As a parent, I demand the right to have my children’s data used by schools, researchers, content providers, and other 3rd parties. My kids deserve no less than for their learning institutions to use every tool possible to improve their education and enhance their learning.

Warm, caring, competent professional educators came within an inch of beating the love of math out of my precocious, curious math kid. How? By making him repeat mastered material three years in a row. Why? Because they had no diagnostic tools to assess what he really knew and could do beyond grade level. Or perhaps they did, but worked in a culture that didn’t support using data to make such decisions.

Data gives power to students and families. It takes accountability from some abstract plane to a very concrete personal one. “My son learns 3-4 times faster than you teach, learns by solving new problems rather than listening to lectures and drilling the same problem over and over with different numerical values, and needs an hour to a day to work on one challenging problem at a time – preferably collaboratively. He has mastered topics A-Q except M and P, and has some understanding of T, V, and W. How are you going to nurture his talent? I hold you accountable for this.”

Data gives power to teachers. If we know my child is confusing rates and ratios, a teacher can correct that one misunderstanding that is preventing progress. If we know in great detail where misconceptions are occurring, as they occur, teaching can include many such tiny just-in-time interventions for each unique student that allows that child to learn more quickly and deeply.

What would it take for a teacher to have that insight about every student? It’s tricky because if every student is learning as quickly and deeply as possible, then every student is at a different place: some are far ahead, some are repeating an area until they master it, everyone is spread out in their learning. How can anyone keep track of all that and how can anyone deliver instruction at all those different levels?

It takes two elements. The first is switching from a purely “push” model of instruction where the teacher lectures on the same content to all students at the same pace to a model that has “pull” elements where students have some independence in completing curriculum and have the opportunity to get help and personal instruction as needed. The second element is data that is collected and shared with the teacher as students learn.

This can be done with or without technology. I remember in elementary school I was involved in an independent study program – each student had a math book with curriculum, exercises, and answers in the back of the book. We would complete a chapter, and the teacher would give us a chapter test – if we passed we moved on, if we didn’t we tried again. It was a non-digital example of a mastery-based program. It worked, but it could have worked better. As students we couldn’t self-assess whether we were learning deeply or by rote, and the kind of one-on-one time doing math with a teacher that would allow that kind of evaluation wasn’t a part of the program (though it could have been.)

Pure independent study has its own flaws and challenges – learning in isolation from static, decontextualized content can be tedious and overwhelming. It allows students to learn at their own pace, which is wonderful, but at the cost of having a knowledgeable teacher provide context, connections, explanations, and critical emotional support through the frustrations of challenging material.

Pure lecture has the opposite flaws – a teacher can provide context, connections and explanations to everyone at once and emotional support as needed individually (depending on the needs and size of the class) but students who fall behind despair and tune out while students who master a concept quickly get bored and do the same.

But if technology is used to collect data, the equation changes. Learning becomes a blend of independent study and direct instruction. Consider ST Math as an example – this is a particularly advanced digital tool for learning math. It’s structured as a game. Students play the game and “level up” as they master concepts. But how does the game know when a student has mastered something? Simply put, through data. Every time a student tries to solve a puzzle, the software keeps track of successes and failures and uses that data to decide when to provide more challenging obstacles in the game.

This is all that data is – information much like the information that is collected when teachers assign quizzes. The difference is that rather than for a teacher to take time to develop the quiz, take time out from learning for every student to take the quiz, then collect and spend the time to grade the quiz (less time for multiple choice, more time for thoughtful feedback on work) the data is collected as part of learning. This means the teacher has more time to spend with the student who needs some one-on one coaching and every student has more time to spend learning. This is great, so what’s the problem?

The catch is the MIND Institute, makers of ST Math are a “3d Party.” They aren’t part of the school system. Should they have access to our children’s data?

The questions regarding legal liability and ethical considerations around data privacy are very real (with far more complexity than can be covered here) and need to be addressed thoughtfully. But as we navigate this issue, in my own school district and nationally, as a parent I consider this non-negotiable: my children deserve access to the tools that help them learn and the structures that help teachers create personalized learning environments for them.

When we address data privacy it is imperative to solve the right problem – the question is not how to eliminate 3d party access to my children’s data, but rather how to give parents and teachers control over how that sharing happens.  Because responsible 3d parties like MIND Institute can help my kids to learn.  Because they will use their data responsibly.  Because my kids’ data can help them make their products better for all children.  Please.  Share my kids’ data with 3d parties like them.

 

7 COMMENTS

  1. In and ideal and perfect world, you’d be absolutely right. But first, states and the federal government need to trust teachers and stop penalizing them for allowing students to work at their own pace. Schools and teachers are penalized for not maintaining cohorts, for not passing “enough” students, and not being ‘effective’ because of this. It would be fabulous if students who excelled could be permitted to move ahead while those that struggled could be given the time and support to truly learn and achieve. Canned programs and curricula are not the answer. Allowing kids to be people with real strengths and weaknesses, interests and abilities is the key. As a parent and an educator, I dream of this perfect world, but instead, I know that I will still get middle and high school students that read and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade levels and are already so hopelessly defeated feeling that by the time that they reach 8th grade, many have given up and become hostile and apathetic in defense. Who can blame them. The system that we have has failed them for many years. Reform is important, but until all the factors of poverty, family issues, and a system that allows students to truly learn at their own pace, this will, sadly, never happen.

  2. I am passionate about improving education for all our K-12 children. I would love for schools and teachers to have more freedom in how they get kids excited about learning. Many children loose interest by 3rd grade because class rooms don’t stay relevant and don’t address the large levels of ability that are common place in elementary school By middle school these same children have started to give up and tune out. Flip class rooms have only been available for a few of our children’s classes. We found them to be particular helpful in math. Kids could be routinely assessed and then more on to a new topic once they had mastered the content. Since the new content was learned a home, I as a parent was on hand to help bring new concepts to light. Teachers could walk around the following day, while children worked on independent, self taught lessons and help the children who are struggling with new content. While I agree that this problem is huge, I hope it’s size won’t discourage us all to keep trying. Our children’s future depends on how we respond to the current deficits.

  3. With respect I don’t think the issue is lack of data. In the eighties I had to learn cursive twice, but not because my third grade teacher lacked the data that I’d already learned cursive. I happily provided that data to her with every assignment that she gave me that involved writing of any type. (And I continued to provide this “data” even after she asked me not to, because I figured out that writing cursive was easier than printing.) She insisted that I learn cursive again because it would have been a lot of work for her to figure out something else for me to do and the school’s culture didn’t really encourage that sort of flexibility. I suspect that your kid’s teachers where quite aware that your son was ahead of the curve but they had a limited amount of resources and a likely a number of kids behind the curve who had more need of the teacher’s time. Again, I don’t think the issue is lack of data or lack of fancy tools as just plain lack of resources and mis-allocation of resources to high-stakes standardized tests and other fads that don’t really help students at all.

  4. One topic that is often neglected is whether children (students) themselves want their information shared with all these companies. It is difficult enough for parents and teachers to understand how many companies have access to children’s private information. These data trails will most likely follow an individual child throughout most of their educational career (and even into employment). They should have the ultimate decision in how their data is collected, used and distributed–and have the option to ‘opt-out’ if they have a reasonable opinion on the matter. We should continue to hold companies to a high standard for data security and privacy, and educate parents and teachers on the use of data. However, more focus needs to be placed on creating the mechanisms that will allow children themselves to decide if, when and how the data will be used.

  5. @Nick,

    You bring up two important points.
    1) We need mechanisms for opting out
    2) Students need to be part of the conversation

    One of the most important things that can happen for data privacy right now is a standard way for clear and consistent transparent communication regarding how data associated with a given app/service/etc will be used. Something that has consistent language to say if the data says in a vault or is used for other purposes or whatever the truth is.

    Also it is important for technology solutions to support students being part of this decisions making as they get older (certainly by age 18). My kids had no say over vaccination decisions, for instance, when they are 5 or 6, but they do participate with me in decision making about their on-line presence from smaller input in grade school to relative autonomy in high school.

  6. This is an excellent piece. Right now I see a lot of this happening in Education and media concerning the field:

    “Bad tests, bad data security, or bad accountability approaches must mean ASSESSMENT is bad and/or DATA is bad.”

    Such a statement is like saying:

    “Food and medical supplies being sent to Sudan are getting poached (i.e., misappropriated/misused/etc.), so that must mean food and medical supplies are bad for the Sudanese.”

    In other words, such logic is nonsensical and ignores the gray area inherent in most education topics. Thank you for being one of those speaking up for the highly valuable nature of appropriately-used data.

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