Data Mining Kids Crosses Line

Published March 16, 2013

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating how public schools can collect information on “non-cognitive” student attributes, after granting itself the power to share student data across agencies without parents’ knowledge.

The feds want to use schools to catalogue “attributes, dispositions, social skills, attitudes and intrapersonal resources – independent of intellectual ability,” according to a February DOE report, all under the guise of education.

The report suggests researching how to measure and monitor these student attributes using “data mining” techniques and even functional magnetic resonance imaging, although it concedes “devices that measure EEG and skin conductance may not be practical for use in the classroom.” It delightedly discusses experiments on how kids respond to computer tutors, using cameras to judge facial expressions, an electronic seat that judges posture, a pressure-sensitive computer mouse and a biometric wrap on kids’ wrists.

And that’s not all the feds want to know about your kids. The department is funding and mandating databases that could expand each kid’s academic records into a comprehensive personal record including “health care history, disciplinary record, family income range, family voting status and religious affiliation,” according to a 2012 Pioneer Institute report and the National Center for Educational Statistics. Under agreements every state signed to get 2009 stimulus funds, they must share students’ academic data with the federal government.

As Utah blogger Christel Swasey has documented, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act used to protect highly personal psychological and biological information, including items mentioned above and, according to the DOE, “fingerprints; retina and iris patterns; voiceprints; DNA sequence; facial characteristics; and handwriting.”

Under the DOE’s 2011 FERPA reinterpretation, however, any local, state or federal agency may designate any individual or organization as an “educational representative” who can access such data as long as the agency says this access is necessary to study or evaluate a program. These can include school volunteers and private companies. A lawsuit against the regulations is pending.

Meanwhile, several agreements the DOE has signed with two organizations writing national Common Core tests insist the information these tests collect must be “student-level” – meaning these would not be anonymous records but instead tied to specific children.

Previous FERPA interpretations required data collectors to identify students by random numbers. No one knows what personal data the Common Core tests will collect, because those tests have yet to be written and released. But this information mother-lode has to come from somewhere. Since the tests are being written by private organizations, although entirely funded so far by the federal government, no one can do a public records request to find out.

In short, the government wants to collect a dossier on every child, containing highly personal information, without asking permission or even notifying parents. Officials believe “federal agencies should invest in programmatic portfolios of research” to monitor and influence student attitudes through schools, says the February DOE report.

The department recommends schools start tracking and teaching kids not just boring old knowledge but also “21st Century Competencies” – “recognizing bias in sources,” “flexibility,” “cultural awareness and competence,” “appreciation for diversity,” “collaboration, teamwork, cooperation,” “empathy,” “perspective taking, trust, service orientation,” and “social influence with others.” I’m really looking forward to seeing how psychologists profiling children for government reports interpret each of these characteristics.

Utah officials told Swasey no student may attend schools there without being tracked, even those in non-public schools. The personal data are currently being collected through the tests public schools are required to administer, but part of the agreement the states signed for stimulus money includes a requirement that schools collect data on students who are not tested.

All of this looks like another step in the federal government’s push to compile an intimate, cradle-to-grave dossier on every American. What they might intend to do with all that information remains a rather disturbing question.

[First published in the Orange County Register.]