inBloom debate blossoms

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Parents packed a feisty Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education meeting Aug. 22 to hear the pros and cons of a student data gathering system that the district is expected to pilot sometime next year.

Supporters hailed the system, called inBloom, as a long-time-coming classroom enhancement intended to help teachers better tailor instruction through a centralized student database.

But inBloom detractors are concerned primarily about the privacy and security of children’s school records and personal information, and how the new system might end up mining and utilizing that data.

It was clear which side of the issue the majority of the audience was on, judging from their often boisterous reactions to comments that were made by a panel of education experts.

“If this is a great idea, and there are really are no privacy concerns, give the parents the right to choose whether their children take part,” said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, through audience applause.

Nassirian participated in the panel via video from Washington D.C. He was one of several panelists to give their opinions of inBloom, a $100 million system that is being funded primarily by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

inBloom will provide the “middleware” in a data dashboard system that will collect student information in a single database that supporters believe will better assist teachers in developing a specific curricula for individuals in the classroom.

Colorado is one of only three states to pilot inBloom, with Jeffco being the lone district in the state expected to try it out, beginning in the 2014-2015 school year.

The program will not cost Jeffco anything until 2015, if it chooses to continue using the system after the pilot project. After that, the cost to the 86,000 student district will be $3 to $5 per student.

The system has been the subject of controversy across the U.S., as some states that initially had committed to pilot the system ended up backing out because of privacy and security concerns.

inBloom is capable of storing demographic information, such as race, economic status and other metrics. However, the district is adamant that the dashboard will only include data fields that are relevant to academics.

‘Critical’ need or ‘too few safeguards?’

Panelists that included David Millard, a fifth-grade teacher at Jeffco’s Webber Elementary School, touted the dashboard’s capability of allowing teachers to better personalize instruction through a more efficient data storage program.

“Quality instruction is driven by data,” Millard said. “Data is critical. The formative data that I collect on a daily basis, that’s my bread and butter.”

Millard said that teachers often spend much of their time logging in and out of databases that aren’t connected to one another, which he said takes away time for classroom instruction.

“There is a critical need for a system to tie together the data that we have,” Millard said.

Supporters tried to alleviate security and privacy concerns that dominated the discussion. Matt Cormier, Jeffco’s Education Research and Design executive director, said that even though inBloom is capable of maintaining 400 data fields on students, the district will decide which data fields it will use.

Cormier also said that inBloom “meets the most stringent federal guidelines for security,” something that was echoed by inBloom representatives, who also attended the meeting. Sharren Bates, the company’s chief product officer, told audience members that whatever data Jeffco decides to use, the information will never be sold or shared with other entities.

“What keeps that from happening? It’s federal law,” Bates said. “It’s not because I’m a nice person and would never do that. We do not, will not, cannot … we won’t ever do it.”

But those assurances did little to quell the concerns of others. Rachael Stickland, a Jeffco parent, told board members that children are not “widgets” to be experimented with.

“I believe it is the collective will that you proceed with great caution,” Stickland said.

Kaliah Barnes of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that researches civil liberty issues, said that inBloom’ system offers “too few safeguards for data sent to private companies.”

Barnes recommended that if the district ends up piloting an inBloom-backed data system, that it enter into “comprehensive agreements that specifically address confidentiality.”

The majority of the audience clearly came into the meeting with concerns about inBloom. Often, panelists who spoke out against inBloom were applauded, while others were met with snickers or even boos.

The meeting peaked when Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson tried to quell concerns about the sharing or selling of student data to outside groups. Her comments were met with a spattering of laughter, with one audience member overheard saying, “Gimme a break!”

“We have never sold data and we never will,” Stevenson responded, tersely. “I would never, ever sell data on children.”

The board did not take action on inBloom. The next step in the process could be for the board to hear a report of findings that will be presented by a Data Management Advisory Council. The council, which is made up of parents, educators and technology experts, will make a “stop” or “go” recommendation regarding inBloom by January 2014.