Walcott defends plan to release student records to private biz

May 3, 2013 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Eagle
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Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott defended a controversial plan to allow private businesses to get a look at information about public school students, telling a town hall audience in Bensonhurst that pupil’s privacy would not be violated.

‘We will maintain student privacy. We are very strict around that. We will never, ever pierce student privacy,” Walcott said in answer to a question at a town hall hosted by the Community Education Council of District 20 (CEC 20) on May 2.

“I’m a zealot about that,” Walcott added.

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The town hall, which took place at PS 204 at 8101 15th Ave., featured written questions from the audience. Parents and educators seated in the auditorium were asked to write their questions for the chancellor on large index cards, which were then read aloud by CEC 20 member Mark Bramante.

The question on student privacy revealed deep concerns parents of public school students about a recently revealed plan by the New York City Department of Education (DOE) and the New York State DOE to share student data with a corporation called inBloom Inc, which intends to share the information with businesses that market educational products. The corporation is an offshoot of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The student data that would be shared with inBloom Inc. would include names, addresses, test scores, and disciplinary, health and attendance records.

Parents from all over Brooklyn attended a town hall at Borough Hall on April 29 to express their opposition to the plan. Particularly galling to parents is the fact that the data sharing plan does not give parents the chance to opt out, according to CEC 20 President Laurie Windsor. “It’s very troubling.” Windsor told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in a recent interview.

But at the May 2 town hall, Walcott maintained that parents had nothing to fear. The DOE is strict about adhering to student privacy, even to the point of withholding information about individual students from him, he said. He described one encounter he recently had with a teacher at DOE headquarters in which he and the teacher were discussing a student. The discussion took a general tone, avoiding specifics, he said. The teacher did not go into detail with him and he didn’t ask, Walcott said. “There’s information I can’t even access,” he said.

On another topic, Walcott also denied that the DOE urges teachers to focus on prepping students for standardized tests at the expense of everyday classroom lessons.

Parents, and many teachers, charge that the overemphasis on state and city standardized exams in math and language arts robs students of valuable learning time because their too involved in preparing for the exams.

CEC 20 member Sheila Higginson told Walcott that 150 parents posted comments against excessive testing on an online survey put out by the CEC. “There’s too much testing, too much test prep, too much time taken from real learning,” Higginson said.

Higginson said that parents who answered the survey also wrote of their belief that the tests are making their children nervous because the kids know there is a lot riding on the scores, including the chances of getting into a good high school.

“What we are trying to do is prepare our students for success in life,” Walcott said.

“If people are teaching to the test, then they’re doing what they’re not supposed to be doing,” he said.

The chancellor said the final executive budget of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoralty includes a restoration of funding for DOE that would allow the agency to provide $50 million for staff development and provide full day kindergarten for more children. If budget cuts have to be made in education, “we will work hard to do budget tightening in central, so schools aren’t hit hard,” he said.

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