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We can reform our schools without surrendering our children's basic rights.

Reforming Away Student Privacy?

Lately, there is much discussion of "educational reform." But the "reform" measures actually being implemented are little more than a massive, organized attack on the privacy and basic human rights of our children. They betray our children but do little to address the actual challenges we face in educating them. That's because the real problems are less about failing schools and more about failed policies from Washington. Rebecca Holcombe, new Vermont Secretary of Education, observes that

We need to move beyond this national narrative of school failure, which I don’t think is accurate. ... The reality is, schools are actually doing better now than they’ve ever done. Vermont has some of the highest graduation rates in the country. Our graduation rates are much higher than they were 50 years ago. We have kids going to college who wouldn’t have gone years ago. We have kids going to school who wouldn’t have gone to school years ago. Our test scores have been rising. The federal government just published a report that placed [Vermont] seventh in the world for math and science. (Seven Days, 4 Dec 2013)
In contrast to Holcombe's level-headed outlook, many educational bureaucrats scream about failing schools in order to justify stripping our students of their most basic rights. Hysteria about school failure is what brought us the draconian testing regime of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act. Under NCLB, your local school can be abandoned or privatized if it doesn't do better this year than last year --- even if every student in your school won both a Pulitzer and Nobel prize last year.

Understandably, supporters of public schools -- educators, parents, voters -- want to step off the hopeless NCLB testing treadmill, but the price demanded by Washington educrats is simply too high. The U.S. Department of Education now administers a program of NCLB relief that is called "ESEA flexibility" (where ESEA refers to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). Relief from NCLB requirements means that Vermont's public schools need not be inexorably and gratuitously condemned, one by one, as failures. However, the federally imposed conditions for such a waiver are disastrous for student privacy. For our children, the cure is definitely worse than the disease.

The price demanded for NCLB "flexibility" is nearly total loss of student privacy.

On one hand, the NCLB regime is a flawed attempt at school-level accountability. Here in Vermont, NCLB has meant that students sit for locally administered, locally developed standardized tests (NECAPs, from the New England Common Assessment Program); neither individual student scores nor individual school records need be shared outside the school, because the emphasis is on measuring aggregate school progress.

On the other hand, the new "flexible" regime entails nearly total loss of student privacy, because accountability has been quietly shifted from schools to individual students. Our children's individual, lifelong, detailed school records will be collected, stored, and tracked in huge statewide databases. Students will be subject to regular national testing via remote computers, which will collect and store their individual answers to individual test questions in a national database. Their test scores will follow them wherever they go.

Under "reformed" learning standards, preparing our children for full lives as thoughtful, human citizens is not the principal goal; rather, each student's skills and personality traits (e.g., their "grit," "tenacity," "perserverance") will be measured, recorded, and harnessed to conform to the needs of corporations, the military, and universities. Even now, in the twenty-first century, we are still being told that, unless we surrender our children to the latest dark agenda, some global bogeyman (once the Communists, now perhaps those scary Scandanavians) will win the battle for world domination.


While the rush to abandon NCLB threatens to trample our children's basic rights, parents and voters are still very much in control. Educational bureaucrats -- and even some local school board members -- may wishfully claim that their plan to abuse our children is all part of some done deal among state governors. But, actually, the law is still very much on our side. We CAN protect our children from bureaucratic attacks without forfeiting the positive effects of school reform:

  1. Strong Local Policies. Our local school boards need to adopt strong policies that keep our children's personal information here at home and prevent local school officials from voluntarily transferring or sharing it outside the district, as they did in 2012. Attend your town meeting! Speak out and vote in favor of the student privacy resolution. Demand that your local school board adopt a strong privacy policy.
  2. Restrict State Databases. The relevant Federal statute permits and even encourages state legislatures to restrict the handling, sharing, and use of personal information in statewide student databases. Although the federal government disclaims any interest in individual student data, Vermont law should forbid reporting individual student information from the database to any federal agency or official; indeed, state officials should never disclose information about students to anyone except in summary, statistical form. Information about individual students should be shared only by local schools and only as strictly required by law. Tell our state legislators that Vermont should follow other states in enacting strict limitations on state collection and disclosure of individual student data.
  3. Student Ownership of Test Scores. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) is the unaccountable educrat organization to which Vermont (with 20 or so other states) has outsourced its "reformed" standardized testing program. During SBAC testing, your child's individual test responses will be monitored and collected by a remote computer over the Internet and stored in a massive national database. Tell our state legislators to enact tight restrictions on the collection, sharing, and use of student test data, so that our students retain control and ownership over their testing data as they do over their other personal information. No school official should share any individual student information whatever with an outside testing organization, especially information that could enable longitudinal student tracking. Because the sole claimed purpose of the SBAC is development and administration of standardized tests, the consortium should never share any information whatever except with the student and his local school. (Update: SBAC is now pondering student privacy.)

  4. Local Standards Implementation. While some aspects of the new Common Core learning standards are controversial or even creepy, your local school board controls how these learning standards are achieved and evaluated in your school. This independence has been affirmed by the Vermont Department of Education. Your local school board is elected to reflect the values of your community; let them know your concerns.

All of these actions are completely consistent with existing law; none interferes with the stated purposes of "education reform." On the contrary, the relevant federal statutes invite and encourage states to strengthen student privacy restrictions. These actions only interfere with an ugly bureaucratic agenda to collect, own, and share massive amounts of personal information that rightly belongs to our students.

State Longitudinal Databases

Student privacy is not dead. Although many states have embraced education "reform," federal law actually invites our state legislature to protect Vermont's children from its worst effects. Those who claim that resistance is futile are either aligned with the child predators or have grown so discouraged that they would abandon our children when the remedies they need are at hand.

State longitudinal databases are among the most offensive requirements of so-called educational reform, because their only plausible purpose is wholesale destruction of student privacy. The sheer amount of detailed information about each child is breathtakingly intrusive. Vermont's State Longitudinal Database (SLD) will be centrally controlled and operated by state bureaucrats and will contain the detailed individual school records of every K-12 student in Vermont. Establishing a SLD accomplishes literally nothing except transferring custody of individual student data from local school officials accountable to local voters to state bureaucrats accountable only to themselves. The claim that this massive transfer of personal information will "transform our education system" just doesn't fly: our local educators already have all this information at their fingertips.

These predators claim that the data they are stealing is not "personal" because, in the statewide database, student and teacher names will be replaced by unique statewide numeric identifiers. But they know very well that replacing student and teacher names with random identifiers definitely does not make the data anonymous. Widely-reported (e.g., Anderson, Schoen, Tanner) scholarly research demonstrated that individual Americans can be identified with 87 percent accuracy using just a birthdate, gender, and zip code. Here in rural Vermont, that percentage is almost certainly higher. For students, birthdate is readily approximated by grade level, gender by given name, zip code by school district or building.

Why Is This Happening?

Why is this happening? Educational bureaucrats want control of our children's personal information! They are using the unpopularity of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law to coerce state and local officials into betraying our children. The desire to get off the NCLB treadmill is so strong that two Vermont governors have sold out our children's privacy for a song. Vermont received approximately $6M in federal funds for creating its statewide database -- that comes to about $67 per child, spread over approximately 89,428 K-12 students in Vermont.

In return for a modest grant received under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), plus "ESEA Flexibility" (the educrat name for NCLB relief), former Governor Douglas voluntarily agreed to build a statewide database containing extensive personal information about each child in Vermont. As a long-time proponent of centrally storing and controlling our children's personal information, our local school superintendent was only too happy to help (page 54, Artifact 5, page 7 of 9, SLD Proposal). Governor Shumlin agreed to continue the database project in 2012, in return for continuing "flexibility" and the remainder of the $67 per child total.

What Can We Do?

What can we do? Although the problem of statewide databases was created by federal coercion of our state officials, the practical impact upon our children is still very much under Vermont control.

Although the Vermont Department of Education claims that surrendering our children's detailed personal information to a state-wide database is mandatory, the Governor's agreement with the U.S. Department of Education explicitly permits and encourages our legislature to limit any disclosure or use of student data in the statewide database (USC 20 9871 (e)(2)(C)(i)(II) and (III), page 1664) Some states have already outlawed any Federal access to their database; some restrict any disclosure of collected data to summary form only; some delegate individual data disclosures to local schools. Tell our state legislators that Vermont should follow other states in enacting strict limitations on state collection and disclosure of individual student data. If you actually believe the claim that the data collected in these state databases will be used primarily to "help" struggling teachers, then ask yourself why those same teachers can't be "helped" by the very same information already available within their local school. Similarly, can't local schools "capture data on students from one grade to the next, measuring whether they are on track to graduate"? Can't local schools determine "whether they are preparing their students to succeed"?

Our legislators should not fail to enact laws against any disclosures of individual student information to the federal government. The U.S. Deparment of Education protests their innocence and proclaims that they are not legally authorized to collect individual student data:

The Department does not collect personally identifiable information at all except as required for mandated tasks such as administering student loans and grants and investigating individual complaints. The Department is not legally authorized to create a national, student-level database and has no intention to create a student records data system at the national level.
However, no law or regulation prevents federal agencies from storing or using individual student information that is voluntarily provided by the states. Lobbyists for this massive attack on child privacy offer many reassurances, but why aren't they advocating strong state laws that strictly limit use and disclosure of individual student data? Why aren't they telling the truth about the regulatory gutting of FERPA protections in 2008 and 2011?

Student privacy is not dead. Assaults on student privacy by federal and state bureaucrats, albeit focused and determined, are not the political fiat that might be claimed or imagined; federal law actually invites our state legislature to protect our children from the worst effects of educational "reform." Those who complain that student privacy is dead either have not done their homework or perhaps derive some secret enjoyment from stripping children of their basic human rights.

Smarter Balanced Assessments

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) is the unaccountable educrat organization to which Vermont (with about 20 other states) has outsourced its "reformed" standardized testing program. Students will be asked to participate in regular national testing via remote computers controlled and administered by the SBAC. These computers will collect and store each student's individual answers to individual test questions in a national database. Thereafter, their test scores will follow them forever wherever they go.

(Click for larger image)

Vermont's efforts to enjoy "ESEA flexibility" --- relief from the unpopular NCLB testing regime --- do not require any of the attacks on student privacy planned by the SBAC and government educrats. Thus, quite unlike the Statewide Longitudinal Databases which are an explicit condition of relevant federal law, the most offensive elements of SBAC testing are the gratuitous creations of education bureaucrats. The law requires only a system of standardized assessments that are aligned with the state's chosen learning standards. Neither remote administration of computer-based tests nor remote retention of individual test results by third parties are legal requirements for ESEA flexibility.

Because neither remote computer testing nor remote retention of individual test results by outside third parties are explcit legal requirements to which Vermont has agreed in return for ESEA flexibility, the policy being considered by the voters would require votes by our local school boards to release individual student test responses to the testing organizations. Such votes would likely be annual (before each testing cycle) and specify the specific use, retention period, or any other conditions for which the release is authorized.

Why Is This Happening?

As with other components of education "reform," the stated motivations are sometimes implausible because the true underlying motive is unspeakable: educrats and their corporate cronies want the detailed individual data. It's that simple.

Testing via remote computer, we are told, allows different forms of the test to be presented to different students, thereby reducing the chance of wandering-eyes, over-the-shoulder cheating between adjacent students. For multiple choice tests, variant test forms frequently differ in the order of the test questions or in the order of the multiple choice alternatives for each question. But standardized tests have employed variant test forms for many years, even before computers were in common use in schools. The use of remote computers to present questions and collect responses is utterly unnecessary insofar as local computers or traditional "fill-in-the-bubble" forms can serve equally well to administer multiple test forms. The real, unspoken advantage of remote computer testing is that the response data is seamlessly and silently transferred to the national consortium database rather than remaining at the local school.

Testing via remote computer, we are told, allows testing to be "adaptive." Adaptive testing means that questions later in the test are chosen according to the student's performance on earlier questions in the test. For example, if a student chooses a wrong answer to an early test question, he might be presented with easier questions later in the test; if he answers an early test question correctly, he might be presented with harder questions later on. But adaptation of this sort is also completely feasible when tests are administered using a local computer and test results are locally stored. For example, the test form could be provided as a unique, self-contained, portable computer program running on a local computer with which the student interacts directly; when the test is completed, the program emails the student's scored responses directly to his teacher. Alternatively, the test could be delivered to local schools in the form of a low-cost, tamper-proof computer server with which students interact locally and from which test results are retrieved by local school staff.

Discussion of technology alternatives, however, begs the much more important question of how well adaptive testing serves the student. Could a momentary lapse early in a test session obscure the strengths he or she might otherwise demonstrate by facing a more difficult set of questions? Conversely, could a lucky response entangle a student in a set of questions well over his/her head? Because standardized test scores may be stored indefinitely in longitudinal databases, or appear on school transcripts, such questions are significant. Will prospective employers, college admission officers, military recruiters, or government agencies have access to one's entire longitudinal history of test scores? Or do we believe that this massive centralized harvesting is entirely to identify and "help" struggling teachers? Finally, and perhaps most significantly, does adaptive testing fairly measure students against the fixed grade-level expectations of the Common Core curriculum?

Testing via remote computer, we are told, prevents teachers and local school administrators from obtaining copies of test questions that could then be used in the classroom to improve student performance (!). But wasn't that the declared purpose of embracing a common curriculum and standardized assessments in the first place? Indeed, one of the testing consortia (PARCC) hopes to make test materials widely availble. And, if test security is so critical, can't it be protected without remote test administration by using local computer strategies sketched above?

Is test security really critical to the reform agenda, or is fretting about test security merely another tactic for justifying centralized collection and storage of individual student data? Could it really be that, after receiving $160 million in public funding, test developers still retain some proprietary interest in the test materials or results? Or is the biggest proprietary secret that the predictive value of these new tests is but poorly understood, and their developers seek a nation of captive lab rats on which to sharpen their skills. Are these tests supposed to measure students against Common Core learning standards? Or, consistent with the stated purposes of reform, are these tests intended to assess whether students are ready for success in universities, corporations, and the military? If the former, then why should the tests be adaptive? If the latter, are we confident in their value? For example, after over fifty years of refinement, some well-known college entrance examinations have been dismissed by many 4-year colleges as relatively poor predictors of college success.

Even remote test administration could be realized without abusing student privacy if students are identified only by a one-time random number (without any personal, demographic, school, or other information) and any remotely collected testing results are destroyed immediately after the test. Methods for standardized testing that guarantee student privacy are neither difficult nor expensive, but they require putting privacy first -- unthinkable to educrats who just want the data. Why do educational bureaucrats so eagerly apply technology (in this case, $160 million worth) to increase centralized control, but refuse to entertain technologies that secure or expand the basic rights of students and parents?

What Can We Do?

With standardized testing as with the other education "reforms," student privacy is not dead. After spending millions of taxpayer dollars on test development, the SBA Consortium finally began to think about student privacy. They recently acknowledged that individual states retain legal jurisdiction over the student data that bureaucrats have hoped to steal and store centrally. Even more recently, state education leaders wrote the U.S. Department of Education to refuse any federal access to individual student data. Although federal law does not authorize the federal government to create a database of individual student data, and although the federal government is not authorized to report student data individually, the law does not (as is sometimes claimed) prohibit federal access to individual student data when volunteered by states or a source such as the consortium. Our students should have the same control over their testing data as they do other parts of their education records. Tell our state legislators to enact tight restrictions on the collection, sharing, and use of student test results (and all other personal information) harvested and stored by such testing consortia. The rationale for remotely administered testing is largely vacuuous: local administration of commonly developed tests and exclusively local storage of individual test results is the best way to measure educational progress without compromising student privacy. In no case should students ever be individually identifiable to outside testing organizations, and, immediately after each test session, all test results should be transmitted solely to the local school district and thereafter destroyed. Given emerging trends in professional credential examinations, legislators should also act now to forbid any use of cameras or biometric sensors by test administrators.

Common Core Standards

The Common Core standards are a national set of learning goals that have been accepted by Vermont educators. For example, a Common Core standard in mathematics is that third graders should be able to "represent and solve problems involving multiplication and division." Expecting third graders to be able to multiply and divide seems reasonable and uncontroversial to most people. However, a deeper look at the values underlying the Common Core can suggest troubling changes in the purposes of public education, and, accordingly, some implementations of the Common Core standards can pose a serious threat to student privacy --- and seem downright creepy.

Among the controversial elements of the Common Core standards is that the federal legislation underlying education reform emphasizes the preparation of our children for careers rather than citizenship. Is the purpose of public education to prepare our children for full lives as thoughtful, human citizens? Or is the purpose of public education to train our children for employment in the corporate workplace, the military, and universities? On one hand, Common Core standards seem to emphasize basic academic skills and knowledge that students are expected to develop; on the other hand, federal law driving education reform -- and some educators -- emphasize that, in future, public education must train students to be "college and career ready."

This shift in underlying values is important because it promises to diminish the quality of our public life together in return for speculative gains in individual wealth. For example, how long will Vermont Town Meeting survive if our children are primarily trained for employment rather than imbued with the knowledge and skills needed for effective American citizenship?

Moreover, the underlying values on which education reform is based can give rise to some intrusive and creepy educational practices that violate student privacy at the most basic levels. If children are primarily being trained for employment, then shaping their behavior and personality traits could well be more valuable to their employers than a knowledge of mathematics or an appreciation of poetry. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education has commissioned a report that explores ways to measure and shape student behaviors to better align them with the needs of employers, universities, and the military. The report, entitled Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century, illustrates how trendy, mercenary changes to the purposes of public instruction can influence classroom practice in troubling ways.

For example, in bygone days, primary school report cards candidly evaluated the developmental behaviors of young children, and these home reports were sometimes the basis of fruitful, informal discussion between teachers and parents. But how might such conversations change when the purpose of education is reformed from thoughtful citizenship to employment training? order to assure accountability? What if informal behavioral observation of young children is, as explored in the report (pages 38--39) and illustrated below, extended to longitudinal observations of the behavioral characteristics of older students? Would a prospective employer value such a report card, especially if, as suggested in the report, it was assembled from the observations of multiple teachers? What incentives might be applied to transform student behaviors into those considered more valuable?

Exhibit 9. Example of Character Report Card
(Click for larger image)

When the purpose of public education is reformed into training students to be "career and college-ready" rather than educating them for thoughtful citizenship, when pedagogical emphasis is on measured accountability, implementations of the Common Core curriculum can threaten student privacy in frightening ways -- bordering on the downright creepy. Conclusion 10 in the Executive Summary of the report (page 91) emphasizes using technology to measure and shape the behaviors and personality traits of our children. Does educational reform mean that educators can coerce students and parents to accept technology use with which they are uncomfortable? Will computer monitoring, broad sharing and remote storage of intimate student data, application of intrusive bodily sensors (see figure below), video surveillance, or character reports be voluntary, coerced, or entirely rejected by our community?

See Page 44, Exhibit 11. Four parallel streams of affective sensors

What Can We Do?

Concerns about the Common Core can sometimes arise from disagreements about the proper purpose of public education. Sometimes, concerns might relate to applying coercive or intrusive conditioning techniques to our children at school. The good news is that, whatever the concern, it can probably find some local resolution. Your local school board mostly controls how the Common Core learning standards are achieved and evaluated in your school. This independence has been affirmed by the Vermont Department of Education.

Your local school board is elected to reflect the values of your community. Is it likely that your local school board members would accept probing and conditioning our children like lab rats? Is it likely that your local school board members view our public schools primarily as training factories for corporations and the military? If you have concerns, talk with your neighbors and your school board.