Clarifying the inBloom debate

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Aug 14, 2013

The new education technology nonprofit inBloom has come under scrutiny of late by parents, teachers, and political groups expressing concern for students’ privacy. Efforts to discredit this cloud-based student data infrastructure are worrisome. We certainly shouldn’t overlook privacy concerns, but amidst their feverish dissent, critics are misstating the law and outright ignoring the need for coherent education data policies and tools.

First, a few points of clarification. As a parent reading scathing reports on inBloom, I might assume that the organization is going out and “collecting” data to use for its own purposes. A more precise term is that inBloom is hosting data. inBloom is an online data warehouse where school districts and states can store and access their data on a single platform. What critics fail to acknowledge is that—inBloom or no inBloom—personal and academic information is already being collected, stored, and analyzed beyond the confines of the classroom, usually by district and state officials. inBloom is an attempt to improve what is currently a troubling set of data collection and storage practices. Presently, students’ personal and academic information is stored across a disparate set of data systems that are costly and clunky to integrate. Is storing data in district or state databases—or in paper files gathering dust— necessarily a more secure, much less practical method to keep track of students’ progress?

Naysayers also decry the organization’s ability to “sell” data. Selling data is neither within inBloom’s legal rights, nor what inBloom is structured to accomplish. Under the federal Family Educational Rights Act (FERPA), student data can only be passed along to third parties without parental consent if the state or local education agency specifically grants permission and is sharing the data for a legitimate educational purpose. The law defines these third parties as “organizations conducting studies,” which may include academic research institutions or companies that provide curriculum or software tools to schools. The law allows for these studies (again, only at the agencies’ discretion) in order to help agencies ascertain which programs are effectively serving students.

If a state or local education agency elects to provide a third party with student data, FERPA enumerates particular rules to protect privacy: personal identification of parents and students is not permitted for anyone other than the education agency and school leaders; agencies maintain direct control of how student data is used; and identifying information is destroyed within a specified period of time once it is no longer needed for evaluation.

But here’s the kicker: although critics may debate the merits of education agencies sharing data with these organizations, the key here is that inBloom has no say over whether the data that it hosts is provided to outside organizations. By law, a state or district is allowed to hand over their student data to those third-party organizations today. So even if inBloom hosts your child’s data, the decision to contract with third parties still resides in the public’s hands, at the discretion of its state and local education agencies.

Now, given that inBloom is not engaging (and cannot by law) in the insidious behaviors that critics might have you believe, why should parents and educators support an integrated data solution? Here are a few reasons the naysayers aren’t talking about:

We need cost effective integrated data systems. inBloom is building a data management system that will serve numerous states and districts: in effect, this means that the organization can leverage economies of scale to build a better, more coherent system that individual districts and states might not otherwise have the budget or bandwidth to create. inBloom certainly needs to do everything in its power to ensure that student data remains secure. But vilifying a solution that takes advantage of pooling demand for a well-built data system across numerous states misses the fact that it is costly for states and districts to build their own solutions on a one-off basis.

Data drives good, personalized instruction. Parents should also be wary of critics’ claims that collecting and analyzing “big data” in education (which can mean many things) stands to hurt kids. In many ways, the data-poor system that we have today hinders learning and limits what we are able to understand about how kids learn. Teachers like Kerrie Dallman have acknowledged that effective teaching depends largely on the ability to store and analyze data in meaningful ways in order to isolate particular needs and continuously improve instruction. Also, as we’ve noted before, a coherent data architecture is the foundation for moving to a robust competency-based education system. In such a system, students would only progress once they’ve mastered material, rather than when the school calendar says they should move on regardless of whether they have grasped a skill or concept. If we can’t accurately track individual student learning over time, personalized competency-based instruction cannot take hold.

Better data benefits parents. A data-poor system runs the risk of keeping parents in the dark about overall school performance. Parents often rely on word of mouth or web sites like www.greatschools.org to assess school quality. GreatSchools is a wonderful resource but its school profiles are limited by the same arcane data systems that constrain teachers: the site can only share high-level school data that is supplemented by a random selection of parent and student reviews. A more data-integrated system would allow parents to actually see the growth a school has accomplished over time and compare it—apples to apples—to other schools they are considering. Down the line, good data systems might even provide parents with customized information, such as profiles of how students with similar needs or interests as their children were performing at a given school, rather than opaque averages across whole-school performance.

When organizations try to tackle these complex problems, constructive criticism may clarify the public’s values and priorities. Critics are making important points about privacy concerns that exert pressure on inBloom and groups like it to tighten their models and minimize their liability. But much of the circulating criticism is not constructive. Instead it paints an inaccurate, incomplete picture. As a result, parents are at risk of misunderstanding inBloom’s function, the law that guides it, and the advantages that a single coherent data platform would confer on their children.

Disclosure: Michael B. Horn, the executive director of this organization, sits on the board of inBloom.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.