Study: New Technology, Relaxation of Protections Threaten Student Privacy

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Press Release: Study Finds That New Technology, Relaxation of Protections Threaten Student Privacy

Federal government using grants to induce states to build identical, increasingly sophisticated student-data systems

Contact: Jamie Gass, 617-723-2277, ext. 210 or

BOSTON – New technology allows advocates for education as workforce development to accomplish what has long been out of their reach: the collection of data on every child, beginning with preschool or even earlier, and using that data to track the child throughout his/her academic career and then through the workforce, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

Cogs in the Machine: Big Data, Common Core, and National Testing

“It is an idea that dates back to the Progressive era,” says Emmett McGroarty, a co-author of “Cogs in the Machine: Big Data, Common Core, and National Testing.” “It is based in a belief that government ‘experts’ should make determinations about what is successful in education, what isn’t, and what sorts of education and training are most likely to produce workers who contribute to making the United States competitive in the global economy.”

In an era in which violations of privacy have become front-page news, the technology presents myriad threats to student privacy.

For many years the federal government has been using grants to induce states to build identical and increasingly sophisticated student-data systems. More recently, the federal government has worked with private entities to design and encourage states to participate in initiatives such as the Data Quality Campaign, the Early Childhood Data Collaborative, and the National Student Clearinghouse – all geared toward increasing the collection and sharing of student data. The National Education Data Model, with its suggestion of over 400 data points on each child, provides an ambitious target for the states in constructing their data systems.

None of the privacy protections currently in place reliably protect student data. Last year Congress gutted the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), leaving no reliable protections in place for student data. With Big Data, anonymization of an individual student’s information is practically impossible.

Initiatives such as the Workforce Data Quality Initiative, Unified Data Standards, MyData, ConnectEd, and student-unit records have sprung up to eliminate the technical obstacles to increased data-sharing. Private companies have donated education apps to schools in exchange for access to student information.

This treasure trove of student data is a tempting target for hackers, who have already begun their assaults.

In Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance, published last year by the U.S. Department of Education (USED), the authors expressed a strong interest in beginning to monitor students’ “beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, values and ways of perceiving oneself” and to measure non-cognitive attributes such as their “psychological resources.”

The report says that researchers could employ “functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and physiological indicators [that] offer insight into the biology and neuroscience underlying observed student behaviors.” It goes on to say that they can hook students up to devices such as cameras to record facial expressions, chairs that record posture and movements, and skin sensors to measure student responses to classroom activities. “Informant reports,” in which a parent, teacher, or other observer judges a student’s “grit, tenacity, persistence, and other psychological resources,” can gauge student attitudes and behaviors.

“This sort of character development and monitoring has traditionally been the domain of parents,” says “Cogs in the Machine” co-author Joy Pullmann. “But the Grit report clearly implies that families can’t be trusted to inculcate values and attitudes.”

Cogs in the Machine” also discusses the types of “fine-grained” data that can be collected on non-cognitive attributes through students’ interaction with certain digital-learning platforms. “The manufacturers of these technologies certainly know what they mean for classrooms,” says “Cogs in the Machine” co-author Jane Robbins, “but few teachers are aware of it and even fewer parents are.”

These expansive data structures are intimately connected to the Common Core State Standards Initiative and national testing. Any information from the data initiatives mentioned above that is given to the two federally funded national assessment consortia aligned with the Common Core State Standards will be made available to the USED.

The national standards will also create a unified “taxonomy” that facilitates creation of common instructional materials and data-collection technology. Because Common Core focuses not on academic knowledge but rather on “skills” that involve attitudes and dispositions, it paves the way for national assessments and digital platforms that measure such attributes.

The authors make a series of recommendations to protect student privacy. They include urging parents to ask what kinds of information are being collected on digital-learning platforms and whether the software will record data about their children’s behaviors and attitudes rather than just academic knowledge. If parents object to such data-collection, they should opt out.

The authors also urge state lawmakers to pass student privacy laws, and they recommend that Congress correct the 2013 relaxation of FERPA.

Emmett McGroarty is executive director of the Education Project at the American Principles Project. Joy Pullmann is a research fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing editor of School Reform News, a national monthly publication. Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project in Washington, DC.

Pioneer’s extensive research on Common Core includes: The Dying of the Light: How Common Core Damages Poetry Instruction; Common Core’s Validation: A Weak Foundation for a Crooked House; Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEM; How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk; Common Core Standards Still Don’t Make the Grade; The Road to a National Curriculum: The Legal Aspects of the Common Core Standards, Race to the Top, and Conditional Waivers; National Cost of Aligning States and Localities to the Common Core Standards, and A Republic of Republics: How Common Core Undermines State and Local Autonomy over K-12 Education. Pioneer produced a video series: Setting the Record Straight: Part 1, and Part 2, and has earned national media coverage, including op-eds placed in The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard.


Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.