Privacy and Common Core

There’s an intense debate right now over “Common Core,” an effort to implement a set of education standards in public schools nationwide. The Common Core State Standards thus far have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

Though it isn’t my area of expertise, I’ve received numerous impassioned emails on the subject. Among them, one person’s concerns particularly struck me.

This person is an expert in the field of education. She is thoughtful, serious, and no foe of public education. Her concerns especially hit home given current fears over privacy intrusions by the federal government. Those fears have swirled around the National Security Agency, the Justice Department, and the IRS. But they don’t end there. There are likewise potentially serious privacy problems involving current and proposed education policy, which likewise relate to data collection, dissemination, and use.

To that end, my friend is hoping to at least help kindle some public awareness.

“The portion [of current education policy] that I believe is most important for raising public awareness,” she writes, “is the changes to the FERPA regulations which have greatly expanded who has access to student data.” FERPA is the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. Changes have been made to FERPA that (some believe) will leave parents uninformed as to how their children’s records are shared. “Parents seem totally unaware of what data is being collected,” she adds. “In Pennsylvania it is collected under something called the PIMS system, but in other states it has different labels.”

There’s more. There’s also the problem of a rise in “outside vendors and providers to manage student data—again, without parental consent.”

How, specifically, would this happen?

For starters, Common Core standards, as was the case with previous standards, lead to much testing, which involves a great deal of data collection on students. Coupled with this heightened collection of student data is the prevalence of so-called “longitudinal state reporting systems.” According to my friend, as part of the “Race to the Top” initiative, a federal educational initiative, states were encouraged to create “robust data collection systems.” These systems were touted as a mechanism to provide school districts, state governments, and federal policymakers with more data to analyze trends in student achievement and improve educational efforts. While this might seem benign, notes my friend, we cannot ignore the sheer volume of data that will be collected and how that data might be misused. For instance, most parents have no idea that their child’s “personal information” includes not just test scores but social security numbers, attendance records, records of interaction with school counselors, identification of learning disabilities, and even disciplinary records.

All of this is being collected.

And yet, because such enhanced data collection exceeds the resources of many districts and states, schools will be forced to contract the service to corporations that collect, manage, and store such data—and possibly share it. In other words, outside data managers must be employed to maintain this personal data on your kids. Is there any level of oversight to ensure this data is protected?

My friend writes that “this trend of data collection relates to changes in the FERPA regulations by the Education Department in 2011. These changes, made without congressional approval, now allow third party access to student data without the consent of parents. For example, vendors, seeking to market particular products, can access this data.”

And there’s still more, relating specifically to private religious schools. My friend adds: “One particular concern that I think speaks to Catholic interests is the rush on the part of some dioceses (and other private schools) to adopt the Common Core and buy-in to the assessments connected with such systems (and as such the data collection).”

Indeed, the Catholic press is hot on this issue, realizing the distinct impact that Common Core can have on Catholic schools—the nation’s largest segment of private/religious schooling. Nationwide, groups of Catholics have sprung up in protest. The National Catholic Education Association hasn’t endorsed the standards, but is helping Catholic schools prepare for implementation.

Perhaps most troublesome, all of this derives from federal/national influences, even as Common Core is instituted at the state level. As my friend states: “the push for the adoption of the state longitudinal data systems and the Common Core assessment collection all stem from national influences. Certainly, the changes in FERPA were undertaken through the U.S. Department of Education.”

My friend sums up: “I find the level of data collection on individual students to be excessive, and the transparency … to be lacking.” Such data collection methods “put the federal government in a position to track student achievement in ways that have been previously unavailable due to the sheer size of data mining, and have been (until recently) safeguarded by privacy regulations. As an educator I care deeply about the ability for our nation’s school children to achieve high levels of learning, yet I believe the decisions for student learning are best accomplished at the classroom and school level, not the federal level.”

We’re facing, in essence, unchecked data collection as part of a significant and sweeping federal educational mandate. Are we ready for this, and all its repercussions?

My friend pleads for some “public awareness and dialogue in this area.” Who could object to that?

This essay first appeared July 22, 2013 on the Visions and Values website and is reprinted with permission.

Paul Kengor


Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, and author of many books including The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage (2015). His new books are A Pope and a President and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism (2017).

  • Steven Jonathan

    Scary stuff! Data collection and it potential nefarious use is only one of many problems with the CCS- But there are bigger fish to fry here- CCS is an excellent example of the infallibility of the magisterium of the city of man, it is infallibly wrong.
    I find it a little disconcerting that someone would not be an opponent of public education.

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  • TheodoreSeeber

    As every hacker knows, privacy has been an illusion since the early 1980s. An easy to build device can even use infrared to record on video what is going on behind closed doors.

    I think we need to face the fact that a part of the Internet revolution is going to necessarily be an end to anything the Baby Boomer generation recognized as privacy. This will only get worse as IPV6 and cheap sensors get invented, and our entire world starts feeding data into the cloud.

    I’m more afraid of the centralization, one-size-fits-all aspect of CCS; especially since I have a school age special needs son, for whom normal learning techniques simply don’t apply, and I myself have Asperger’s and recognize the need for schools to be neurally diverse.

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  • WRBaker

    From the NCEA website: “While Catholic schools have their own local or diocesan standards, their ability to continue to provide high-quality education for their students is compelling them to consider adoption of the common core standards. Catholic schools will be impacted as curriculum resources and professional development opportunities become aligned with Common Core State Standards by producers of instructional materials, college teacher preparation programs, or regulations for participation in the federal programs that currently benefit their students and teachers. Within this environment, maintaining the uniqueness and integrity of the Catholic school will require integrating the demands of their mission and the academic expectations of their constituents and the wider education community.” Got it: book sellers, teacher schools and buying into federal programs are the REAL reasons for Common Core.
    Considering the above and that Sr. Dale McDonald, director of Public Policy and Research for the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) and Dr. Lorraine Ozar, the founding director of the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness and an associate professor of education at Loyola University Chicago, were part of the CCCII kick-off event, it’s obvious that NCEA is not “hands-off” in Common Core.

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