Thursday, September 18, 2014

Is Your Son’s Progress Becoming a Bar Code for Strangers?

Is Your Son’s Progress Becoming a Bar Code for Strangers?
By Jill Jenkins
            When our country was founded, schools were held in one-room school houses with one school spinster who taught all grades and all subjects.  In the 1800, the Industrial Revolution created secondary schools on the factory design.  Each subject was taught by a different instructor and the students passed from subject to subject like cars on a conveyer belt.  Now it is the age of computer and schools are becoming a data-driven industry, but who is reading that data?
            According to “A Day In The Life Of A Data Mined Kid” by Adriene Hill, a student swipes his student ID card to get onto the bus and the school can track him to his destination sending his parent a text-message when he arrives at school and when he returns home.  A student goes on-line to complete her homework and the school can access that I.P. address of the computer to determine if the computer is within its boundaries.  If it is not, the school can learn that child’s parents are divorced and label the child as “an at-risk” student.  The federal government has given states funds to establish databases collecting information on attendance, tardiness, grades, and behavior.  Who is using this data and how safe is it from prying eyes?  According to this same article, “A study released last year by Fordham Law professor Joel Reidenberg found that very few school districts explicitly restrict the sale or marketing of student information in contracts with service providers.” 
            There is even more bad news. Some schools use the software Oracle and  its software service product is easily hacked.  This means the personal information about parents and students are easily accessed by any hacker.  Stories fill the news of students who have hacked into the university’s systems and changed their grades.  If ordinary college students can do it imagine what could happen if all of this information schools have mined about your student got into the wrong hands. Worse yet, many schools are contracting with third-parties to create teaching software and store that student’s scores on their data system.  Who is responsible for the students’ privacy then?  According the Jake Tapper of CNN, two security experts, Bryan Seely and Ben Caudill , have discovered that strangers could get your personal information and your child’s personal information from computer using Oracle software.  According to this article over 100 K-12 schools and 50 Universities use this software.  Furthermore, the two were able to access social security numbers, names, grades, addresses which means the hackers could use the information to steal someone’s identity or take our loans in that person’s name. 

            I am not saying that technology is all bad, but I am saying schools need to be careful.  First, if your child has to swipe his I.D. to get on a school bus and you receive a text saying he has arrived safely.  That has to make you feel better than the parents whose kindergarten students didn’t arrive home from their first day of school until seven P.M.; likewise, the parents of two seven year olds in Texas who were put on the wrong bus and up miles away; or in addition, the father in Arkansas whose 8 year old son was put on the wrong bus and the driver left him with strangers to deliver him home.  Parents are assured when they receive a text indicating their son or daughter has made it safely to school or home, but that information could be hacked by a sexual predator monitoring your child as well.  He may be able to hack the system and know when you child gets on a bus and when he gets off.  Data on a student’s attendance and grades should be used by the school to improve the quality of education given and identify students with problems so they can be helped. Computerized grading programs do improve communication between parents and teachers.  Used properly data-driven teaching can improve education.  As a department chair, I used to pull data for my Language Arts teachers on how all of our students performed on a writing assignment in My Access.  The program allows teachers to decipher which writing skills most students did well and which writing skills most students were struggling with.  We used that data to determine on which skills we needed to improve our teaching methods.

            However, it that data is misused, students could be unfairly labeled.  Sometimes students are struggling with matters outside the school and it might affect their score on a given assignment or test.  Since computers have no knowledge of what a child might be dealing with on a given day, it is unfair to allow a machine to label a child and it could be used in that manner.  Students are more than just a bar-code or a student identification number; they are real people with real problems.  Computers can incorrectly label a child and that label can be used against the child for years in future.  My daughter was a child of divorced parents.  She graduated with honors from both high school and college, got her Master’s Degree and is working as an assistant editor to a major publishing company.  I certainly think it would have been a travesty if she had been labeled as “at-risk.”
               We still need to ask, who has access to that data and how are they using it? Data-driven education is in its infancy.  As a result, schools need to work cautiously to ensure that the data collected is safe from hackers. Schools need to research each outside agency that the district contracts with to ensure that the data isn’t being sold and that the data is safe from hackers.  Our students’ privacy is more important than to be first on the block to try an innovative new program.  Your son is more than a bar-code.  Make sure your school is treating him as such.