inBloom: Should You Be Concerned About Student Data Privacy?

10/8/13 - By Raven Snook

Update: As of April 2014 the New York State Education Department has decided to cancel its contract with inBloom. It was a hard-won fight!

There's a story I've been following for a while now about the controversy surrounding a company called inBloom. Backed by the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, inBloom stores student data in an online cloud, including grades, test scores, teacher observations about behavior, and even more sensitive information like special education status, family history and disciplinary records. The supposed goal is to help teachers and schools easily track each student's progress, provide more personalized instruction and inspire digital developers to create new and innovative educational tools. However, many parents and education activists across the country are concerned that inBloom violates students' privacy in a big way and that the data may end up being compromised or sold to the highest bidder.

While inBloom is a national venture, as of now only three states plan to use its services, including New York State. It's important to note that out of the original nine states who were interested in inBloom, six have pulled out due to privacy concerns. According to an article in last week's New York Times, the New York State Education Department has already uploaded data for 90% of its charter and public school students, and there is no way for individual districts, schools or families to opt out. But there are things parents can do to voice their concerns and possibly stave off or at least change the scope of inBloom.


If you've never heard of inBloom, it's worth reading the recent New York Times business section article about the company. It's a bit skewed in its favor but covers the main points pro and con, and quotes long-time education activist Leonie Haimson, who's been leading the charge against inBloom through her nonprofit Class Size Matters. Her site has an easy-to-digest overview of inBloom and its potential issues. She also details ways you can protest its implementation, including sending an opt-out letter to NYSED, the NYC Department of Education and your local State Senators. She also encourages parents to ask the NYSED to disclose exactly what data they're sharing with inBloom through the Freedom of Information Law. (I myself sent an email asking for that info more than a month ago. It's been a long back and forth involving filling out forms and getting them notarized and I still haven't found out what exactly will be part of my daughter's "data dashboard.")

As the NYSED points out on its website, collecting this kind of data about public school students isn't new. It's long been done on a state level, and I agree it's important for my child's teachers to know as much as they can about her, even sensitive information. But I personally don't see why that kind of info needs to be permanently stored in a national database. What if it's hacked? What if the digital developers who utilize the data to develop educational tools end up misusing it? What if future employers or prospective colleges are ultimately allowed to pay for access to the info? Is it fair that a person's entire public education record, including economic status and disciplinary infractions, could follow her for the rest of her life? Or perhaps inBloom will just be a colossal waste of millions of dollars for a service few end up using (see ARIS). I'm all for digital innovation but I think there are too many potential pitfalls here. At the very least, families should be able to opt-out or demand the data be limited to test scores and grades, the kinds of info you'd find on a traditional transcript.

If you want to keep up-to-date on what's going on with inBloom, sign up for Haimson's email list and set up an inBloom google alert so you can read other stories that might give additional perspectives.