Technology: Recordkeeping and Privacy
Protecting Your Child From Data Mining
"data mining," and how can I make sure nobody "mines" my child's information at
The judicious pattern analysis of existing school
information - data mining --- is probably a useful tool. There is little or
nothing that parents can do to stop it. It is legal, and it is going on in
every district for a variety of reasons. It is making vendors such as IBM rich,
selling data-mining systems for educators to compare, for example:
whether the high mobility of English as a Second Language
Learners in their district is a stronger correlate to low standardized test
scores than their family income level
whether tardiness and absenteeism is a stronger predictor
of poor grades than the number of disciplinary infractions or suspensions
whether there is a pattern of a certain teacher's students
doing worse than expected on future standardized tests of math, for example,
strongly suggesting that that teacher needs professional development to improve
his or her math instructional skills.
Data mining started off as a way for administrators and
guidance counselors to "red-flag" students at risk of not graduating on time,
so that they could be put in a program to meet their deficiencies in the form
of summer school and other interventions.
It has its critics, including people who don't like the
prospect of "special lesson plans" being available for teachers to use with
students whose characteristics, revealed by data mining, might suggest to
someone that they should have individualized instruction - more or less
"brainwashing" because of psychosocial characteristics.
Identity theft and invasion of privacy are always concerns,
too, and growing in significance as the amount of school information available
grows and grows.
When the school district opens itself up to data mining
from state or federal governments, or other entities, and collects the data
directly from the students instead of off existing databases, things can get REALLY
controversial, too. Consider this anecdote from a Midwestern mother:
"A few years ago, I was really mad when my teenager came
home upset about a questionnaire she had to fill out at school. It asked all
kinds of offensive and personal questions about her sex life. WHAT sex life, we
wondered? It asked her about her use of drugs - WHAT drug use? It asked her whether
she had broken the law, whether there were any guns in our home, and so forth.
"I called school, was told that the survey answers were 'confidential,'
that the answers weren't being sent to back to school officials, and not to
worry about it, but when I pressed, I was given the phone number of the company
that had put out the questionnaire. So I called, and got the run-around, but
finally, was able to talk to somebody about this.
"It turns out they were paying the school district for the
survey information, and turning around and using this information to repackage and
sell to marketing companies. Since each survey form had a different six-digit
number printed on it, it seemed pretty apparent that they would be able to
identify which individual student had put down which answers.
"I never could get them to explain why they felt they had
to be able to identify which individual student had given which answers. I
asked them how the district could tell us that this survey was 'confidential'
when they were selling the information, too. They didn't say so, but I assumed
that the answers were being sold to other companies to help them in marketing
their products, or to government agencies to be cross-linked with other
databases. How could any of that be considered 'confidential,' if my daughter's
answers could be personally identified?
"They said that there is a difference between
'confidential' and 'anonymous' data. With the former, someone might know who
said what, but they aren't supposed to re-sell that information with a personal
identifying number on it. I wasn't satisfied.
"So that was very suspicious and confusing.
"Fortunately, my daughter had smelled a rat, and left a lot
of the answers blank. But still, she felt bad about the experience, and so did
her friends. But there wasn't a thing I could do about it, after the fact.
"How should a parent handle this situation, and, better
yet, prevent it?"
The No. 1 rule is this:
Teach your child that ANYTHING he or
she may write or say at school should be considered as public as if it is
written on the blackboard for all to see, or yelled through a megaphone to the
entire student body and staff.
Therefore, in the case of that
extremely distressing and intrusive questionnaire, silence is golden. Teach
your child NEVER to answer questions like that, that make them feel "icky" and
that seem too personal and improperly invading their privacy.
Also keep this in
The federal No
Child Left Behind education law protects the rights of parents to preview
all curricular materials and any instrument (i.e. survey) used to collect
personal information from students. When parents submit a request for a
copy in advance of the survey's administration, in writing, schools must comply
within a "reasonable period of time."
So in the case of
the mother, she could have gone to the school board to have the school
officials punished for administering that survey to her daughter without her
advance permission, and make sure that next time, parents are advised in
advance that the survey was going to be taken.
But that's a
subject to be . . . mined . . . another day.
a brainy article from academia about the direction that ed data mining is