Thursday, January 2, 2014

Big Brother in the classroom

Editor’s note: This is the sixth article in an eight-part series exploring Common Core

In my last column I looked at New York’s mass data-mining experiment related to Common Core in which the Empire State is collecting individual academic histories of every student to be shared across school districts, in the state’s educational bureaucracy, and with commercial third parties.

Such data collection is not without controversy because it’s a disturbing assault on families’ right to privacy.

Realize, though, that what the state is doing now is the tip of the iceberg.

When the federal government created a grant program for the development and institution of so-called Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems (which is what New York’s Common Core data collection machine is most accurately called), the National Center for Education Statistics – an arm of the US Department of Education – issued a document detailing the goals of the program and what is expected from participating states.

The NCES’s brief details secondary identifiers and characteristics which can be used to track students and segregate their strengths and weaknesses based on the effects of those items.  Here is the expanded list of items that the NCES notes could be contained within a student’s records:

·         Political affiliations or beliefs of the student or parent

·         Mental and psychological problems of the student or the student’s family

·         Sex behavior or attitudes

·         Illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating, and demeaning behavior

·         Critical appraisals of other individuals with whom respondents have close family relationships

·         Legally recognized privileged or analogous relationships, such as those of lawyers, physicians, and ministers

·         Religious practices, affiliations, or beliefs of the student or the student’s parent

·         Income (other than that required by law to determine eligibility for participation in a program or for receiving financial assistance under such program)

It so happens that New York won one of the aforementioned federal grants and is the only state of the 24 that did that is following through on total implementation of the Statewide Longitudinal Data System. That said, this year, and in the coming years, will New York’s children be subjected to surveys asking for some or all of this highly-specific and highly-private information?

If they are, will our kids be tagged as “troubled” students for matters entirely unrelated to public education? Will those factors once identified and categorized be used as cues to encourage home visitation and/or intervention by Child Protective Services and other government agencies? And will those same identifiers dog them our kids for the rest of their lives?  

Based upon the above list, one can easily see students and their families targeted for any of the following: non-standard political beliefs (such as libertarianism); a parent who is coping with mental illness (even something as common and treatable as depression); disagreements with the concept of same-sex relationships; exhibiting once-normal behavioral traits now deemed to be anti-social (such as playful kidding now classified as vicious bullying); maintaining friendly relationships with reformed individuals who paid their dues to society; regular utilization of the services of medical doctors; regularly attending church services; and family income (“too low” or “too high”).         

The possibilities for abuse of this data are endless. It could be done in the classroom (by a maverick teacher with a personal agenda), at the district level (by one trying to improve its statistical outcomes by sequestering alleged troubled youth), and well into the future --- these corrupted records would follow the youth into the SUNY/CUNY system (impacting their eligibility and/or studies) and could likely be made readily available in their pursuit of gainful employment.

What you see before you is the slippery slope: The data collection being done now is intrusive enough, but it’s nothing compared to what will happen once districts and unknowing parents have warmed up to the practice and accept data-mining as a normal part of public education.

There’s a Big Brother in the classroom…and it’s not anyone’s sibling.    

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