Student privacy and social infrastructure

Current debates over student privacy should remind us that infrastructure leaves legacies for decades, including policy and technological infrastructure.1 This weekend, the New York Times published a column by Sue Dynarski about one proposal to change student privacy laws, a proposal that would make it almost impossible to use administrative records for educational research. Dynarski identifies this problem proposal as S. 1341, a bill sponsored by Louisiana Senator David Vitter. Vitter’s bill is one of several in Congress addressing student privacy issues and currently has no co-sponsors–in other words, at the moment it is highly unlikely to become law.2 The provision that worries Dynarski is the requirement for active parental consent for the transfer of any educational records to a third party, and a separate consent process for each such transfer.3

At its core, Dynarski’s argument is that educational research on the effectiveness of programs is too important to wipe away with concerns about privacy. On some issues she is wrong. Dynarski wrote that she knows of no “Target-like” breaches of educational data. She works at the University of Michigan. I am guessing that its servers are under regular attack by hackers as are the servers of many other colleges and universities; there were several publicly-known breaches last year.4 I could also quibble with her claims about the “original purpose” of student data records.5 However, both issues are tangential to the central question of whether it is possible to protect student privacy today and still allow all of the types of educational research Dynarski and I value.

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  1. That is also a theme of a recent Backstory Radio podcast. []
  2. It is not entirely clear who worked with Vitter to draft the bill–from the few websites mentioning the bill and some of the content, possibly the Home School Legal Defense Association and conservative activist Susan Effrem. []
  3. This is the proposed LIMITATIONS ON THIRD PARTY USE section. There is another section that prohibits the use of federal funds for any data matching. That would not prohibit data matching with non-federal funds, but I think it would kill large dataset projects funded by federal grants except where each program is explicitly authorized by language specific to that program. []
  4. Hat tip: Barmak Nassirian. []
  5. The Progressive Era reformers who first collected and published reams of educational data in city school systems thought they were promoting improvement; one could argue they were doing a better job of promoting inequality by class, gender, and race, using data for those ends. []

William Torrey Harris warned against “hothouse” education in the 19th century, and the New York Times is on it!

Science writer David Kohn has an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times, Let the Kids Learn Through Play. For historians, the first three words ring alarm bells:

Twenty years ago, kids in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing… [emphasis added]

Great: another Myth of the Golden Age. Maybe my memory is flawed, but Google Books and I both agree that the early 1990s was a time when “child-care crisis” was on the tip of many tongues, or at least on far more tongues and keyboards than before or since:

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Deist school reform and teacher evaluations

As my colleague Audrey Amrein-Beardsley pointed out earlier today, there is a battle royale coming up this week in New York, with a hearing on the changes in state teacher evaluation policy mandated by this year’s budget agreement in Albany. Amrein-Beardsley sees the issue focused on value-added measures, in part because that is the obsession of Governor Andrew Cuomo and a number of his policy allies in teacher valuation. I see things a little more holistically, because teacher evaluation becomes much more interesting when you broaden the scope a bit.

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Marc Tucker and the declension myth in American education debates

This month, Marc Tucker has written two blog entries for Ed Week that together present a frequently-used argument about the decline of America’s schools.1 On April 16, Tucker argued that a reduction in the difficulty level of high school senior textbooks has led to the watering down of college curriculum. Here’s the argument and payoff in a nutshell:

Could it be that many community colleges and even four-year colleges are really offering what used to be a high school college-bound curriculum and many college students cannot even successfully complete that? If so, it would go a long way toward explaining the slowdown in wage growth in the United States.

In other words: We used to be great, but now we are an aging superpower with sagging muscles–uh, brains. We coulda been a contender!  The human-capital explanation of wage stagnation and inequality is common, and would be plausible but for a few small, inconvenient facts, especially this one: the bulk of recent inequality growth is at the very upper reaches of the income and wealth scales. Mr. Tucker, do you really believe that the wealthiest and/or highest-earning 0.1% of Americans is better-educated and more knowledgeable than the wealthiest and/or highest-earning 5%, and that the highest-earning 5% truly knows less than the highest-earning 5% from 50 years ago? This argument feeds into the dynamic of seeing education as the solution to inequality. Jacob Bernstein argues that the primary problem with wage growth in the short term is weak demand. And a bunch of smart economists are worried about secular stagnation in the longer term.2

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  1. While such claims are sprinkled through the last 100 years, the modern progenitor is the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, with its claims about “a rising tide of mediocrity.” []
  2. This complex picture does not mean that education is unimportant, but that the economic argument for education reform is overstated. In education policy, as in Facebook relationship statuses, life can be complicated. []

What do doctoral admissions committees look for?

Last week, I was in Portland with a chance to rub elbows with some very important people–no, not anyone who is likely to attend Davos next year but Gates Millennium Scholars. These students are on an alternative-spring break week engaged in service in Oregon. Most are undergraduates, with a sprinkling of masters and doctoral students. It’s a great opportunity to see the future of the country, as well as talk a little about my college’s graduate programs. Other schools are here, as well as non-academic opportunities after graduation, such as City Year, TFA, and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. I want to see several of these students at Arizona State in the future, but I am sure this cohort will have a substantial impact on the world no matter where they end up.

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