Big data and schools: Education nirvana or privacy nightmare?

InBloom, a nonprofit start-up founded with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation, is taking center stage and spreading around some significant funds as an official sponsor of the South by Southwest Education conference in Austin, Texas this week. It hosted the official opening night party on Tuesday, is sponsoring a “networking lounge” with free coffee and snacks at the Hilton next to the convention center, and is debuting the first live demonstrations of its technology with representatives from pilot districts and states.


Iwan Streichenberger

It’s quite a splash for what is basically a highly technical, behind-the-scenes infrastructure company. InBloom promises to bring all the potential of “big data” to classrooms in a big way for the first time. Its stated mission: to “inform and involve each student and teacher with data and tools designed to personalize learning.”

“We want to make personalized learning available to every single kid in the U.S.,” says CEO Iwan Streichenberger. “The way you do this is by breaking the barriers—making data much more accessible.”

But to some educational activists, InBloom represents a danger, not an opportunity.

InBloom began as the Shared Learning Collaborative in 2011. It gets a bit technical, but basically, 10 districts in nine states agreed to build a shared technology infrastructure. Currently, student data—from attendance to standardized test scores—are locked in dozens of different “student information systems” that don’t talk to each other. “In one district we work with in Massachusetts, teachers had to use 20 different assessment storage places with different log-ins,” says Streichenberger.

InBloom offers a single middleware layer that hosts student data using Amazon Web Services, with some centralized dashboard-style functions and an API (application programming interface) that would allow start-ups to build education apps, aligned with Common Core standards, that anyone could use. It’s a similar strategy to how Facebook and Apple allow outside developers to build apps that pull your profile information from the cloud. Instead of designing for  thousands of school districts across the country, all of whom have their own idiosyncratic data storage systems, the InBloom platform will eventually allow developers to build one application—like DreamBox, a differentiated math game, or Kickboard, a dashboard program that allows teachers to track students’ performance and behavior—and have it work automatically in several states. This coordination, in turn, is likely to attract even more technology entrepreneurs to a market for educational IT spending estimated to be worth $20 billion in 2013. And similar to the way that electronic health records promise to reduce costs and increase efficiency and effectiveness in medicine, the use of centrally hosted data, says Streichenberger, offers similar cost savings and improvements in education.

But the very moves that make this idea a huge opportunity from the point of view of edtech entrepreneurs—the ability to find a large market for learning games and systems all in one place, to pull student data automatically, and to coordinate effortlessly with other apps—makes parents “horrified,” in the words of school activist Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters.

“There are no limitations on the time-frame, or the kind of data. There’s no provision for parental consent or opt-out. The point is to give our kids’ data away for free, and share it as widely as possible with for-profit ventures to help them market and develop their learning products,” she says. “For-profit vendors are slavering right now at the prospect of being able to get their hands on this info. and market billions of dollars of worth of so-called solutions to our schools.”

Class Size Matters has been working with a lawyer to get public access to the agreements between InBloom and the nine states that are members of the collaborative (New York, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Colorado, Illinois, North Carolina, Georgia, Delaware and Kentucky), to learn under what circumstances student data will be released, and whether there are potential violations of FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which generally requires written consent from parents to release the records of students under 18. They are also trying to get states to agree to opt-out policies so parents can withhold children’s information from InBloom, especially sensitive information like disciplinary records, health records, and personally identifiable details like addresses.

Streichenberger says that InBloom’s terms of service are fully compliant with FERPA, but privacy policies—including parental notification and opt-out—will be in the hands of individual districts, which will hold and control all access to the data that InBloom hosts. “Privacy is a very emotional issue,” he says. “I have two children, four and six. I would never join InBloom if I thought it would compromise my kids.” At the same time, he says, “The privacy discussion is an important one, but one of my concerns is it’s preventing the discussion of what’s going on in the classroom. Are we preparing the children for the future? Do we have the tools to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow?”

So far, Haimson says, her group has generated thousands of letters from parents concerned about their students’ privacy to the Gates Foundation and to individual states. She says that her biggest problem in spreading the word is that many parents don’t believe this is really happening. “Parents are outraged and can’t believe it’s legal,” she says. “The tech companies and foundations shrug their shoulders. People are living on two separate planets.”

Note: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation are among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.

POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON March 6, 2013

Comments & Trackbacks (47) | Post a Comment

Andrew Smith

If there’s anyone that thinks there’s not enough data collection now, they must be living in a different education world than what I see. Yet another attempt to make profit by corporatizing students.

Leonie Haimson

If this unprecedented project is really for the benefit of our kids, why not tell parents about it and give them the right to consent? Because Gates & inBloom doesn’t trust our judgement or think we should not have that right? Or because they know that if parents were aware they would immediately insist their child’s highly confidential and sensitive data were not disclosed. and if the data is reslly secure, why does inBloom say they will not be responsible if it leaks out during storage or transmission? Be clear; this project will hugely benefit for-profit vendors who are getting their hands on vast amounts of of very valuable data including student and parent names, addresses, emails, along with their grades, test scores, disciplinary records, health records etc; with uncertain educational benefits and a huge and unmitigated risk to our children’s privacy and security. The bland statements of Mr. Streichenberger don’t reassure me a bit. One more question: would Bill Gates want his kids names addresses emails and their disciplinary and special Ed records stored on a vulnerable data cloud and made available to vendors without his consent?

Nina Bishop

I don’t want my children’s private information ‘housed, shared or sold’ to anyone! Bill Gates and the like need to get their noses out of my children’s private business. WE ARE NOT FOR PROFIT! You’re unethical sleezyballs! How about providing me with all your private information????

Ed Komperda

As a parent and public school teacher, I tell you this is a total time, money, and resource wasting crock.

I’ve even written on article on this foolishness. Feel free to share:

Bob Valiant

My wife and I work very hard to protect our confidential information. We change our passwords, shred all mail with identifying information, and do not give out personal information online or to unauthorized persons. Now we find our chidren’s confidential information that includes their scores on tests, status regarding placement in special school programs, and , no doubt, their home address, our names, etc. are being handed over to third parties without our knowledge or permission. This travesty is beyond comprehension. Do we have to wait until the data is hacked and used illegally before we can hope to stop it? I certainly hope not.

Jesse Turner

When do we stop swallowing the big lie data will save our children, teachers, and public schools? A decade of new standards and new testing 1 and 2 indicate NAEP scores for 17 year-olds, (2009) have remain flat despite NCLB/RTTT spending over a trillion dollars on reform scams after reform scam.
In the end there is no magic bullet that replaces real services in the classroom to children. On-line classes, on-line tutoring, data walls, on-line learning games, and large class sizes are sinking life boats. Sinking life boats that have fail to address the question of- why has NCLB left millions of our most needy children behind?
I have lost faith in U.S. Department of Education, our state DOE(s), our Education Commissioners, and mayoral controlled boards. Leadership far far removed from the classrooms and schools our children attend, and in some cases have never actually attended public schools themselves as children.
I reject this magic data bullet. Once more let me remind the powers that be; parents want the same small class sizes that Mayor Bloomberg and Bill Gates children had in their K-12 schools.
Class size matters more than magic data bullets,
Jesse The Walking Man Turner

Traci Rubner

It’s past time for government and big business to stop playing fast and loose with public education and our children’s futures. I know, I know everyone wants to milk the cash cow that is our tax dollars. Enough!

Marva Berry

With the numerous unresolved cases of child abduction and other predatory crimes that are being committed against children, I would think that the people and the institutions responsible for their care and safety would understand that they have a legal responsibility to maintain the security of personal information that could endanger minors or make them vulnerable to perpetrators. Such multilateral sharing of personal data also has major implications in custody suits and other family related affairs that are out of the jurisdiction of the state.

Kevin Smith

With the backing of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation..our children’s privacy is being invaded.

Our teachers are equipped to assess and track students. We don’t need a $20B industry.

winona kitto

I am the educational advocate and parent of a student with a disability. I’ve worked as a classroom aide, long term substitute teacher, and a head start-middle school substitute teacher. In these roles I am just as welcome as can be. As an ESE parent, I am politely boycotted, ignored, and put on hold. My son’s student file became rather criminal looking. He is NOT receiving a Public education appropriate to his disability. I am trying to have his file DEcriminalized as most of it is the work of one individual. My son has been punitively educated. It is clear public school students and parents are not well liked. The students are bread and butter, and scapegoats simultaneously. The publicizing of student files is wrong, because the files are not safe from VINDICTIVE people. Put the money into classroom cameras. You will see overburdened teachers, too many students, and no one engaged in an awesome lesson.


If you think that your software can know a child more than the teacher that looks them in the eye, hears their troubles, and converses with them every day you are delusional. This is just the next frontier of profit for testing and sofware corporations. Now with the implementation of Common Core and the new APPR standards money is being sucked from local school budgets for the sake of testing and purchasing software to data-mine our children. Programs that communities desire for their children and teachers are sacrificed to the alter of Big Data!


This is horrible. I am ready to drop off the grid and take my children with me! How can big government sit back and let these companies violate everything our forefathers fought? Oh, yeah, the government is in the pocket of the wealthy…

S Gold

I am completely sickened by this drastic shift in the public education system! As a parent from NY, I am even more sickened by my state’s lack of response to over 2,600 people who signed a petition asking for their child’s information to be kept private. We are their parents and we are charged with doing what is in their best interest. When we say no to sharing their information, we deserve to have our preferences respected! They are not your children and we did not choose to become parents to have their information mined so someone can make money off it!

Roseanne Eckert

I do not want any private company to have access to my child’s personal information. Ever.

Jean McTavish

George Orwell foreshadowed the feeling I get when I think of big business having access to all of my children’s “data” from the time they enter public school through until they enter the workforce. Next they will want to plant chips in our kids .

Joe, Grade 6 Teacher

I have taught in public schools for 26 years. The trend of data centralization hurts students. It takes decision making power away from teachers and puts it in the hands of politicians. What is described in the article will move the power more into the hands of private industry than ever before. We must resist and restore education decisions back to parents and local educators.

[…] Hechinger Report also published a short piece on the database. Class Size Matter’s head honcho Leonie Haimson was tasked with making the […]

Conny Jensen

“Education nirvana or privacy nightmare?” How about computerized police state? It makes me want to cry that so many people in this country willingly are bowing down to Big Brother!! The handwriting of being digitally enslaved is on the wall. An implanted RFID chip could very well be next!

Lee Snow

I am untruly disgusted in the ‘selling off’ of our students personal information to line the pockets of their supporters who sell Edu tech. I consider these longitude files and InBloom data mine IDENTITY THEFT!
I calling/writing to the three credit reporting agencies, Social Security admin, Medicaid, elected officials, Attorney General Office, ACLU and Office of the Inspector General to complain. This is an invasion of privacy at the students expense so it is reason to change SS numbers and change students names legally. What else will Gates/Klein/Bloomberg/Murdock/Walton think of to sell off?
Everything these vendors sell is the opposite of the truth, it will move away from individual teaching, increase class sizes, or worse put pre-k to grade 12 on tablets to be programed into whatever industry new ‘workers’ are needed.
Since IEP and special need students have health reports in school files this will violate the Privacy Rule of HIPPA. Voters will see thru the marketing and realize you era profiting off students taking funds away from schools. How much will the US education budget dramatically increase? NCLB failed, next to fail is RTTT.

A. S. Evans



With the constant stream of patches and updates Microsoft is forced to develop and release, these craven fools want us to believe there’s no danger to our children here? Big data for education is just like the hog butchering industry in Chicago was, driven purely by profit and using everything but the squeal. That’s how they see America’s children, as a commodity, nothing more.

Stephen Stollmack

Watch this documentary where Noam Chomsky speaks about Public Education and the Common Good and the battle between the intellectuals on the Left and the Conservatives on the Right, who saw Ralph Nader and Herbert Marcuse (and the anti-war demonstrators) and the liberal voice coming from ‘Academia’ as being out to destroy the American way of life; see (watch or listen to and you will understand more.

With Bush and now Obama (and most of the government officials) being tied to big-money lobbying interests, the pendulum has swung too far to the Right. Support for inner city teachers and schools has been hung out to dry by Liberals — at least by those in the upper 10%. This is because their kids attend suburban schools, where the impact of NCLB and Obama’s Race to the Top (RttT) has been muted by a general feeling among of the students that the tests are a joke and just another PIA and simply another example of how off-target the government is.

The Left has been split on this issue because of the general acceptance of the logic behind concepts of efficiency and ‘cost effectiveness’, which is, of course, the ‘sina qua non’ of the ‘Business-controlled Right’. It seems like the whole world has ‘bought into’ the concept that cost reduction is good even if it means transforming costs to individuals — that it is OK to fire effective teachers and replace them with new graduates including those from the Tech For America program, who have no actual training in Teaching.

Chomsky gives a specific example of ‘cost transference’ concept with an example taken from the Airline Industry: “Airlines’ ‘decision to stop circulating air within the cabin space ‘effectively’ transfers the costs to the individual out-of-the-equation because if you get sick it does not cost the airline anymore”.

This explains why those given responsibility to administer and manage schools and school systems would base their strategies on “eliminating programs that cost too much.”

The RttT gives states a federal-government-approved method for developing testing data into a single metric, which State Administrations can use to evaluate Schools on a cost-effectiveness scale. They are also providing states with money and guidance for developing the data storage and networking needed for monitoring this ‘performance measure’. Many states are already using this method even though the RttT-related test questions have not yet been developed. This amounts to a huge experiment with your children and their teachers being the participants without your approval.

Len Howard

This is awful and should be stopped. Private information is private. If this terrible idea were to move forward, not only would InBloom use it to exploit our children, at some point, their systems would be hacked and our children’s private data will be stolen and used for other unthinkable things.

Rachael Stickland

Families in Jefferson County, Colorado need your help! We do not accept inBloom’s assurances that our children’s confidential data will remain safe and we demand the right of parental consent. Please sign our petition to the JeffCo Board of Directors so our voice can be heard:

John Stoffel

Wal-Mart was one of the first to realize; control the data, control the business. Wal-Mart turned upside down the notion that factories sent department stores goods to sell. Now, Wal-Mart tells factories not only what they will produce, but at what price.

So it goes in education data mining. Corporations will use this information to tell schools what type of students to produce. With that, the beginning of the end of democracy is at hand.


Gates, Murdoch, Klein..and all future eduvultures:

I am an educator and a parent and I don’t embrace anything being promoted and sold by you or Murdoch. You do not care about children, teaching and learning. You care about profits, profits, profits.

Stay away from our children. I don’t trust anyone associated with a company that hacked into the cell phone of a missing, murdered 13 year old.

I will collect and track student results the old fashioned way. I will get to know each of my students as individuals with dreams, strengths, goals and opinions. We will create individual portfolios with writing samples and journal entries. We will read fiction, non fiction, memoirs, news articles, essays, short stories,
poems. We will share ideas, opinions and create long term projects: research, book trailers, original plays, book blogs, etc.

As a teacher it is my responsibility to be data informed NOT data driven. I promise you I will not waste time staring at a computer, tablet or wireless device.

Instead I will look at my students and see and hear them. So, I will tell you now I take a pass on your “digital learning tools” and instead I will use my brain, my instincts and my 26 years of teaching experience to guide me, something the faux reformers (you, Rhee, Bloomberg, Bush, etc) know nothing about.

Alexandra Miletta

What is also appalling is that those behind inBloom got the USDOE to alter FERPA with little fanfare in 2011. As someone who has served on two higher ed institution’s IRB committees that oversee human subjects protection in research, I find it disconcerting to say the least that researchers have to follow very strict (rightly so!) guidelines for research involving minors and obtain parental consent, but business developers with their own greedy interests in mind just get to change federal law and bypass the parents completely. We need to make our moral outrage known to politicians before it’s too late.

Lake Nelson

Another reason to homeschool.


More silicon snake oil where hype and dollar-soaked eyeballs are in much greater abundance than any actual benefits.


Plain and simple it is against the law to she special education information under FERPA. I have a child with a disability who will now graduate from college. If he was in public school right now I would be sueing the ass off of this company.

Dianne Khan

Wow! As Alexandra says (comments above) it is scandalous that business can essentially buy very detailed information about our children to use for profit and without any permission from parents or oversight from an ethics committee. Shameful. Do Gates, Murdoch et al think they are gods? Because they are far from it. Shame on them.

[…] Big data and schools: Education nirvana or privacy nightmare? By Anya Kamenetz on March 6, 2013 […]

[…] data with a Gates-funded organization called inBloom, Inc. So far, Reuters, the NY Daily News, Hechinger Report, Politics 365, and The Denver Post have all reported on this […]

Mark van Rijmenam

Great article, big data will definitely revolutionize learning in all kinds of ways. Universities, colleges and schools will have to be ready for the big data wave. Read more about it here:

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would results from public high school sporting events results fall into the category of directory information or education records? These events are held publicly and the results are available at the time, to the public.

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