Gates-funded Education Data Warehouse, inBloom, to Close

On April 21, inBloom, a nonprofit education data warehouse launched with the financial backing of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, announced that it would close.

The announcement came after a number of its state-level clients, swamped with protests over student privacy, withdrew their participation. The initiative had made its debut just a year before, in February 2013, with an announcement that it already had nine state partners at that time.  Now it has none.

According to a story in The New York Times, the project was at the forefront of results-driven education efforts, helping teachers and schools determine what was working best for their students:

For believers in data-driven education, the idea of collating data from a student’s record has the same logic as electronic health records.

“Do you want to take your child to the doctor and have three data points — height, weight and age — or do you also want data from a hospital in another state?” asked Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia who is an inBloom director. “I want the most data points available so my child can have the best diagnosis.”

According to the Times:

InBloom, a nonprofit corporation based in Atlanta, seemed to offer a solution: it could collect information from the district’s many databases and store it in the cloud, making access easier, and protect it with high-level encryption.

The company has name-brand backing: $100 million in seed money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation along with the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Beyond storing data, it promised to help personalize learning — by funneling student data to software dashboards where teachers could track individual students and, with the right software, customize lessons in real time. Also, districts could effortlessly share student records with developers seeking to create educational tools for schools. In other words, for Dr. Stevenson, it represented not just a fix to a narrow technical problem, but also a potentially revolutionary way to help educate students.

But many privacy and parent activists were not convinced. According to a more recent story in the Times following inBloom’s announcement that it would close:

[F]or all of inBloom’s neutral-sounding intentions, industry analysts say it has stirred some parents’ fears about the potential for mass-scale surveillance of students. Parents like Rachael Stickland, a mother of two Jeffco students, say that schools are amassing increasing amounts of information about K-12 students with little proof that it will foster their critical thinking or improve their graduation rates.

The inBloom database included more than 400 different data fields about students that school administrators could fill in. But some of the details seemed so intimate — including family relationships (“foster parent” or “father’s significant other”) and reasons for enrollment changes (“withdrawn due to illness” or “leaving school as a victim of a serious violent incident”) — that parents objected, saying that they did not want that kind of information about their children transferred to a third-party vendor.

In the aftermath of the controversy, the Data Quality Campaign — a leading advocate for the use of data in education — has redoubled its efforts, releasing a Roadmap to Safeguarding Student Data and a video and infographic describing who uses student data.

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