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In Colorado, a 'Surreal' Experience With inBloom and Angry Parents

Austin, Texas

Data, data, data.

It's probably no surprise that big ideas about using educational data—everything from building personalized-learning engines to improving the college decision process to screening teacher candidates based on predictions of how they will impact student achievement—are everywhere at this year's South by Southwest education conference.

But now, protecting student information is on equal footing.

Click to see more SXSWedu coverage.

No fewer than four panels over the first two days of the conference addressed the hot-button topic of student data privacy.  At the two sessions I was able to attend, a pair of themes emerged.

On a practical level, many are worried that properly securing all the sensitive information being collected on students is a darn-near impossible task for districts—"like nailing Jello to the wall," said Laura Hansen, the director of information management and decision support in Metro Nashville Public Schools.

And on a public-relations level, proponents of educational data use are worried that they've lost control of the discussion.

"You need to make sure moms and dads understand what you're doing and understand what's in it for them," said Aimee Guidera, the executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, a Washington-based advocacy nonprofit.  

On both fronts, perhaps the most interesting commentary came during a morning panel, when Greg Mortimer, the former chief information officer of the 86,000-student Jefferson County Schools system in suburban Denver, spoke about his experience with inBloom.

Mortimer played a key role in Jefferson County district's ill-fated agreement to partner with the controversial Atlanta-based nonprofit, which aims to host states' data, to clean, organize and secure it, and to facilitate the development of new tools for schools and districts by approved third-party vendors granted access to the information.

"I still stand by that," he said. "It was the right strategic decision from an instructional, fiscal, technology, and data security and privacy perspective."

In January, though, the Jefferson County board cut ties with inBloom and halted the pilot program that was underway, in part due to a firestorm of controversy ignited by parents concerned that their children's sensitive information would be improperly shared with third-party vendors or vulnerable to potential hackers. Similar concerns have been raised in other states that backed out of ties with the organization, such as Louisiana, as well as in New York, where a fight rages on.

Mortimer, however, praised inBloom's security protocols, saying an independent third-party assessment "confirmed what we believed all along: that [the organization] was doing an excellent job of putting in place systems and people to protect the privacy of that data."

The persistent critics, he said, were a "small but very active" group of about 50 parents who were in "philosophical and ideological opposition to national education reform, from the Common Core to educator effectiveness to anything beyond local control" of schools.

He said the Jefferson County district was caught off guard by the rancor and was unprepared to respond to the concerns. Eventually, Mortimer said, he had to start doing his IT work at night because so much of his time was spent at public meetings, on the phone, and with parents, trying—unsuccessfully—to stem the tide.

"It was one of the most surreal years of my life," he said.

Mortimer, now with Denver Public Schools, laid out a number of lessons he learned from the experience. Being proactive and transparent with parents and the public is key, he said, as is understanding "political reality."  Mortimer also advised districts to "make sure your most senior instructional leaders, including the superintendent, own the message" of why data is important and what educational benefits it has.

Some district officials already seem to have gotten the memo: In an afternoon panel on data privacy, Tracey Barrientos, an assistant principal at Four Points Middle School in Texas, talked at length about her school's efforts to not only get and use more data, but to make sure parents understand the motivations and benefits associated with such efforts.

"If we give parents the 'why,' I think that will alleviate many of the fears," Barrientos said.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold for live updates from SXSWedu.

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