Big Data: Collecting, selling, exploiting data on schoolchildren

Big Data: Collecting, selling, exploiting data on schoolchildren

There is a serious moral disconnect in how our governments, along with some business leaders, and others in our social elite – such as scientists, academics, and researchers – see the people they live among.

When I say “the people,” I mean you and me.  We may see ourselves as individuals with dignity and character, each one of us endowed with rights and owed a certain minimum of respect.  That’s not how the morally disconnected see us.  They see us – and our children – as a gigantic database waiting to be mined.  And analyzed, categorized, and manipulated.

There’s more to say about the unbridgeable gap this portends between the moral framework in which a people’s leaders ought to operate, and the motives of our technocratic “elite.”  But for the purposes of this post, I want to stick with factual background, because too many Americans are still unaware of it.

Big Data goes after school kids

Most don’t know, for example, that a tech start-up called Knewton has been collecting incredibly detailed data for months on over 4 million schoolchildren in the U.S. – data described as follows by Politico in an article in May 2014:

The data analytics firm has peered into the brains of more than 4 million students across the country. By monitoring every mouse click, every keystroke, every split-second hesitation as children work through digital textbooks, Knewton is able to find out not just what individual kids know, but how they think. It can tell who has trouble focusing on science before lunch — and who will struggle with fractions next Thursday.

Says Politico:

The amount of data being collected is staggering. Ed tech companies of all sizes, from basement startups to global conglomerates, have jumped into the game. The most adept are scooping up as many as 10 million unique data points on each child, each day. That’s orders of magnitude more data than Netflix or Facebook or even Google collect on their users.

Students are tracked as they play online games, watch videos, read books, take quizzes and run laps in physical education. The monitoring continues as they work on assignments from home, with companies logging children’s locations, homework schedules, Web browsing habits and, of course, their academic progress.

The collection of data is not anonymous, which is one thing that has alert parents alarmed.  The point of collecting the data is to track the progress of students; indeed, Common Core envisions tracking them into adulthood to assess the efficacy of educational “inputs” for producing life outcomes. More on that in a moment.

Nor are there any guarantees about privacy or the “sharing” of data.  Assurances from education officials aside, this is the money quote from Politico:

The law is silent on who owns that data. But Kathleen Styles, the Education Department’s chief privacy officer, acknowledged in an interview that much of it is likely not protected by [the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, or FERPA] — and thus can be commercialized by the companies that hold it.

“Commercialized” means, of course, that it can be sold or otherwise used for profit by the company collecting the data.  If you think it’s annoying to do an eBay search and then find every website you go to displaying ads for vendors related to that search, just wait until data companies start commercializing every data point they have on your kid.

The dangers of data commercialization are probably the least of our worries, however.  More worrisome is the concept of data use by government agencies – in this case, the schools – to shape outcomes for individuals: minutely but mechanically, as if human development can properly be mediated, at an extremely fine level of calibration, through the crunching of data.

The website Stop Common Core Illinois has an exceptionally informative page on this topic, with a number of must-read segments and some must-see videos.  One, a vision of data-enabled future “learning,” is included further below.

The ideological Obama/progressive connection

But the first video on the page is especially telling, because it illuminates the connection between the school-based data collection and the vision of the progressive left for using the data.  The clip is of David Coleman, author of the English Language Arts standards for Common Core, speaking at a conference of data analysts in Boston in 2013.  What real-world example of using data to shape outcomes does Coleman highlight in his talk?

The Obama campaign of 2012, of course.  The campaign’s use of data to mobilize its voting base was considered brilliant and path-breaking by many in the data profession.  (By many on the right, it was considered intrusive and manipulative.)

The enthusiasm of the progressive left for overwhelming amounts of data has been widely discussed in relation to Obamacare – including the fine-print caveat that individuals have no privacy rights over their personal data dumps at the website.  Inevitably, Obamacare and voting have crossed paths through the great database in the sky: Californians who applied for insurance via the Covered California website began receiving unsolicited voter registration packets earlier this year, at least some of them pre-marked with “Democrat” as the party affiliation.

We can confidently assume, from its observable patterns, that the progressive left has more in mind for the use of school-collected data than merely helping your child get educated and succeed in life.  In any case, an infinitely tailored, data-based approach – whether to getting out the vote or to administering education – is inherently data-intensive, requiring way more data than the great majority of us would like to see collected on ourselves, much less our children.

Ridiculously big data

The Stop Common Core Illinois site provides good insight into the breadth and depth of the data many states intend to collect.  A list of minimum data points that Illinois wants to have on children from birth to age three is just one example:

Source: Stop Common Core Illinois (link in text)
Source: Stop Common Core Illinois (link in text)


Another example is the list of data categories on students for which the U.S. Department of Education wants each state to develop privacy and disclosure policies.  The requirement to have those policies implies clearly that the states are expected to collect and store such data.

Data which the FERPA law, as revised by DOE, is to require states to have policies on, for retention and disclosure. (Source; Stop Common Core Illinois. Link in text.)
Data which the FERPA law, as revised by DOE, is to require states to have policies on, for retention and disclosure. (Source: Stop Common Core Illinois. Link in text.)


The schools won’t be limited to collecting data in text or spreadsheet form either.  A number of blog posts and articles, like the ones from Politico and Stop Common Core Illinois, have alluded briefly to the possibility of video collection on students, which would register facial expressions and analyze from them how students have reacted to material. The previously mentioned video presentation embedded at the Stop Common Core Illinois site, on future data-enabled learning, gives a flavor of how such methods might be incorporated in data-intensive pedagogy.

The video might not seem that creepy on first viewing (other than the happy-face collectivist nonsense in the students’ mock “global health conference” – and the principal’s “non-intrusive,” Big-Sisterly remote monitoring of it).

But on reflection, the deductive thinker will realize the undesirable intrusiveness of the knowledge the education system has to have about a student’s each and every move, in order to tailor its product as the video suggests.

There is no basis for assuming that it’s only the educational offering that will be “tailored.”  For the data-hounds of the progressive left, it’s the behavior of the data subject – the student, in this case – that is always to be manipulated.  The Obama 2012 campaign didn’t collect all that data on voters in order to appreciate them more or serve them better.  It collected the data to shape their voting behavior.

State-mandated voyeurism

One cannot therefore remain complacent about information like Michelle Malkin’s in her 10 October column on the “Teaching Strategies Gold” (TS Gold) program implemented in Colorado.  TS Gold is a “school readiness assessment system” which collects an extensive longitudinal database on each child:

TS Gold’s creators describe the testing vehicle as “an early childhood assessment system” that purportedly measures the “whole child.” What that means is that the tests are not only for “literacy, mathematics, science and technology, social studies and the arts,” but also for “developmental domains including social emotional, physical, language and cognitive development.” …

The assessors have 38 “objectives” arranged under nine topics of academic learning, psychomotor data and social-emotional development. Students are rated and recorded on their ability to do things like “respond to emotional cues,” “interact cooperatively” and “cooperate and share ideas and materials in socially acceptable ways.”

Under TS Gold, the video collection parents have reported – and objected to – is stunning.

TS Gold directs teachers to document student behaviors with videos, audio files, journals and photos — which are then uploaded to a central database cloud. …

Last spring, parent Lauren Coker discovered that TS Gold assessors in her son’s Aurora, Colo., public preschool had recorded information about his trips to the bathroom, his hand-washing habits and his ability to pull up his pants.

“When I asked if we could opt out of the system,” Coker told me, school officials told her no. She pulled her son out of the school and still doesn’t know whether or how the data can be removed.

Parents have already discovered that the data recordings are shared regularly, without parental consent:

Cheri Kiesecker, a mom of elementary school kids in Fort Collins who has vigilantly tracked the student data mining initiative in Colorado, warns that the “data follows these children from preschool all the way through college and the workforce.” Colorado educrats glowingly refer to the profiles as “golden records.” While they smugly assure parents that the data is safe, Kiesecker told me: “We all know how frequent data breaches are. We also know that TS Gold allows teachers to share video and photos of children, as well as observations on children’s general anxiety levels and behavior. Are parents aware of just how much information is collected and shared outside the classroom?”

Putting the data impulse back in a headlock where it belongs

The ability of humans to collect and analyze data using information technology is undoubtedly in its infancy.  As sophisticated as our capabilities seem today, we can expect them to accelerate rapidly in the coming decades.  And they will have good and useful applications.  We shouldn’t fear data collection, per se, or oppose clinically analytical approaches to solving at least some human problems.

But it’s possible to grossly misuse the capability for data collection.  Trying to profile our fellow men through data collection, and then induce or channel them into behavior by using that data against them, very easily constitutes such misuse: especially when it is done by our government, and the targets are our children.

It’s one thing when commercial vendors try to get us to buy something, based on a data-enabled understanding of our habits.  We can always say no to that — and for the most part, the moral conundrum for the data-seeker, of using data as a medium for human relations, isn’t our problem.  It’s not a public policy problem, at any rate.  It’s the vendor’s soul; he can take it up with God, and if we can help, outside of the framework of government coercion, great.

It’s another thing altogether, however, when government, which holds a gun to our heads, tries to get into our heads – or our children’s heads – and outmaneuver us.  This proposition is something we must just say no to: if necessary, by ordering the government not to collect the data desired by the data-hounds of the progressive left.

No use of technology is inevitable, and that’s what we’re talking about here: not stopping technological progress, but prescribing appropriate uses.  We actually do this with public policy all the time.  There’s nothing inherently Luddite about it.  The purpose of consensual government is to make decisions about societal priorities, and ours should be to preserve the dignity and superior position of the citizen, with moral accountability and a humble posture for limited government.  Humble government is a moral good, and is indispensable for liberty, the good life, and the general welfare.  All the data afforded by history demonstrate that.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

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