EDITORIAL: Let’s fix education… with websites?

CLICK HERE TO LOG IN. For security purposes answer either of these questions: What was your first childhood reptile? At what age did your favorite teacher reach puberty? Welcome to the School District’s EDP to NYSED’s RTTT-funded EngageNY, consistent with FERPA, showing the CCLS progress of your data point (also called your “child”).
Whaa?

All those abbreviations are part of an effort by the state Education Department to give teachers, administrators parents and students access to more information about each student’s performance in school. And state officials say all this is absolutely free… for two years. After that, you-know-who will have to support it. The Chatham Board of Education heard this news last week. Two weeks ago it was ICC, and all districts in the county face this requirement.

Here are the full terms abbreviated above:
EDP: Education Data Portal
NYSED: New York State Education Department
RTTT: Race to the Top
EngageNY: the website www.engageny.org
FERPA: Family Education Rights and Privacy Act
CCLS: Common Core Learning Standards

The timing for the EDP start could not have been worse for the state Education Department, given the mishandled Affordable Care Act website. But there is no turning back. Creating one method statewide for accessing digital data about students–a “single sign-on portal”–was a condition for the $700 million Race to the Top grant the state received from the federal government.

Aside from the geek-speak that always oozes from Education Department documents, the state obviously put some effort into its plan for digital student records. Officials were was guided by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that gives parents the right to see the school records of their kids and have a say in how schools share those records.

In March the state Education Department’s associate commissioner of the Office of Curriculum, Assessment and Educational Technology (an actual job title) issued a memo to school administrators that explained the portal project. The memo says that until now each district acquired its own digital reporting system and set its own security and privacy standards. That led to high costs and an increased “potential for data breach”–the theft or misuse of student records.

A world of WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden and the hacking brigade of the Chinese Army, not to mention our nation’s spy agencies, offers little hope that any computer security system can resist determined digital predators. So the security question is not whether the new system will protect the privacy of student data but rather how much time it buys us before we have to scrap it for an even more sophisticated and costly system. The memo doesn’t delve into those details, it just assures administrators that the new system will be more secure and private.

As Chatham Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo told her board, each district can choose from among three companies the state has selected to provide the portal. At least two of them are for-profit companies judging from their websites. One of the three is a partnership that includes Pearson, the multi-national education and publishing firm. Pearson reported sales in the first half of this year of roughly $4.3 billion.

What’s wrong with that? After all, a big company brings a lot of resources to the table that could benefit the education of our children. But whether big companies might also place a higher value on serving shareholders than on student privacy is another point the memo doesn’t address, other than to insist the state will not sell student data that passes through the companies’ portals. Is that really the best we can hope for?

We surrender personal information every time we communicate using a cell phone, computer or tablet. That realization could account for the lack of public scrutiny so far of this new EDL rollout. There’s also the outrage fatigue that stems from endless news accounts of the federal health insurance website. And add to that the widespread anger over the state education commissioner’s incompetent job of phasing in the Common Core Curriculum, which is also part of Race to the Top funding. Who has time to care?

But state officials would be foolish to expect the EDL program to sail past voters unexamined and unchallenged. Without fully briefing the public on the portal project’s benefits and weaknesses, and with no evidence the state is willing to make reasonable changes, the EDL project looms as the latest crisis poised to erode public trust in government.

Comments are closed.