An education technology conference this week in Austin, Texas, will clang with bells and whistles as startups eagerly show off their latest wares.
But the most influential new product may be the least flashy: a $100 million database built to chart the academic paths of public school students from kindergarten through high school.
In operation just three months, the database already holds files on millions of children identified by name, address and sometimes social security number. Learning disabilities are documented, test scores recorded, attendance noted. In some cases, the database tracks student hobbies, career goals, attitudes toward school – even homework completion.
The database is a joint project of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided most of the funding, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and school officials from several states.
Federal officials say the database project complies with privacy laws. Schools do not need parental consent to share student records with any “school official” who has a “legitimate educational interest,” according to the Department of Education. The department defines “school official” to include private companies hired by the school, so long as they use the data only for the purposes spelled out in their contracts.
The database also gives school administrators full control over student files, so they could choose to share test scores with a vendor but withhold social security numbers or disability records.
That’s hardly reassuring to many parents.
“Once this information gets out there, it’s going to be abused. There’s no doubt in my mind,” said Jason France, a father of two in Louisiana.
I liked it a lot better when Bill was trying to fight the musquito.