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“The Worst Testimony” in the House Hearings on Student Privacy Comes from Louisiana

February 14, 2015

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. …

While federal and state privacy policy is critically important, school districts and schools must lead efforts to protect student data privacy. Any effort by Congress to update federal privacy laws to better protect students, including improvements to FERPA and Children’s Online Privacy Protect Act (COPPA), should support, not burden school, district and state data use to improve instruction and decision making. Appropriate data sharing with researchers, evaluators and private partners engaged in supporting educational and administrative activities must be preserved to strengthen the potential of technology to transform and improve education.

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.

She wants “freedom” at the local level regarding student privacy policy.

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.

Who, indeed.

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.

Image result for data access

________________________________________________

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.

 

 

6 Comments
  1. Sorry for the above mistake. I will start again and hope you delet my first attempt.

    Thanks for going into detail about the implications of Dr. Abshire’s testimony. I was made aware of it by the Coalition for Student Privacy who share your position. After looking at Dr. Abshire’s resume, I wrote her this note:

    Dr. Abshire –

    I received some very concerning comments today from members of the Parent Coalition For Student Privacy in response to your testimony before the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education.

    http://bit.ly/1vplKmo

    Although you talked about continually educating your district parents and stakeholders about your district’s technology, data use, and privacy strategies, and that your practices and strategies are understood and widely supported by the community, you did not make the committee aware of deep concerns parents expressed and still hold regarding the weakening of FERPA and the sharing of personally identifiable student and teacher data with the Louisiana Workforce Commission as part of the Data Quality Campaign, a fact that was revealed only through a public information request.

    As you know, Louisiana parents are very dissatisfied with the state’s lack of a student identifier, which has still not been accomplished, and our discovery that Supt. White was sending student Social Security numbers with other student data to inBloom without parental notice or permission. Those and other revelations led to the passage of Act 837 which we hope will provide some protections for students particularly relative to the use of a proliferation of educational software and the proposed on-line administration of PARCC.

    You also did not make the committee aware of well-founded fears of parents regarding the data collection cooperative agreement between the federal government and PARCC requiring the assessment consortia to provide complete access to student-level data. http://1.usa.gov/19dNlCt

    In fact, you warned Congress “to proceed cautiously with new federal privacy requirements.” More concerning was your admission that you “share data with community-based organizations, researchers, and private partners. For example, we work with all of our vendor partners that use any student data as part of a learning or assessment system.” You said, “Our state law reasonably addresses such sharing by requiring all vendors to sign contracts securing their commitment to protect student data…..”. The rest of your testimony was quite disturbing in your request for the government not to “overreach” in any efforts to protect student privacy.

    I hope that in your position with Calcasieu Parish Schools and understanding your obvious expertise that you will use your influence in the future on behalf of protecting our children from the “overreach” of those who would benefit financially from the use of personal student data.

    I did not see a truth in testimony affidavit attached to your presentation and I am concerned that your advisory positions with Dell, Blackboard, eSchool News, Pearson Digital Learning and Scholastic Administrator are of no conflict and did not influence your testimony today.

    Student privacy is not a frivolous concern and I hope your district will carefully consider the importance of the safeguards contained in Act 837. http://bit.ly/170UWo

    ********
    She responded only with the concern that I had misrepresented her failure to file a Truth in Testimony affidavit:

    Lee,
    Thanks so much for the quick response. Someone pointed out to me that you had posted on your Facebook page that I was the only witness that did not sign the Truth in Testimony form. That information is correct. And the reason for that is that Congressional Staff indicated when they invited me to testify, that as a public employee, I do not need to sign the form. Also, please note I was officially “sworn in” before the hearing. I would truly appreciate you correcting that misconception, if you can. I always want to follow any guidelines and I did in this case as required by the Congressional Education Committee.
    Again, I truly appreciate you taking the time to respond.
    Take care,
    Sheryl

    Sheryl Abshire, Ph.D.
    Chief Technology Officer
    “Advancing Quality Education with Technology”

    I responded – Dr. Abshire, Thanks for the explanation. That explains how John White got away with his testimonies. I will share your explanation. Still concerned about your position that student privacy is not a problem.

    She had no rebuttal to support her testimony, I’m sure she doesn’t care what I think. I wonder how she got invited and who paid her expenses.

    • LaTeacher permalink

      How does this not trigger an ethics violation? If she is speaking in an official capacity (under oath, no affidavit) wouldn’t she have to reveal her ties to Pearson? Otherwise, she pretty much did Pearson’s work on our dime.

      I don’t understand all the twists and turns of Louisiana’s Ethics laws, except that they’ll do nothing unless someone files paperwork. There must be some loophole that is allowing the massive theft of public monies by those who have infiltrated from the top down, those who “work” for the corporations.

      I just cannot get over how these people can be so bold! Or sleep at night! Do they really think Pearson, Gates and the Koches will reward them with the most awesome jobs ever? They clearly do not work for the public, or in the best interests of children.

    • Correction. I referenced the Data Quality Campaign but meant the Workforce Data Quality Initiative under which LDE has provided and continues to provide personally identifiable student and teacher data to Louisiana Workforce Commission and still w no student identifier system available. That would imply student SS# are used. Gov. Jindal’s mother is in charge of LWC tech dept I believe.

  2. Mercedes and Lee, thanks for trying to keep Abshire honest. It’s hard for me to believe Congress wouldn’t already know her background. Rather it’s more likely to be another instance of their commercializing education. Now Pearson not only owns our kids’ biometric data, but hackers will try to steal it.

  3. Too bad the U.S. lost the media’s Fairness Doctrine in the Reagan era of darkness descending.

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