Debate continues over storage system for student data

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Board study session weighs parents’ concerns about inBloom, teachers’ need to manage information

By Daniel Laverty

A heated debate over the Jeffco school district’s plan to implement the inBloom system to store student data continued when more than 100 concerned parents gathered at the school board’s study session last Thursday evening.

“There are concerns that centralizing confidential student data increases the risk of hacking,” Jeffco parent Rachael Stickland told the board.

Parents began voicing concerns months ago about the district’s decision to test and then possibly implement inBloom, and the opposition now includes an online petition. The online petition, at www.schoolbelongstothechildren.org, asks the district to end its involvement with inBloom. As of Aug. 23, the petition had 514 signatures.

An 11-person panel presented information and views at the study session on the “cloud”-based inBloom system, which was created by an Atlanta nonprofit.

Divergent opinions

At the study session, school board President Lesley Dahlkemper and district Superintendent Cindy Stevenson started with an overview of inBloom and the district’s plan to implement it.

“First off, I believe (inBloom) is good for kids,” Stevenson said. “It will give teachers more time for teaching and increase parent engagement.”

Jill Hawley of the state Education Department said Jeffco is a natural fit to pilot inBloom because the district was already working on ways to help teachers manage student data.

“Many of you here tonight have iPhones in your purses and pockets,” Hawley said, comparing inBloom’s cloud-storage with how a smart phone stores data. “It allows a tailored range of information to work on one platform. This is very much what we’re trying to work on with inBloom. It saves teachers time … that allows them not to … log onto multiple platforms … so they can engage their students.”

Colorado Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl said he researched inBloom’s practices and found them to be FERPA compliant.

FERPA, or the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, prohibits disclosure of educational records.

“I’ve looked over inBloom’s security plan, and I have to say it’s the most well-crafted plan I’ve ever seen,” Dyl said.

But Khaliah Barnes, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said Jeffco should be cautious as it moves forward with inBloom.

“We expect schools to collect student attendance data or credit-requirement data,” Barnes said. “But inBloom is equipped to collect data that raises privacy concerns.”

Barnes said that, should the district implement inBloom, data collection should be limited to necessary information only.

Barnes, along with Barmak Nassirian, spoke to the board through a video conference call.

“I would not take solace in inBloom being FERPA compliant,” said Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “FERPA has been weakened over the years. I would also point out that we’ve never had anyone found sufficiently guilty for FERPA violations.”

“This product will profile and track children,” said Stickland, a member of the panel that presented at the study session. “Other pilot states intending to use inBloom have analyzed these risks, listened to parents and have pulled out — which may beg the question: Why aren’t more parents speaking out against inBloom?”

InBloom’s chief product officer, Sharren Bates, said that inBloom has acted on many teachers’ complaints about not being able to bring data together and use it more effectively.

“School districts across the country are data- and program-driven,” Bates said. “We hear it’s hard to get these programs working together.”

Bates used some of her speaking time to “dispel common misconceptions about inBloom.”

“(InBloom) does not have access to data that’s stored,” she said. “We don’t decide what data gets stored with us. We don’t track students. From a legal perspective, we are forbidden from doing any of these things. The school districts are fully in control of what data gets stored in our system and who can see it.”

Marty Reames heads the Data Management Advisory Council that Jeffco has charged with investigating inBloom, its services and possible security risks. The council, appointed by Stevenson, is made up of parents, teachers, IT security experts and members of the business community.

Reames said the council has been looking at all aspects of inBloom, keeping in mind the district’s need for efficient use of student data but also taking into account security issues.

The panel ended its presentation with Dave Millard, a teacher at Weber Elementary, and Matt Cormier, a Jeffco parent and executive director of educational technology for Jeffco Schools.

“I don’t think that data is used effectively right now,” Weber said. “Easily accessible data empowers teachers.”

“I have a fourth-grader,” Cormier said. “My first job is to be a good parent and protect my child. Using inBloom is the safest and most affordable way to store (Jeffco’s) data. We could build a system of our own, but it would cost millions.”

Questions from board members

After the panel’s presentation, school board members voiced their questions, comments and concerns about inBloom.

“(During the presentation), I haven’t heard how much better our third-graders will read or how much better our students will do math,” said board member Laura Boggs.

“I think there’s no question that (centralizing data) is a wonderful project,” said board member Paula Noonan. “The other side to it is that there are a lot of privacy risks in transmitting the information and storing all of (the data).”

Dahlkemper asked what types of data would be stored in inBloom.

“We are in the process of developing (the policy on data),” said Allen Taggart, executive director of employee relations for Jeffco schools. “Our commitment is to not collect data that doesn’t need to be collected.”

“We’re not far away from being able to provide a specific list (of data that would be collected),” Cormier said. “We can definitely say we want it to be academic-only data.”

Board member Jill Fellman asked if any new data (data that Jeffco doesn’t already collect) would be gathered. Cormier answered no.

A look inside inBloom

Throughout the school day, Jeffco teachers can use up to 14 systems — programs like CAMPUS, Schoology, C-CAP, Acuity, etc. — to gather and store information about students. InBloom would take all of that data and store it in an online, off-site system.

Data could include anything from students’ grades and test scores to disciplinary history.

In 2011, the Colorado Department of Education approached the Jeffco school district about piloting inBloom, and in February 2012 the district decided to move forward with the test.

The district has until the end of 2014 to pilot the program. Jeffco plans on using “dummy data” and will not be charged during the pilot phase. After 2014, the school board would have to approve the use of inBloom, which would cost the district between $2 and $5 per student per year — or $172,000 to $430,000 annually.

More discussion needed

The school board thanked the panel and parents for showing up to the study session.

“We want to thank the community for their questions and concerns,” Stevenson said.

Rachel Swalley, parent of three Jeffco students, has had concerns for many months about the district’s plan to implement inBloom. Swalley attended a district-hosted meeting in May on inBloom at Normandy Elementary School.

“I’m still looking for the data points that Jeffco will collect,” Swalley said after the Aug. 22 meeting. “The district is saying that they want it to just be academic — why the delay (in releasing what data would be collected)?”

Swalley appreciated the balanced voices on the panel.

“(The panel) really brought clarity to the issue,” she said. “It brought me a sense of relief to hear that other people ‘get’ our point of view and validated my concerns.

“I’m appreciative that the district brought in views from the other side.”

Some parents were upset that they were not given a chance last Thursday to offer their opinions on inBloom. Since the meeting was a study session, no time for public comment was scheduled.

Dahlkemper invited parents to return to speak at the board’s next regular meeting on Sept. 19.

For more information on inBloom, visit www.inbloom.org, www.jeffcopublicschools.org and www.schoolbelongstothechildren.org.

Contact Daniel Laverty at Daniel@evergreenco.comor at 303-350-1043. Follow him on Twitter at @LavertyReports.