunn, however, counters that there are already sufficient safeguards in place to insure the privacy of student information. The state employs “double security protection” and encrypts the data before sending it to inBloom. The SED claims that the greatest security breaches occur from unattended or poorly supervised computers within the schools themselves. Dunn asserts that no personal details regarding medical records, IEP provisions or disciplinary actions are included in the data collected. He also assures that once a student graduates high school or otherwise leaves the system, that student’s data is removed and destroyed. InBloom, he states, is not allowed to sell the data for any reason.

Nonetheless, the connection remains. Districts need funds in order to cover the costs of implementing Common Core. RTTT money is one of the main sources of this funding, but it is only available to districts which participate in the EngageNY portal. Without adequate assurances of privacy protection, however, more and more districts are foregoing this valuable resource rather than risk potential abuse of their children’s privacy rights.