“The Worst Testimony” in the House Hearings on Student Privacy Comes from Louisiana
On February 12, 2015, the House Education and the Workforce Committee held hearings on “How Emerging Technology Affects Student Privacy.”
Four witnesses testified. Three signed “truth in testimony” pledges.
One did not.
That one is Dr. Sheryl Abshire, chief technology officer, Calcasieu Parish Schools (Louisiana).
What this means is that Abshire testified without formally disclosing whether she or any entities she is representing has received federal grants or contracts related to technology and student privacy. According to the “truth in testimony” form (an example of which can be found here from another witness), Abshire was supposed to submit this form attached to her written testimony at least 48 hours prior to the hearing.
No truth in testimony form is present on the House Ed and Workforce announcement, yet Abshire was still allowed to testify.
(NOTE: According to Abshire response in comments section, she was not required to file a truth-in-testimony statement since she is a public employee.)
According to Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters in New York, Abshire “was the worst witness in the House hearings on privacy.”
Abshire’s testimony can be viewed below at minute 38:45:
Indeed, though Abshire does speak about controls within her school district related to student privacy, she clearly does not wish for tightened federal control over student data disclosure. For this reason, Abshire’s testimony reads more like a defense of ed tech company rights than it does a protecting of student privacy. Below are some key excerpts:
Congress must carefully avoid overreaching in ways that might create unintended consequences for educationally appropriate data sharing, including avoiding legal prescriptions that disrupt suitable private partnerships, research, evaluation and other activities designed to support district administration and related policy making or stifle the use of innovative and effective web-‐based technology resource….
I urge Congress not to overreach as it addresses this important issue, but instead to take a thoughtful, balanced approach focused on supporting district and school leadership. …
Although they have some weaknesses, FERPA and COPPA already provide a strong foundation for local privacy leadership and decision-making. Any new federal law should concentrate on addressing clear gaps in the present system, including the absence of a focus on ensuring technical, physical and administrative protocols and especially the lack of sufficient resources for professional development targeting educators, school leaders and staff. [Emphasis added.]
Abshire just “urged” Congress not to “overreach” when it comes to student privacy– a right that has become increasingly difficult to protect in our ever-advancing technological world.
The reality is that it is already so easy to re-identify “de-identified” student data via access to just a couple of key data points. Moreover, such re-identification could potentially follow a student indefinitely. Again, though she notes details regarding student privacy protocol in her district, it is obvious that Abshire uses her time before the House committee to “urge” on behalf of those who might financially profit from relaxed federal controls on student data collection and trafficking.
According to her testimony, Abshire believes FERPA is fine. However, a major issue with the current FERPA is that it allows companies to access student information by making education companies “school officials.”
Given the absence of a public-disclosed “truth in testimony” statement from Abshire, and given her noted defense of “suitable private partnerships,” one wonders who else, exactly, Abshire might be defending.
According to Abshire’s resume, she has been a member of the Pearson Digital Learning advisory board since 2005.
Abshire’s February 12, 2015, House Education Committee testimony is laced with language that would make me cheer if I were a Pearson executive.
It is no secret that Pearson has big plans to profit on the American education system, especially as concerns the “scaling up” of educational sameness via the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
In May 2014, I wrote about Pearson’s clear intention to “embed” itself in American education via its offering related to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), including professional development materials, curricular materials, and assessments. In association with CCSS, Pearson plans “to capitalize” on “that mega trend” of online learning.
On the Pearson Digital Learning “supplemental curriculum” webpage, the language of Pearson’s being “embedded” in its intention to “develop Common Core leaders”:
Develop Common Core Leaders
Partnering with the world’s leading learning company means having a single partner you can count on to support your Common Core goals including face-to-face, job-embedded and virtual services to meet your Common Core professional development needs. [Emphasis added.]
Pearson wants to be “the single partner” that districts cannot do without for implementing CCSS. Thus, the Pearson Digital Learning “supplemental curriculum” page above includes links to curriculum, teacher training, teacher evaluation pages…
… and learning management systems…
… which include individualized, prescriptive instruction…
… which no doubt involves student data collection.
But it doesn’t stop there. No, no. Pearson’s indispensability is intended to continue into higher education. The statement below is from Pearson Chief Financial Officer and Executive Director Robin Freestone regarding Pearson’s digital education plans into higher ed:
The important point is that once we get through that period of investment… incremental revenue per student then becomes very profitable. And these are long-term contracts with high renewal rates. …As we transition from print to digital, we move from a license to a subscription selling, with revenues spread over multiple years. This reduces revenue and margin short term, but it gives us a more visible business and greater market opportunity in the long term. And as we reach scale, the benefits again are very significant indeed. [Emphasis added.]
On February 10, 2015, Stephanie Simon of Politico published a book-chapter-length expose of Pearson. Included in her findings are Pearson’s relatively unrestrained access to the personal data of students enrolled in higher ed institutions.. and is into students’ personal business:
The company is even marketing a product that lets college professors track how long their students spend reading Pearson textbooks each night.
Big Brother Pearson.
But don’t think Pearson doesn’t already have its hands on K12 data. As Simon reports:
Pearson wields enormous influence over American education.
It writes the textbooks and tests that drive instruction in public schools across the nation.
Its software grades student essays, tracks student behavior and diagnoses — and treats — attention deficit disorder. The company administers teacher licensing exams and coaches teachers once they’re in the classroom. It advises principals. It operates a network of three dozen online public schools. It co-owns the for-profit company that now administers the GED.
A top executive boasted in 2012 that Pearson is the largest custodian of student data anywhere.
And that’s just its K-12 business. [Emphasis added.]
A continued, relaxed federal hand on FERPA– one in which “school officials with legitimate educational interest” provides an open door for the likes of “single partner” Pearson to access K12 student data virtually (pardon the pun) unabated– is just what Pearson aims to achieve.
And people like Abshire are here to help.
Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.