Still, many are skeptical, fearing that student data could be used inappropriately, or for corporate purposes. As Sophie Quinton reported for National Journal, analytics have raised ethical questions on college campuses, including whether institutions are essentially surveilling their students. One study from 2012 focusing on the higher-ed sector found that nearly a quarter of education professionals surveyed were concerned about the misuse of data, regulations governing data use, and individuals’ privacy rights. But when asked about data’s potential to maximize strategic outcomes, from student progress to efficient spending, more than 80 percent of the respondents said analytics would become more important in the future.
Similar concerns exist in K-12 schools. “Even if they don’t follow education policy, people’s ears perk up when they hear something about their own children’s data, and they can get swayed pretty quickly by groups that are fighting to maintain privacy at all costs,” says Rod Berger, the vice president of education at RANDA Solutions, a software firm based in Tennessee.
K–12 schools have almost always kept track of standardized test scores and graduation rates, but only over the past decade or so have they had access to more-detailed information captured by sophisticated analytic software. This level of tracking has caused some consternation among families. Last year, a nonprofit company called inBloom, funded by $100 million in seed money from the Gates and Carnegie Foundations, shut down because parents worried that their children’s personal information—stored by inBloom to help improve academic performance in public schools across the country—could be misused, sold, or breached. InBloom recorded student grades and attendance in addition to details like family composition, free-lunch eligibility, and reasons for enrollment changes, including medical conditions. It was one of an increasing number of third-party vendors that create, license, and implement education software—an $8 billion market, by recent estimates.
Reluctance to adopt data analytics across school districts may be preventing improvements to student outcomes and teacher effectiveness, according to Jimmy Sarakatsannis, one of the McKinsey article’s authors. He says parents are understandably concerned that decisions based on data could “rob the human experience from teaching and learning.” But, as a former public-school teacher in Washington, D.C., Sarakatsannis adds that most teachers strive for “personalization,” or instruction tailored to a student at a given point in time; data could help them achieve this goal.
Major textbook publishers like McGraw-Hill as well as smaller ventures like ThinkCERCA, a digital package of tools and lesson plans focused on boosting literacy, have already begun to capitalize on student data—proving that making kids smarter is smart business. The public’s concerns about privacy put a significant burden on these companies—and other stakeholders, such as policymakers to school administrators—to illustrate the benefits, says Ryan Baker, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. One way to do this, Baker says, is by measuring engagement: to what extent a student expresses interest in and motivation to learn about a particular subject. (Although experts disagree over what the term exactly means, “engagement” can typically be measured by surveying students and teachers and by observing classroom behavior.) Baker adds that tracking such data can help teachers identify which kids are struggling with which material.