On Wednesday, the ire of teachers, parents and several state legislators was directed at another aspect of the increasingly controversial federal Race to the Top initiative and its implementation in New York: The creation of a vast trove of student data that the state Education Department wants to build in collaboration with a grant-funded nonprofit firm.
In an almost daylong hearing at the Capitol, members of the Assembly Education Committee questioned state education officials about the data gathering, which collects student test scores, attendance records, discipline history, health, ethnicity and other information.
The elected officials questioned how such information will be protected from hackers, or others who might use it to unlawful ends. In light of the worries, lawmakers suggested they would push bills to limit the data storage — possibly by having parents "opt in" rather than automatically be included in the program.
NYSED Commissioner King of course defended the inBloom data collection operation, as well as inBloom officials who failed to show up to the Assembly hearing:
Education Committee Chairwoman Cathy Nolan was angered that inBloom, the Atlanta-based nonprofit that the state has given the task of gathering and storing the data, decided not to send a representative to the hearing. Company spokesman Adam Gaber said in an email the company's staff was unable to attend due to "prior commitments."
Nolan suggested she would subpoena the firm.
"I was very disappointed; I reached out to the inBloom company and they refused (to come). ... That's a red flag," said Nolan, who berated state Education Commissioner John King over the firm's absence.
King said lawmakers had "legitimate questions" about the security issues. But he defended the data bank, arguing that it would simply standardize the reams of student information that are already gathered, but are currently kept in an array of isolated digital silos.
With the information in one location, such as a cloud-based system, teachers and parents could better track the progress of their kids.
Part of the plan calls for school districts to set up locally run "dashboards," or password-protected Web portals that would allow parents and teachers to log in and examine student data.
Some of the state's more affluent school systems already have such features, King said.
The program, King added, was also concerned with "ensuring that parents and educators have access to curriculum and materials."
Ah, but neither King nor his merry men and women in reform and data collection have the trust of the public anymore:
King has spent the past few months grappling with unrest over the implementation of the federal Common Core educational standards, another aspect of the Race to the Top initiative. Just as there has been mistrust of the standardized tests that districts are using as part of the Common Core, parents, teachers and others have exhibited a deep suspicion of what one speaker at Wednesday's hearing described as a massive "data upload" for millions of students.
"Human beings are not meant to be quantified," said Julie Bigger, a parent from Central New York.
Some said they feared the project was a beachhead for new money-making ventures that would package and sell the data, while others were worried about protecting discipline records of youngsters who may have been suspended or gotten in trouble at one point in their student career.
They also wondered how much the system would cost when the federal grant money ran out, which will likely happen within the next two years.
If an opt-in bill is passed into law, that would go a long way toward killing off inBloom - but only if the law contains a provision that does not allow the SED, the Regents or the governor to punish districts that do not get many opt-in's.
Cuomo has been known to use the budget as a bludgeon before, most notably over the teacher evaluation system.
So opt-in only works if it is a true "opt-in" (i.e., that parents have the right to decide whether they want their kids' information handed over to inBloom and nothing will happen to their kids, the schools or the districts if they choose not to join the project.)