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Common Core wrongly tied to data project

The Common Core standards in reading and math in Kansas do not require states to collect massive amounts of personal data on every student. Nor is the Kansas State Department of Education taking part in any new national or international data mining system.

At least that's the assurance from Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker, who says she is puzzled about where those reports are coming from.

"There is no further data gathering because of Common Core," DeBacker said during a break in Tuesday's State Board of Education meeting, when scores of people lined up to advocate for and against approval of the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards.

That's not to say Kansas doesn't collect data on students. It does and it's been doing so for many years, largely at the insistence of state and federal lawmakers who want the data to hold schools accountable for improving student performance and closing achievement gaps.

"We gather about 86 data points that any parent would expect if their student is enrolled in public school," DeBacker said, "from their name, their ethnicity, their race, their grade level and then, of course, their achievement as they move through our system."

And the only financial information the state gathers is whether the student receives free or reduced-price meals, DeBacker said, because that's the only indicator they have about a student's socio-economic status.

"That's the only time when income is asked because they have to qualify for that," she said.

But that's a hard message to sell to those who've been showing up at state board meetings the last two months, criticizing Common Core as a giant federal intrusion, not only into state education policy, but also into the private lives of every American.

The extent of their fear was evident in the comments of Barbara Penn of Lenexa, who identified herself as "a public school educator for about 24 years" in Kansas.

"I don't need to know (my students') political affiliation," she said. "I don't need to know their religious affiliation. I don't need to know their blood type. These things don't help me be a better educator."

"I'm concerned with the data mining that's going on," she continued. "I'm concerned about privacy. I never thought that growing up in this country that the issues we're having with the IRS now would come about. They have information. OK, what's happening to the information being collected on our children, our grandchildren, our nieces, our nephews? Why does this need to follow them?"

Penn wasn't the only one to conflate the alleged data-gathering under Common Core, which isn't actually happening, with other recent controversies involving federal agencies.

The original J-W story about the state board meeting, quoted freshman Republican Rep. Allan Rothlisberg of Geary County as saying, "We've seen in the news lately, obviously with the IRS, spying on us. Why on earth would we expect the Department of Education — which is not constitutionally authorized, as previously said — to look out for our children?"

Theories about a data-mining operation being a requirement under Common Core are rampant in the blogosphere. A simple Google search using the terms "Common Core" and "data collection" pulls up a treasure trove of such sites.

One website dedicated specifically to opposing Common Core has multiple articles linking the data collection system to the IRS and NSA scandals.

Another called the Daily Herald website contains an essay by one Oak Norton who traces the data-mining conspiracy back to a 2004 agreement between Bill Gates and the United Nations.

"Bill Gates knew that education was a huge multibillion dollar industry and if he could be at the crest of that wave, he would make billions,"Norton writes, evidently missing the fact that, at the time, Gates was already the wealthiest man on the planet Earth.

Like many exaggerated theories, though, there is a kernel of truth behind this one.

What is happening, according to education experts, is a project by a non-profit corporation called inBloom, Inc., backed by a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to build a database which, theoretically at least, would be more accessible and user friendly than current state-based or school-based systems, allowing teachers greater access to information so they can better tailor instruction to the individual needs of each student.

That project has indeed raised privacy concerns among education professionals, notably the American Federation of Teachers. That's probably why hardly any states or individual districts so far have signed up to take part in it.

For an interesting discussion of those issues, check out this recent blog post from Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post.

But Kansas is not taking part in that project, DeBacker said.

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