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Technology: Recordkeeping and Privacy

Protecting Your Child From Data Mining


Q. What's "data mining," and how can I make sure nobody "mines" my child's information at school?


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 mind:


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.



Homework: Here's a brainy article from academia about the direction that ed data mining is going:


By Susan Darst Williams Technology 2011


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