Big Brother Wants to Know Everything — Yes, Everything — About Your Kids

Students_computersIn our last episode, we found former federal education official Joanne Weiss admitting how the U.S. Department of Education (USED) coerced the states to sign up for the Common Core scheme of national standards, national assessments, and other federally dictated policies. This development led Ze’ev Wurman to dig up an old video of Ms. Weiss saying something else that parents might find interesting — a suggestion that USED might be planning to monitor individual students to track their progress.

The setting was a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute in January 2013. After Common Core architect David Coleman praised the hated No Child Left Behind (NCLB) statute for forcing more “accountability” on states, Ms. Weiss weighed in on the tension between allowing states flexibility while also holding them accountable for student achievement. Here is the money quote: “And flexibility is not a pass on having to deliver for every child. I mean, if anything, we can move from subgroups to a more personalized view, where every single child gets what they (sic) need.”

Under NCLB, states must report to USED various student information disaggregated by subgroup. For example, they must report on the achievement of economically disadvantaged students, limited-English students, etc. The feds are not told how an individual student performed, only how the students in his subgroup did.

But Ms. Weiss, who at the time served as chief of staff for Education Secretary Arne Duncan and director of the Race to the Top competition, was optimistic that new technology would allow the federal government to leap the subgroup barrier. It would be terrific, she seemed to suggest, if the feds could monitor every individual child to make sure he or she is on track to achieve whatever goal the government sets.

But how could this possibly work? As USED’s Office of Educational Technology has touted in its report, Expanding Evidence: Approaches to Learning in a Digital World, technology holds the key. Online assessments compiled with sophisticated software will enable the school (i.e., the government) to assess myriad characteristics — including psychological characteristics — of each student to gauge where he or she lands on the “progress” chart. “More of what educators really want to assess could be measured by mining the data produced when students interact with complex simulations and tasks presented in digital learning systems.”

The report continues: “Individual electronic medical records have become an area for rapid development and deployment in health care, and it is not far-fetched to imagine similar effort over the next five years to create individual learning records that summarize a learner’s experiences, learning processes [i.e., the way his mind works], and accomplishments . . . . [a record that is] much more detailed and descriptive about what a student can do than achievement test scores or grade point averages.”

This type of technology is being aggressively pushed into schools by various incentives such as the I-TECH grant program, which is contained in the Senate’s proposed NCLB reauthorization bill. And about a year ago, the National Science Foundation awarded a $4.8 million grant to several universities to develop a “a massive repository for storing, sharing, and analyzing the information students generate when using digital learning tools.” This project, dubbed “LearnSphere,” is projected to include not only psychological but also physiological data on students. This may be what a 360-degree student assessment looks like — and the federal government is financing the repository.

Of course, we are assured, the data in LearnSphere will be de-identified. But with the enormous amounts of granular data that will be collected, the dangers of data re-identification are very real. Especially is this so in light of Ms. Weiss’s pronouncement that the federal government can boost education much more if it assesses and tracks the progress of individual students, not just subgroups.

Once the individual dossiers exist, as touted by USED’s Expanding Evidence report, and once they are warehoused and analyzed in LearnSphere, it’s unlikely that USED will resist the temptation to use them to advance its goals. For public consumption, the goal will be to keep track of and supercharge every student’s education, based on his own performance. But perhaps the deeper goal is to keep track of every student, period — following him from one level of schooling to the next, from one job to the next, throughout his lifetime.

That Ms. Weiss casually suggested this outcome in a public forum — and that no one else on the panel batted an eye — demonstrates how far removed the education elites are from parents in this country. To too many elites, if it can be done, it should be done.

We tire of repeating ourselves, but the first presidential candidate who recognizes this dangerous trend in public education and promises to protect children from it will become the instant favorite of legions of activists and other parents. Any takers?

Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project.