FERPA, higher education and Oregon’s Project ALDER

photo by Lauriel

by Kris Alman

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) a “slow motion train wreck.” [1] Certain aspects of Governor Kitzhaber’s education reforms, under the Oregon Education Investment Board, seem destined to accelerate the train along the path to impending disaster.

The Oregonian Editorial Board sees Governor Kitzhaber’s health and education reforms headed toward an unclear destination. [2] “Achievement compacts” are intended to grant flexibility to Oregon schools and relief from the most damaging aspects of NCLB. However, achievement compacts are only a means to an end… the destination is clear (and troubling) when one takes a look at Project ALDER.

Project ALDER is an acronym for “Advancing Longitudinal Data for Educational Reform.” [3] It was funded through the American Recovery Reinvestment Act as one of three federal grants Oregon was awarded (totaling nearly $19 million) to help states design, implement and enhance Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems.

Project ALDER is the Oregon Trail for accountability measures—measures that go far beyond the confines of education and into the workforce. If indeed, there is measurable value added by the teacher, administrator, school or district, certainly a database that merges educational records and future wages identified by social security numbers [4] should create a return on investment for the ideal future workforce?

The Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE), funded by the likes of the Ford, Gates and Lumina Foundations, boasts the “added value” of this policy. [5] WICHE provided Project ALDER “guidance on the FERPA requirements regarding longitudinal tracking and data analysis for students in the P-20 education enterprise and the workforce system.”

FERPA! Another acronym! But a very important one… FERPA stands for Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. [6] The U.S. Department of Education recently weighed in on FERPA regulations for disclosure or “redisclosure” of “personally identifiable information” in educational records. [7] This information includes name, address, social security number or student number, test scores, and class standing. It can also include family economic circumstances, political and religious affiliations, ethnic background, psychological tests, “biometic records,” (such as fingerprints and handwriting) [8] and anything “directly related to a student” that is “maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a party acting for the agency or institution.” [9]

No consent is required of parents or students when data is shared with third party “authorized representatives” who audit state and local educational agencies or conduct educational research. As data loss is acknowledged to be common, Congress penalizes third party researchers that allow data breaches with a 5-year ban on access to information.

Yet there is no recourse for the child or family harmed by data loss. Fordham University claims, “(w)hile the retention of historical data can be beneficial, the legitimacy of the state retaining personally identifiable information is highly doubtful.” [10]

Why do we need to invest taxpayer dollars to store and data mine our privacy only to learn what we already know? Project ALDER is a political path that will be littered with human capital: the remains of college graduates who are unable to find work after they leverage their life on costly higher education and of lower skilled workers who are replaced by robots, computers and cheaper workers offshore. [11]

We must pull the emergency brakes on Project ALDER. Instead, we should measure the accountability of the investment class whose wealth depends so heavily on job devaluation and destruction.