Public schools have often been accused of failing to provide their students with an individualized learning experience. Increasing budget cuts and class sizes are becoming a national trend in the United States, and federal grants are being paid out based on standardized test scores. Can you blame schools for doing whatever they can to stay afloat?
A newly launched program aims to help schools and students. It offers more personalized learning opportunities, although the technology behind it may make parents uneasy. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, working with the Carnegie Corporation of New York and school officials from across the country, have developed a $100 million database to chart the academic careers of public students from the time they first enter elementary school all the way through graduation.
Tracking student development
The database will track many aspects of a student’s development, including test scores, learning disabilities, behavioral issues and even hobbies and how much homework they complete. Educational software developers have said that they can use the information in this database to create custom products for students and teachers alike.
For example, developers can create games that appeal to certain combinations of hobbies and learning needs. Or they could craft lesson plans for a specific classroom. In theory, the quality of education to public school students will be increased while software companies are able to raise their profits with more focused products.
States and individual school districts are free to opt in to the database if they choose. Right now, seven states have agreed to provide student information to the project. This aspect of the program may raise some concerns with both parents and privacy advocates. The Department of Education has determined that public schools aren’t required to obtain parental consent in order to share information about their students as long as the recipient is a “school official” with “legitimate educational interest.” The tricky part is those terms have been very broadly phrased. A “school official” could be a company hired by the school. It wouldn’t take much contractual gymnastics to find loopholes in this setup.
The cost of information
While the idea of schools tracking and selling student information may make some people uncomfortable, what has caused real alarm is the practice of sorting student information by their social security numbers. The notion of schools selling sensitive student information to private companies has resulted in resistance from parents and advocacy groups. In addition to concerns about what those companies might do with that information, passing around social security numbers and storing them on multiple databases raises security fears.
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