Friday, December 20, 2013

Privacy, Propaganda, and Assimilation in the 21st Century

I'm interrupting our 2013 Pleasures series for this guest post by Kristin King, to boost the signal of news that will likely not be carried by Seattle's primary news outlet. But we'll be resuming the Pleasures series shortly.

Privacy, Propaganda, and Assimilation in the 21st Century
by Kristin King

Yesterday, KUOW broke the news that the Washington State education department, OSPI, signed a data sharing agreement to hand all kinds of confidential student and teacher information off to eight reporters at the Seattle Times. Parents were never notified, lack the legal right to “opt out” of such disclosures, and have no legal recourse if their students’ data is stolen and misused. Our only protection? The Times and the reporters promised to keep the data private and to return it when their studies were done.

Yes, I did say “studies” rather than “articles” or “investigations.” Since when do reporters conduct studies? Since a nonprofit gave the Seattle Times some grant money for it, that’s when. What nonprofit? Why?

The name of the nonprofit is the Solutions Journalism Network. It’s a new thing. You know how the news is kind of a downer? It presents crises, but no solutions. But never fear! Someone is on hand to do evidence-based research on ideas for fixing the problems.

You might wonder whether the solutions are simply “for the greater good” or whether they benefit anyone in particular. I certainly did. So I did what I always do when I see a nonprofit involved in something that looks sketchy: I checked out their funders. At the top of the list? The Gates Foundation, which has become notorious for using its cash to change public policy to support various types of school privatization and other changes to education, including the Common Core initiative, which requires states to gather large amounts of data on students, teachers, and test scores.

By the way, as long as we’re talking about the Gates Foundation, we had better talk about Bill Gates and his concept of creative capitalism. It’s unfortunate that capitalism is hard on some people, but we’re all smart people, and we can fix it. You just find creative ways “to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world's inequities.” The inequities still exist, of course.

After I finished peeking at their funders, I checked out the Solutions Journalism Network’s projects and examples. They have grants available for researching climate change, for example. But not stopping climate change. No. The articles are all about climate change resilience, or helping communities cope with the disastrous effects of climate change on local communities. And there are articles on economic equity. But this isn’t economic equity between the rich and the poor, or between whites and people of color. No. It’s only economic equity between men and women. And there are articles on solutions to education problems. But they’re not about addressing fundamental barriers to learning. No. They’re about social/emotional learning.

Do you see a pattern here? The articles are all great articles. We should be working on climate change, economic equity between men and women, and social-emotional learning. However, the grant funders are only looking for articles that are going to make us feel good without threatening their wealth or raising taxes.

Let's dig a little deeper into the kind of content they’re looking for. If you scroll down just a little way on the “examples” page, you see their idea of a Solutions Journalism approach to education on the rez. The article they highlight is “Education in Indian Country: Obstacles and Opportunity,” published in Education Week. The problem? “On most measures of educational success, Native American students trail every other racial and ethnic subgroup of students.” What’s the solution? I’ll give you a hint: it’s got nothing to do with raising the per capita income above $8,000 per year, or putting tax dollars into schools. Actually, it’s about an Indian school. It’s about sending Lakota children off to a private, Jesuit-run high school.

I had to stop here and do the dismayed version of laughter. Did we learn nothing from the past three hundred years? Did we forget about all the abuses heaped on First Nations peoples by Jesuit boarding schools? No, we actually didn’t forget. If you do a Google search for “Jesuit boarding schools Native American,” you’ll see what I mean. Of course, the Jesuits of today are not the same as those olden times Jesuits. We’re in the twenty-first century, and assimilation takes a different form. Students learn the Lakota language and are allowed to practice Lakota spirituality. That’s all good. But they also study the Catholic religion and learn how to function in twenty-first century capitalism. More importantly, an outside entity is getting to decide what the Lakota kids learn. This is still assimilation.

Also problematic is that a private school is set up as a solution to economic inequalities. Not all the Lakota children are allowed to go: school officials choose kids they feel have appropriate parental support. An even smaller number are able to go on to college: since 1999, 50 students have been granted Gates Foundation scholarships to go to college.

This is the creative capitalism solution in a nutshell: leave the underlying social injustices in place, but “ease the world’s inequalities.” Might there be a better solution that includes economic justice and Lakota self-determination? Yes, but Solutions Journalism isn’t going to be funded to look for it.

Instead, I’d be willing to bet that Solutions Journalism will be funded to look at education “solutions” involving privatization, high-stakes testing, fast-track teacher preparation programs, and other corporately-inspired “education reforms.” Why would I think that? Because it’s what its funders want.

And this brings us back to the grant-funded Education Lab at the Seattle Times. The grant funders have no direct control over editorial content, as the Times explains. But of course they have the same kinds of indirect control as advertisers have. If an advertiser doesn’t like what a publication is doing, it can withdraw its advertisements. If the grant funders don’t like the stories put out by the Times, they can stop making grants. Another type of indirect control is that money is available for certain types of projects that might not be possible otherwise, such as the study the reporters are doing using student data.

What might that study be about? We don’t know, but from the KUOW article we do know that the OSPI “has so far promised the Times individual student and staff data dating from 2009 to this year, including individual students’ test scores on numerous state assessments, grades, school schedules, absences and discipline information.” We also know that Deputy Managing Editor Jim Simon wants this -- ahem -- “welter of information” as “a way to hold the system accountable for the performance of schools.”

Ah, accountability. In the world of “education reform,” that means judging schools and teachers by student “achievement” as measured by scores on standardized tests. It doesn’t mean accountability for fully funding schools or working to solve racially based discipline disproportionality or following the law in educating special education students .

A few years back, the Los Angeles Times used this data for “accountability” with tragic results. It posted rankings of teachers based spuriously on student test scores, and a teacher was so upset he committed suicide. Here’s hoping the Times doesn’t do that. But my guess is that the study will in some way, shape, or form, advocate for “education reform.”

Putting it all together? My children’s private data will be used to bring grant money to a for-profit company. It will be used as propaganda for education policy changes that are not in my kids’ best interest. I’m not pleased. What can be done? Well, public protest is always good. Angry parents and civil liberties groups have stopped a bunch of states from sharing data with Gates Foundation-funded nonprofit InBloom.

But to make that public protest happen, people need more information about privacy. Most of the parents I talk to don’t understand the ways the federal privacy law, FERPA, does and does not protect our children’s privacy. They don’t know that even if they sign an opt-out form, schools can share data with third-party organizations. They don’t know that this kind of data sharing agreement is becoming the norm. That’s a lot to explain right there.

We also need a better understanding of the dynamic between nonprofits and the philanthropies that fund them. For that, I’d recommend the book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. It’s a big eye-opener. Or if you want something shorter, try my post “Are Nonprofits Our Frenemies?”

Here in Seattle, we are fortunate to have some actual investigative journalism around education issues: the blogs Save Seattle Schools ( and Seattle Education ( Through these blogs, Seattle parents, teachers, and students have been able to work together to learn about privatization and fight for our own visions of education.

And as a bonus? Unlike the Seattle Times, those blogs don’t make back-door deals with the state to get our children’s private data.

No comments: