March 14, 2014

The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) has created a system to produce and sell standards, curriculum materials, textbooks, and assessments. Working with federal agencies and corporate sponsors, the CCSSI has foisted itself upon half the states. The last piece of the system is data collection. Bill Gates and government officials have long sought to track students’ beliefs and performance. Now they would like to micromanage educators, as well. This puts the CCSSI on a collision course with parents, teachers, and civil libertarians who do not trust the government to use such data wisely. According to the Gates Foundation website, on July 21, 2009, Gates told the National Conference of State Legislatures:

“Common standards define what the students need to learn; robust data systems tell us whether they’re learning it — and they tell us a whole lot more than that … The stimulus package contains funding for longitudinal data systems; I hope you will use this funding to support systems that track student performance from early childhood education through high school and college and into the workplace … All states and districts should collect common data on teachers and students. We need to define the data in a standardised way, we need to collect all of it for all of our students … Of course, if you do build this system and get this data, you may have to deal with people who don’t want you to use it.”

“Dealing with people” who do not want strangers using their children’s data sounds a bit ominous, but at least Gates was honest about it. Unfortunately for supporters, the CCSSI has come online at a time when distrust of the government is high. The recent scandal with Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agents using confidential taxpayer information to punish citizens whose political beliefs differ from their own makes people nervous about the government collecting sensitive data on children. Assurances that bureaucrats only want to help are likely to fall on deaf ears, especially in light of what federal agencies have already written and put into motion. In February 2013, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) Office of Educational Technology issued a report titled “Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century”. The report focuses on how fine-grained data about students can be gathered, stored, processed, and used. It reads in part:

“[M]easurement may focus on sequences of behaviors, emotions, physiological reactions, and/or thoughts that unfold over time during learning, extracting indicators of persistence and giving up. New technologies using educational data mining and ‘affective computing’ (the study and development of systems and devices that can recognise, interpret, process, and simulate aspects of human affect) are beginning to focus on ‘micro-level’ moment-by-moment data within digital and blended-learning environments to provide feedback to adapt learning tasks.”

The technical implements to accomplish this are shown on page 44 of the report.

The report goes on to say, “Ed Dieterle and Ash Vasudeva of the [Gates Foundation] point out that researchers … are beginning to use multiple methods to explore how specific brain activity is correlated to other cognitive affective indicators that are practical to measure in school settings.” The authors briefly mention ethics in a section titled, “Ethical Considerations for New Types of Personal Data.” It reads: “As new forms of measurement emerge and new types of personal data become available, the field must also deal with critical ethical considerations … especially when leveraging data available in the ‘cloud’ that users may or may not be aware is being mined … Learners and educators have the potential to get forms of feedback about their behaviors, emotions, physiological responses, and cognitive processes that have never been available before … developers must carefully consider the impacts of releasing such data, sometimes of a sensitive nature, and incorporate feedback mechanisms that are valuable, respectful, and serve to support productive mindsets.” The concern seems to be that students, parents, and teachers may be incapable of handling the information collected about them.

Gates has been the driving force behind the CCSSI. In addition to creating and funding Achieve, Inc., to draft the standards, he has lobbied state and federal governments to assure ongoing funding and compliance with the program.

Bill Gates and government officials have long sought to track students’ beliefs and performance. Now they would like to micromanage educators, as well.

A search of this 126-page report finds the word “ethical” used four times including in the title of the above section and the table of contents. On the other hand, the report is expansive about the data they think should be gathered on students, including their “beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, values, and ways of perceiving oneself.” Gathering such information violates a slew of existing federal regulations including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. As with laws forbidding federal involvement with K-12 curriculum, however, the DOE is skirting the need for parents’ permission before collecting data. In effect, the information belongs to whoever gathers it; they may retain, dispense, or use it as they see fit. The National Center for Education Statistics has taken the position that parental approval is required only for studies funded directly by the U.S. DOE, and therefore does not apply to data collected by other entities.

The now-defunct private database inBloom, funded by the Gates Foundation, was just such an entity. Begun in 2011, inBloom was intended as a repository of data collected on American schoolchildren to be made available to “interested parties,” the definition of which was so broad as to be meaningless. This is a continuation of corporate data mining done in the private sector, but applied to the captive market created by CCSSI, and to teachers. The tactic used is to provide schools with “free” services like email and then mine data on users. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo already employ sophisticated algorithms to comb all data collected on individual users — emails, web searches, websites visited — and use the results. Orwell’s Thought Police were less thorough. Clearly the effort to correct Big Brother’s shortcomings is well under way.

One shudders to think where we are headed. Do children have any right to privacy, or does “affective computing” preempt it? Will teachers remain free to adjust lesson plans to better serve students, or will a new Taylorism be the wave of the future? Will the new mind-reading technologies obviate the need for the reflective practice of teaching? Are there any limits on government or on how intrusive technocrats can be? How much data is enough, and will the same people control it as controlled the IRS files? The Panopticon planned by developers is one more reason parents, teachers, and citizens should oppose the CCSSI.

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About Craig Sower

Craig Sower is Professor of English at Shujitsu University in Okayama, Japan, where he has taught writing and teacher-education at both the undergraduate and post-graduate levels since 1998. He is a graduate of the School for International Training. Mr. Sower has lived in Japan since 1988, and has written and presented extensively on curriculum development, teacher-education, writing, intercultural communication, TESOL, TEFL, American progressive education, Japanese education, yutori kyoiku, and education reform.


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