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Common Core databases raise privacy concerns

Suddenly, all-encompassing databases and access to them are becoming causes for concern. The latest incident is eBay giving notice that its data system has been breached by hackers. Or Cover Oregon self-destructing.

Now the U.S. Department of Education is embarking on the creation of databases that will store every aspect of our children's lives, from the time they enter kindergarten until they complete their education at the high school, college or graduate-school level. The Common Core State Standards, adopted by 45 states including Oregon, are well-intended. Their purpose is to insure that classrooms nationwide are meeting rigorous academic standards.

To measure their Common Core success, students will take computerized statewide tests. The test results will be stored in databases, along with students' grades, attendance, disciplinary issues, socioeconomic status and other factors the government deems relevant. This data on our children will be stored permanently. It may also be shared with a simple key stroke.

"Safeguard Use of Student Data, White House Report Urges" is an eye-catching headline in the May 14 issue of Education Week. As the Common Core facilitates the creation of databases covering all aspects of our children's lives, there is growing awareness of how easily that information can be misused.

The White House report, released on May 1, calls for guarantees that data collected on schoolchildren be used solely for education purposes. "Schools and districts ... must retain 'direct control' over that information," the report says. It continues, "the federal government must insure educational data linked to individual students gathered in school (are) used for educational purposes, and protect students against their data being shared or used inappropriately."

It also notes that technological innovations can now provide students and teachers with real-time feedback, which "promises to transform education by personalizing learning." What a great idea. If only I could have personalized algebra lessons for my nearly 200 math students each day. Do any of our political leaders or government agencies understand how real classrooms function? Do they not notice how often databases are breached, data-entry errors occur, or the potential damage done?

I see the creation of massive databases as a double whammy danger to our children and to their teachers. Another recent headline (Education Week, April 16 issue) sums up one danger. "Ed-Tech Vendors' Privacy Policies Under Scrutiny." The article reports on growing public awareness of "the ways technology vendors handle children's educational information" and the danger that poses to students' privacy. It names several "prominent ed-tech" players, saying "each already has access to the information of tens of thousands of U.S. schoolchildren."

The article says Education Week's own research raises serious questions about "the use of tracking and surveillance technologies ... (and) ... the collection, use and sharing of massive amounts of student 'metadata.' " It is not school districts or school personnel creating and managing these massive databases; it is for-profit educational technology companies. Once they possess student "metadata," there is little regulation on how they can use it.

That use connects to the second danger I foresee. The concept of personalizing learning is based on educators having access to relevant data on all their students. During the decade when I taught nearly 200 math students daily in the Los Angeles Unified School District, would I have been expected to study each student's relevant data each semester? Or each week? When in my busy school week, which included hours of work at home, would I have done that?

Schools have traditionally met the individual needs of students by grouping them according to their interest, aptitude and success in various subjects. My typical teaching schedule included regular pre-algebra and algebra 1 plus honors pre-algebra and honors algebra 1. Students took algebra 1 as seventh-, eighth- or ninth-graders, depending on their readiness. Do policymakers believe today's teachers can create dozens of different lessons daily for each class of 35, after first studying 180 or more students' stored data?

An insert of 37 pages in the April 23 issue of Education Week is headed "Vision Meets Reality — The Common Core in Action." It gives advertising for new relevant products equal space with actual reporting. A great amount of scarce resources will be devoted to Common Core even as it becomes more controversial, like so many other education experiments.

But Common Core creates a new challenge. Who will safeguard the ever-growing, massive student databases and protect our children's privacy?

Betty R. Kazmin of Medford taught algebra for 20 years in Los Angeles public and private secondary schools, and served on the board of education in Willard, Ohio.