Jane Robbins, a senior fellow with American Principles Project, was one of four witnesses for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce‘s hearing on “Evidence-Based Policymaking and the Future of Education.”
(Full disclosure: I work with American Principles Project.)
Robbins and Paul Ohm, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, were the only two witnesses who seemed to be concerned with student privacy. The other two witnesses, Dr. Casey Wright, Mississippi’s State Superintendent of Education, and Dr. Neal Franklin, the program director for Innovation Studies with WestEd, were touted the gains that could be made with student data.
Here are the transcript and video of Robbins’ opening statement to the committee:
Madam Chairman and members of the committee:
My name is Jane Robbins, and I’m with the American Principles Project, which works to restore our nation’s founding principles. Thank you for letting me speak today about protecting privacy when evaluating government programs, especially in the area of education.
The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking was created to pursue a laudable goal: To help analyze the effectiveness of federal programs. We all certainly agree that public policy should be based on evidence, on facts, not on opinion or dogma. So unbiased scientific research, for example, is vital for policymaking.
But the problem arises when the subjects of the research and analysis are human beings. Each American citizen is endowed with personal dignity and autonomy and therefore deserves respect and deference concerning his or her own personal data. Allowing the government to vacuum up mountains of such data and employ it for whatever purposes it deems useful – without the citizen’s consent, or in many cases even his knowledge – conflicts deeply with this truth about the dignity of persons.
Bear in mind that the analyses contemplated by the Commission go further than merely sharing discrete data points among agencies. They involve creating new information about individuals, via matching data, drawing conclusions, and making predictions about those individuals. So, in essence, the government would have information about a citizen that even he or she doesn’t have.
Our founding principles, which enshrine the consent of the governed, dictate that a citizen’s data belongs to him rather than to the government. If the government or its allied researchers want to use it for purposes other than those for which it was submitted, they should get consent (in the case of pre-K-12 students, parental consent). That’s how things should work in a free society.
Let’s consider a few specific problems. The Commission’s recommendations to improve evidence-building, while well-intentioned and couched in reasonable language, fail to recognize that data turned over by citizens for one purpose can be misused for others. It is always assumed that the data will be used in benevolent ways for the good of the individual who provides it. But especially with respect to the enormous scope of pre-K through college education data, that simply isn’t true.
Literally everything can be linked to education. Data-analysis might study the connection between one’s education and his employment. Or his health. Or his housing choices. Or the number of children he has. Or his political activity. Or whether his suspension from school in 6th grade foreshadows a life of crime. Education technology innovators brag that predictive algorithms can be created, and those algorithms could be used to steer students along some paths or close off others.
And much of this education data is extraordinarily sensitive – for example, data about children’s attitudes, mindsets, and dispositions currently being compiled, unfortunately, as part of so-called “social-emotional learning.” Do we really want this kind of data to be made more easily accessible for “evidence-building” to which we as parents have not consented?
The Commission recommends that all this data be disclosed only with “approval” to “authorized persons.” But we should ask: Approval of whom? Authorized by whom? There are myriad examples of government employees’ violating statute or policy by misusing or wrongfully disclosing data. And even if the custodians have only good intentions, what they consider appropriate use or disclosure may conflict diametrically with what the affected citizen considers appropriate. Again, this illustrates the necessity for consent.
We should take care to recognize the difference between two concepts that are conflated in the Commission’s report. “Data security” means whether the government can keep data systems from being breached (which the federal government in too many cases has been unable to do). “Data privacy” refers to whether the government has any right to collect and maintain such data in the first place. The federal Privacy Act sets out the Fair Information Principle of data minimization, which is designed to increase security by increasing privacy. A hacker can’t steal what isn’t there.
Another problem with the “evidence-building” mindset is that it assumes an omniscient government will make better decisions than individuals can themselves. But what these analyses are likely to turn up are correlations between some facts and others. And correlations do not equal causation. So, for example, we might end up designing official government policy based on flawed assumptions to “nudge” students into pursuing studies or careers they wouldn’t choose for themselves.
Human beings are not interchangeable. Our country has thrived for centuries without this kind of social engineering, and it’s deeply dangerous to change that now.
In closing, I reiterate my respect for the value of unbiased research as the foundation for policymaking. But speaking for the millions of parents who feel that their concerns about education policy and data privacy have been shunted aside at various levels of government, I urge you to continue the protections that keep their children from being treated as research subjects – without their consent. This might happen in China, but it should not happen here. Thank you.
You can read her longer, written testimony here.
Different committee members asked questions of the panel. Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC), the committee chair, asked Robbins the first question.
Congressman Brett Guthrie (R-KY) asked Robbins whether there is a balance between gathering useful information and privacy protection that can be found.
Robbins who is from Georgia had a longer exchange with Congressman Rick Allen (R-GA) about data collection and student privacy.
Congressman Tom Garrett, Jr. (R-VA) asked her why couldn’t the federal government pull together all of the metadata already out there.
She discussed the College Transparency Act with Congressman Paul Mitchell (R-MI).
She also explained to Congressman Glenn Thompson (R-PA) why education reformers will ignore evidence when it is negative, like in the case of digital learning.
She discussed longitudinal data systems with Congressman Glenn Grothman (R-WI).
For the last question she fielded, Congressman Lloyd Smucker (R-PA) asked what student data would be ok for schools to collect, and if there was any data ok to share.
Not one single Democrat on the committee asked Robbins a question. Collectively, they were drawn more to those advocating data collection than data privacy which is disappointing. In fact, Congresswoman Suzanne Bonimici (D-OR) was the only Democrat to even acknowledge her presence on the panel.
You can watch the entire hearing below:
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