A Student-Data Collector Drops Out

Center on Law and Information Policy in The New York Times, April 26, 2014

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To hear executives at inBloom tell it, their $100 million education technology start-up is shutting down after only 15 months of operation because it was too far ahead of its time.

The seed money for this nonprofit corporation came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the Carnegie Corporation of New York. InBloom aimed to streamline personalized learning — analyzing information about individual students to customize lessons to them — in public schools. It planned to collect and integrate student attendance, assessment, disciplinary and other records from disparate school-district databases, put the information in cloud storage and release it to authorized web services and apps that could help teachers track each student’s progress.

But the program ran into strident opposition from a number of parents and privacy advocates. They warned that school district officials were unequipped to manage, or even audit, how outside vendors might use delicate material — like a student’s disability status. The resistance culminated a few weeks ago, when the New York State Legislature passed a budget that prohibited state education officials from releasing student data to amalgamators like inBloom.

On Monday, Iwan Streichenberger, inBloom’s chief executive, portrayed his enterprise as a victim of erroneous censure — and announced that it was folding.

“The use of technology to tailor instruction for individual students is still an emerging concept and inBloom provides a technical solution that has never been seen before,” he wrote in a letter posted on the inBloom site. “As a result, it has been the subject of mischaracterizations and a lightning rod for misdirected criticisms.”

Start-ups, of course, habitually flop. Because of inBloom’s pedigree backing, however, it became a symbol of the push to technologize education.

“I think other companies have been happy to let inBloom take the punches because it deflects attention away from what they are doing,” Doug Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, a nonprofit membership group, told me last week. “Now, with inBloom closing, it is going to raise broader questions, as it should, about the practices of the industry as a whole.”

(Mr. Levin’s group receives financing from Google for Education, Microsoft, Pearson and other companies.)

Indeed, inBloom’s implosion is a cautionary tale for the nearly $8 billion business of prekindergarten-through-12th-grade education technology software. Some education veterans told me that inBloom’s demise indicated that the industry had been rushing to sell data-driven concepts before establishing evidence that automated data-mining of students improved their success in school.

“If this is still an ‘emerging concept,’ why are we implementing it?” asks Ken Mitchell, the superintendent of the South Orangetown Central School District in Blauvelt, N.Y.

InBloom became a flash point for questions dogging the industry: How does the profit motive tally with public education? How responsible are companies for student data privacy? What if Congress updates the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a 40-year-old student privacy law, to keep pace with innovation?

For years, school districts have collected details about students and shared them with outside vendors — for instance, providing school bus companies with information on students’ physical disabilities. The federal student education privacy law allows this type of data-sharing under an exception permitting schools to outsource school functions to third parties.

But many parents weren’t aware of the practice until they discovered that inBloom made it possible to categorize students with sensitive labels: Autistic. Tardy. A.D.H.D. Removed by child protective services. Parent in military. Homeless. Pregnant. Witness. Perpetrator. Victim.

To some parents, inBloom’s aims seemed conflicted. It proposed to serve as the gatekeeper of this volatile personal information — all the while offering to aid the software industry. It planned to provide a standardized data platform around which vendors could create products to market to multiple districts.

“We are not creating commercial apps,” Mr. Streichenberger, the inBloom chief, told me in a phone interview last year. “Our role is to sit in the middle, to facilitate that innovation.” He added: “There are tools that come in, mine and analyze the data and make recommendations.”

Given inBloom’s challenges, some companies are emphasizing that they have a different business model. Consider eScholar, which sells data warehousing software to about 5,000 school districts across the country. This 17-year-old company doesn’t repurpose student data for other ventures. In fact, eScholar doesn’t store student records; schools run its software and aggregate student data on their own sites.

“It is for us a tremendous sense of clarity that we are getting paid by educators to do what they need done,” Shawn Bay, eScholar’s chief executive, told me.

InBloom also ran into opposition because it seemed intended to maximize data collection — while leaving it up to school officials to decide which student information to upload and which companies should be allowed access to it.

“All of the decisions about what data is stored and what applications are approved and what users can see that data in those applications are all a local customer decision,” Sharren Bates, an inBloom executive, said last year.

A subsequent study by researchers at Fordham Law School in Manhattan concluded that schools weren’t prepared to navigate the issue on their own: Some had signed contracts with vendors without specifying the kinds of student information they could collect or limiting its use.

Trade associations and nonprofit groups have since offered recommendations on how to handle student data; a number of states have enacted, or introduced, legislation that would restrict its proliferation.

“There need to be rules of the road,” said Mr. Levin at the state education technology directors group. “I think the inBloom case establishes that we don’t know what the rules of the road are.”