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Creswell follow-up responses to Commission in opposition to a comprehensive federal student database

Following Cassie Creswell’s testimony on behalf of our Coalition on January 5, 2017 to the Commission on Evidence-Based Policy, the Commission sent her some follow-up questions.  Here are her responses.

10 February 2017

Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking

Washington, DC

 

Dear Commission Members:

Thank you for requesting additional information about the Parent Coalition on Student Privacy’s position on unit record systems. Below we address all three of the Commission’s follow-up questions:

  • Can you please clarify whether your objection is to unit record systems for elementary and secondary school students or if you also object to unit record systems for postsecondary students?

See the discussion of this issue below.

  • You argue for local control of student data and specifically for parental and teacher data stewardship. At what point should adult students in postsecondary education become the stewards of their own data?

The control of their data should pass to post-secondary students when they become adults, as occurs currently in Federal law.

  • Would your concerns about the intrusiveness of a student-unit record system be mitigated if the data were only maintained without personal identifiers that could be used to track an individual student, and if there were statutory protections that guaranteed that the data could only be used for aggregate, statistical analysis?

No, because data can easily be re-identified. If only aggregate data is used, only aggregate data should be collected.

We have significant reservations about the creation of any universal unit record system for students, whether for elementary, secondary or post-secondary students.

Elementary and secondary student unit record systems present a particular set of risks because the majority of information in a child’s K12 educational record should not be made “permanent.” Childhood is a time of growth, experimentation and development; and mistakes and challenges should not be part of a record that could follow one into adulthood and hamper a child’s chance of future success.

A unit record system for post-secondary education does not present an identical set of concerns. Students in post-secondary institutions do expect that some aspects of their transcript, including grades and credits, will persist into adulthood with the expectation of being  shared with employers and other educational institutions—with their consent. Yet other contents of their education records should never be made public.

Records from these years may also contain sensitive information about immigration status, counseling records, mental and physical health and disabilities, etc. At the age of 18, control of the record is transferred from a parent or guardian to the students themselves, but, crucially, privacy controls are still maintained.

We have several concerns about the need for and use of any universal post-secondary unit record system:

  1. The efficacy of methods to de-identify or anonymize personally-identifiable data is questionable. De-identified data can often be re-identified and exposed.[1]
  2. The government should not have access to a comprehensive database for all post-secondary students as this information could be easily abused for political or immigration reasons.  This is especially of concern given the current political climate. The Home Office in Great Britain has now requested access to a similar government student database for the purposes of “immigration control” that was promised to only be used for research.[2]
  3. Once the federal government starts collecting post-secondary data, this could easily lead to a creeping expansion of data collection from K12 institutions and districts.
  4. The quality of research based on large-scale correlational studies is of greatly varying quality[3] and does not justify the risks of universal tracking.
  5. Large amounts of data used for the purposes of evaluating post-secondary institutions’ effectiveness are already available, including the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, the Mobility Report Card Project—a collaboration of the US Treasury and the Department of Education, and the privately-run National Student Clearinghouse.
  6. Extensive regulations have already been implemented to ensure that post-secondary institutions are protecting student’s long-term financial interests, e.g. Negotiated Rulemaking on Gainful Employment implemented in Fall 2014.

We acknowledge that given the investment of taxpayer funds that support institutions of higher education, the federal government has a strong practical interest to make certain that those funds are being used efficiently and effectively.

We do not, however, think that a universal student record system created and administered by the federal government is a necessary component of fulfilling that interest and duty.

The federal government spends billions of dollars in medical research and health care as well, and yet there has been no proposal that we know of for the federal government to collect the personal health data for every person in the United States.

We support only the use of aggregated student data for the evaluation of postsecondary institutions. The collection of such data must include asking for consent for participation from either a parent/guardian or the students themselves if over the age of 18. Clear, transparent information about how any data is to be used and who it may be shared with must be presented before asking for consent. And, there should be no financial benefit or loss contingent on granting the consent.

We continue to urge the Commission to recommend against the creation of any universal federal student unit record system.

On behalf of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy,

Sincerely,

Cassandre Creswell, PhD

Co-executive director

Raise Your Hand Action

Chicago IL

_____

[1] See, for example, the research of Latanya Sweeney on identifiability.

[2]The Home Office are turning teachers into immigration officers” G. Bhattacharyya. Politics.co.uk.

[3] See discussion from a variety of fields (medicine, psychology and linguistics) in “Data dredging, bias, or confounding.” Smith, G.D. and S. Ebrahim. BMJ. 2002; “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” Ioannidis, J. P. A. PLOS Medicine. 2005; “False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant.” Simmons, J.P., L.D. Nelson and U. Simonsohn. Psychological Science. 2011; and “Linguistic Diversity and Traffic Accidents: Lessons from Statistical Studies of Cultural Traits.” PLoS ONE. 2013. Roberts S. and J. Winters.

 

Help us fight to protect children’s privacy on #GivingTuesday

The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy is thrilled to take part in #GivingTuesday on November 29, 2016, a day dedicated to kick off the charitable season. We realize there are many causes worthy of your support but this year, we hope you will consider helping us so we can continue our urgent work.

If you look at a typical American classroom today, you will see students using laptops, tablets, smartboards and other devices. What you won’t see is the hundreds or more pieces of student data being collected by this technology and put at risk from breach, hack, misuse and commercialization. Federal and state laws too often lack the guardrails necessary to protect this treasure trove of student data. And boy is it valuable — worth an estimated $8 billion dollars per year.

While the software industry and organizations like the Gates Foundation give millions of dollars to dozens of professional organizations to promote the increased use of ed tech and collection of student data, our Coalition works on a shoe-string budget and need your support to keep going.

Since forming in Summer of 2014, we’ve been busy:

  • testifying before the U.S. House Education & the Workforce Committee on the need to require more transparency around disclosure and security protections for student data;
  • speaking at state forums and national conferences to promote our privacy principles;
  • coordinating with advocates across the country to introduce strong state-level and federal legislation;
  • providing fact sheets on student privacy rights under existing  law;
  • helping parents write FERPA complaints when their schools violate those rights;
  • raising awareness through articles and op-eds; and
  • alerting parents on how to comment on new policies that further threaten student privacy — like the revived push to overturn the ban on the federal collection of personal student data.

Right now, we’re working on a Parent Student Privacy Toolkit, to be released early next year in partnership with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood – which will include practical steps and best practices to ensure that your child’s personal information is protected while at school and at home.

Please give to the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, so we can keep fighting to protect every child’s most precious possession – his or her privacy.

You can donate online here or send a check to:

Class Size Matters  •  124 Waverly Place  •  New York, NY 10011

*Please be sure to write “Designated to PCSP” on the check or the online form. Your contribution is fully tax-deductible.

Thank you for all that you do to support student privacy,

Leonie and Rachael

How and why to send your comments in opposition to a federal student data system

See also our press release and our letter to the Commission, sent Nov. 14, 2016.

Recently, Dan Greenstein, director of the Gates Foundation ‘s Postsecondary Success Strategy, released the Foundation’s top advocacy priorities for 2017.  Chief among them was to “push Congress” to overturn the prohibition against the federal collection of personal data of all students, called the federal student-unit record system.   The ban on the federal government collecting the personal data on all students has existed since the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, in 20 U.S.C. sec. 1001.

The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (CEP) was established by Congress last year.  One of the goals of this Commission is to consider “whether a Federal clearinghouse should be created for government survey and administrative data.”  The Commission held hearings in DC on October 21, 2016.   At the hearing, several Gates-funded groups testified, including New America, Data Quality Campaign, Education Trust and Young Invincibles.

All these organizations testified in favor of overturning the ban on federal student-unit record system, or to weaken the ban. Though they said the purpose of this would be to allow for “improvements in information on postsecondary progress and outcomes, but the actual goal of the Gates Foundation and their allies is far more ambitious: to allow for the creation of a “national data infrastructure” that would incorporate the personal data on all public school students, starting in preK through high school, college and beyond, and to connect all data now held by different state and federal agencies.  This was revealed in the summary and chart in the Gates Foundation’s recent report on their top advocacy priorities:

GOAL

Support the development of a comprehensive national data infrastructure that enables the secure and consistent collection and reporting of key performance metrics for all students in all institutions. These data are essential for supporting the change needed to close persistent attainment gaps and produce an educated and diverse workforce with career-relevant credentials for the 21st century.

A chart was included to demonstrate the overarching and comprehensive nature of the data infrastructure envisioned:

gates-foundation-chart-data-flow

On November 14, the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy sent a letter to the Commission to strongly oppose the overturning of the ban on a proposed federal student-unit record system.  Groups that signed  include the ACLU, Network for Public Education, NPE Action, Parents Across America, and NY State Allies for Public Education. We believe that the potential risks to student privacy that such a centralized, comprehensive federal database are enormous, as expressed in our press release.

Please send your own comments to the Commission, in opposition to allowing the federal government to collect personal data and track every public school student in the nation.

The deadline for comment is December 14, 2016 at 11:59 PM.

Below are instructions on how to submit your comments, as well as a sample comment you can use,  but please feel free write your own and/or edit this any way  you wish.

Thanks!  Rachael and Leonie, Parent Coalition for Student Privacy

Instructions:

  1. Visit the Federal Register at: https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=USBC-2016-0003
  2. Click on the “Comment Now” button in the upper right hand corner.
  3. Copy our “Sample comment” below and paste it into the window on the Federal Register webpage.
  4. If you would like to write your own comments, don’t forget to add to the start of your message: Docket ID USBC-2016-0003-0001 “Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking Comments”
  5. Enter your name and check the box if you would like to add your contact information.
  6. Encourage others to submit their comments too!

Sample comment:

Docket ID USBC-2016-0003-0001 “Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking Comments”

I strongly oppose any proposal that would lead to the creation of a centralized, federal clearinghouse of the personally identifiable information of all students, commonly referred to as a student unit-record system or national database.

The risk that such a federal database would pose to student privacy is immense; including the very real possibility of breach, malicious attack, or the use of this information for purposes not initially intended.  Ever since a federal student unit-record system was banned by the Higher Education Act in 2008, the reasons against creating it have only become more compelling.

In the past few years, much highly personal data held by federal agencies has been hacked, including the release of the records of the Office of Personnel Management involving more than 22 million individuals, not only federal employees and contractors but also their families and friends.

The US Department of Education has been found to have especially weak security standards in its collection and storage of student data, and received a grade of D for its security protections.

In addition, preK-12 student data currently collected by state departments of education that would potentially be shared with the federal government include upwards of 700 highly sensitive personal data elements, including students’ immigrant status, disabilities, disciplinary records, and homelessness data.

I am also very concerned about recent revelations of the widespread surveillance on ordinary citizens by the federal government, and the way in which a national student data system would be used to expand the tracking of students from PreK into high school, college, the workforce and beyond. A federal data clearinghouse of student information could effectively create life-long dossiers on nearly every individual in the nation.

I urge you to strongly oppose the creation of any centralized federal data system holding students’ personally identifiable information and to support the continuation of the  ban in the report you provide to Congress.

Yours,  [name, state, and organization affiliation if any]

Press Release: Parent, education and privacy groups oppose overturning the ban on a federal student database

Here is background on this issue, with instructions on how to send your own comments to the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, due December 14, 2016.  Here is the letter, signed by several parent, education and privacy organizations, sent  to the Commission today.

For Immediate Release

November 14, 2016
For more information: Leonie Haimson, leoniehaimson@gmail.com; 917-435-9329

This morning a letter was sent to the federal Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking from parent groups, education advocates, and privacy experts, urging them not to propose that the ban on a centralized federal database of student personal data be overturned.

Recently, several DC-based groups testified before the Commission, urging that this ban be lifted, which was established by Congress as part of the Higher Education Act in 2008.  The Gates Foundation has also announced that the creation of a centralized federal database to track students from preK through college, the workforce and beyond is one of their top advocacy priorities for 2017.

In the letter, parent, privacy and education organizations warned that eliminating this ban would risk that highly sensitive information would breached, as has occurred with sensitive data held by many federal agencies in recent years.  A hack into the Office of Personal Management released personnel records of about 22.1 million individuals. More recently, an audit of the US Department of Education found serious security flaws in their data systems, and a government security scorecard awarded the agency an overall grade of “D.

Moreover, K-12 student data currently collected by states that would potentially be incorporated in the federal database often include upwards of 700 specific personal data elements, including students’ immigrant status, disabilities, disciplinary records, and homelessness. Data collected ostensibly for the sole purpose of research would likely be merged with other federal agency data and could include information from their census, military service, tax returns, criminal and health records.

Said Leonie Haimson, co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, whose members led the fight against inBloom, designed to capture and share the personal student data of nine states and districts, “A centralized federal database containing the personal data of every public-school student would pose an even greater risk to individual privacy than inBloom.  It would allow the government to create dossiers on nearly every United States resident over time, and if breached or abused would cause immeasurable damage.”

As privacy advocates in England recently discovered, the personal information in a similar national student database that the government promised would be used only for research purposes has been secretly requested by the police and by the Home Office, in part to identify and locate undocumented children and their families.

“Our disastrous data privacy situation here in England should serve to warn Americans of the grave dangers of this sort of comprehensive student surveillance and database. The personal confidential information in our National Pupil Database was supposed to be used only for research, but we found out recently that data on thousands of students and their families has been secretly requested by the police and for the purposes of immigration control in just the last 15 months. It would be unwise and irresponsible for the United States to create a similar database, which can so easily be used for political purposes which are not in all children’s best interests,” said Jen Persson, coordinator of defenddigitalme, a privacy and digital rights group in the UK.

Chad Marlow, Advocacy & Policy Counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “Improving educational opportunities for children and protecting student privacy are not mutually exclusive goals.  In fact, it is our responsibility as parents, educators, and Americans to doggedly pursue both objectives.  Creating any type of centralized database for personally identifiable student data would pose real and significant risks to the privacy of America’s students, and that is why such databases have consistently been rejected in the past.  With education policy, as with privacy, ‘do no harm’ is a reasonable place to start, and here, doing no harm clearly requires rejecting any attempts to establish a universal database that compiles and tracks students’ most sensitive information.”

Diane Ravitch, President of the Network for Public Education and NPE Action pointed out, “Whether Democrat or Republican, the one thing parents agree on is the importance of their child’s privacy. To allow the federal government to collect personal and sensitive data on every public-school student in the nation risks that this information would be misused by the government and corporations. “

“Parents Across America opposes any effort to establish a national student record system. Ever since the federal government weakened protections for student privacy, parents have been in a crisis mode. Our children are exposed every school day to a growing mish-mash of screen devices and online programs that capture mountains of their data. We know that the threat to privacy will only get worse if there’s a national record system; education profiteers will line up to tap into an even more convenient source of private student information. But we are determined not to let that happen to our children’s data,” said Julie Woestehoff, Interim Executive Director of Parents Across America.

Lisa Rudley, Executive Director of the NY State Allies for Public Education, observed, “Data collection and sharing of our children’s personally identifiable information should require a parent’s informed consent. Just because the technology of data mining is here, it doesn’t mean children’s privacy rights should be sacrificed.”

“Our children and their families deserve protection of their data.  More importantly, we must understand that protecting our children relies upon protecting their personal information from breach or abuse,” concluded Marla Kilfoyle, Executive Director of the Badass Teachers Association.

The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking is accepting public comment on this matter until December 14, 2016. For more information, visit https://www.studentprivacymatters.org/federaldatasystem/

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