Who Is In Charge

Data fears aired before State Board

The effort to build the next generation of student data systems is either “transformational” or ripe for “abuse.”

Photo of meeting participant
Lawyer Kahliah Barnes participated in the State Board of Education meeting via video link.

Those were some of the contrasting views expressed Thursday at a State Board of Education study session on inBloom, a data system that is being pilot tested in the Jefferson County Schools and a handful of districts around the nation. The state Department of Education also is a participant.

The $100 million project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corp., is attempting to build a data system that can aggregate student personal and academic information and link such data with online instructional materials that teachers can use to personalize teaching for individual student needs.

“It’s a great leap forward for teachers and classrooms and children,” Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson told the board. She used the example of math class studying a particular unit, explaining that a teacher could pull up data about an individual student’s work in that area and also receive specific suggestions for improving the student’s performance.

Stevenson also stressed the importance of integrating data. “Our teachers have all the data in the world now, but it’s on different systems.”

But the inBloom project has sparked concerns about privacy and the security of student information, both in Jeffco and elsewhere around the nation, including New York City.

“While we understand the value of data for personalized learning, there are too few safeguards,” said Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer with the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. She cited a “growing risk that third parties would have access to sensitive student information.”

In a high-tech touch, Barnes both observed the study session and testified via a two-way video hookup.

The harshest criticism came from board member Debora Scheffel, a Republican from Parker. “Any time you centralize information there’s potential for abuse. I think the potential for abuse is substantial. … This to me is just another vehicle to centralize teaching. … I’m sorry Colorado is part of this pilot.”

The two-hour session was dominated by discussion of security issues, with less time spent on inBloom’s educational potential.

“Job number one for us is the security of the data,” said Sharren Bates, an executive of the Atlanta-based non-profit. She also stressed repeatedly that it’s up to school districts to decide what data to enter into the system, which holds the information in encrypted form on third-party servers.

Greg Mortimer, Jeffco’s chief information officer, also defended the security of the system.

But Barnes suggested that tighter controls are needed. “We encourage Colorado to make it a policy to limited the data available to inBloom,” adding that changes in state law might be necessary. “Colorado should take this opportunity to pass legislation concerning inBloom and other data collection companies.”

The privacy center is currently suing the U.S. Department of Education over rule changes that gave contractors greater access to student data if they work for school districts.

Another controversy about new data systems is whether parents should be able to opt out. Jeffco citizens who oppose inBloom have asked for the ability to do that.

Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson / File photo
Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson / File photo

Stevenson and others oppose the idea. “Opting out makes the system not as effective” because it creates gaps in the data, she said.

SBE member Marcia Neal, a Republican from Grand Junction, struck a nuanced note as the hearing neared its end. “I don’t think we can say no, we’re not going to do it because someone will use it incorrectly. It’s the modern world, and we need to find a way to do it effectively.”

The inBloom system isn’t currently up and running in Jeffco, according to district officials. The pilot project, which doesn’t cost participating districts anything, runs through the end of next year, at which time the system should be finished. Then the district will have to decide whether it wants to continue using inBloom for a fee.

Mortimer roughly estimated the cost of such a system at between $2 and $5 per student a year, or about $170,000 to $425,000 for Jeffco. He said using inBloom would be less expensive for the district than building and maintaining its own comparable system.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”