Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Data-Driven Knowledge Economy


Shopping for budget-busting colleges busts dreams. Wouldn’t a “shopping sheet” that compares financial aid packages and earnings and employment information be a benefit to parents and students?

Not if that shopping sheet generates a bad bill of goods that also costs your privacy.

President Obama, outraged by out-of-control college costs, recently appealed to University of Michigan students.[1] Through competition, the White House hopes to spur state reforms that reduce college costs and encourage college completion. States would have to maintain their funding levels for higher education and align entry and exit standards from secondary education and community colleges to help promote on-time graduation.

These ideas were conceived at an early December meeting[2] between the President, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and college leaders and foundations. Western Governors University[3], Lumina Foundation[4] and the Delta Project[5] were invited. The American Association of University Women[6] and the American Association of University Professors[7] were not.

But the gestation of these ideas has been even longer.

Data systems to me are at the heart of this reform effort...we need comprehensive data systems that do three things. One, track students throughout their educational trajectory. Secondly, track students back to teachers so we can really shine a spotlight on those teachers that are doing a phenomenal job of driving student achievement. And third, track teachers back to their schools of education.

Secretary Duncan, EdWeek Interview, March 2009

Certainly, these goals fit well with “outcome based budgeting” and “achievement compacts” proposed by the Oregon Education Investment Board.[8]

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided more than $100 billion for education to “save jobs and support innovation.”[9] Project ALDER[10] (Advancing Longitudinal Data for Education Reform) is the ARRA funded data system[11] for the Oregon Department of Education (ODE).

An educational database that extends into the workplace requires a common denominator. The social security number is personally identifiable information that links wages to name. While personally identifiable information can be “de-identified” and correlated to make conclusions about education and work outcomes, this takes a lot more effort. And pooling all this information in one big warehouse makes it even easier. That’s what Project ALDER proposes to do![12]

The legal eagle may wonder, doesn’t this violate FERPA[13] (Family Educational Rights and Acts) privacy laws?

Not with recent rulings coming from the U.S. Department of Education. For while there should be “reasonable methods” to ensure that “authorized representatives”[14] who conduct educational research must protect and destroy data, states have wide latitude in creating these databases.

Nonetheless, states must have plans “to mitigate the risks associated with intentional and inadvertent data breaches.”[15].

Project ALDER’s legal advice came from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). WICHE includes Oregon and fourteen other states, working “to improve access to higher education and ensure student success.” [16] With funding from Ford, Lumina and Gates Foundation on policy and workforce development, WICHE explored FERPA barriers at a December 2008 conference.

Former US Department of Education attorney Steve Winnick[17] advocated, “FERPA needs to be interpreted or, as necessary, amended to harmonize these state and federal policies.” He pointed out that “Under a 2002 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Gonzaga University v. Doe parents and others may not sue a school or school district for alleged violations of FERPA.”[18]

Brian Prescott, Director of Policy Research for WICHE, and Peter Ewell, Vice President for the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, wrote how a multi-sector, multi-state data resource might be designed and governed. “The rise of a globalized knowledge economy requires us to understand the distribution of skills and abilities in our population. It is no longer sufficient to know how many resources are devoted to the development of our nation’s human capital.[19]

Oregon’s has ambitious goals for its knowledge economy: 40-40-20 by 2025[20]

· 40 percent of adults will have earned a bachelor's degree or higher.

· 40 percent of adults will have earned an associate degree or post-secondary credential.

· 20 percent of adults will have earned a high school diploma, modified high school diploma or the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Even Lumina Foundation has less ambitious goals[21]: To increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025

There’s a big problem with this grandiosity. 2010-20 labor statistics project that 2/3 of the occupations projected to have the most jobs "require less than a postsecondary education, no related work experience, and short- or moderate-term on-the-job training."[22]

In Oregon, “the fact is there are many job openings that do not require post-secondary education.”[23] This 2008 report notes, “(S)ome individuals believe that at least a post-secondary education will be essential for today’s young people to qualify for the jobs of the future. While this… may be a laudable goal as we seek to improve the standard of living for future Oregonians, it is not a requirement for the likely jobs of the future, based on the known current trends of Oregon’s economy.”

  • Only about one fourth of Oregon’s projected job openings (including both growth and replacement openings) will require post-secondary education in order to meet the minimum requirement for the job. (Graph 13)
  • More than half of Oregon’s projected job openings will require post-secondary education if the job applicant wants to be really competitive for the position (Graph 14).

The economic collapse has worsened job prospects. Perhaps that’s why so many college grads are competing for Starbucks jobs?

How do we reconcile all this with “The Critical Connection Between Higher Education and the American Dream?[24]” Lumina, Gates and Ford Foundation workforce projections are behind the myth of this oft-made claim: “While unemployment hovers at nine percent nationally, employers are still struggling to find enough workers to fill the skilled positions that they need to grow.”

Political satirist Jon Stewart illustrates this absurdity on the Daily Show in this January 31st clip, “Pander Express.”[25] A Texas woman appeals to President Obama through an online town hall. She says her engineering husband with ten years experience has been unemployed for three years. He replies, “If you send me your husband’s resume. I’d be interested in finding out exactly what’s happening right there.”

What kind of demagoguery does Rush Limbaugh spew in response? “Your idiot husband should be able to find work!”[26]

Microsoft has led the way for “permatemps” devaluation of professions. Over twelve years ago, Gates paid $97 million to settle a claim brought forward by 8,000 to 12,000 people who claimed they were denied benefits while working for the software behemoth.[27] Only retirement ended his efforts lobbing Congress to expand H-1B visas for foreign workers.[28] Microsoft is the #1 corporation for H-1 B visas.[29]

The billionaire Harvard dropout and Steve Jobs, the Reed dropout, expressed their opposing views of education last year.[30] Jobs believes it’s less about the system structure and more about free will; individuals should chart their own course. Gates said, “…we need to raise performance without spending a lot more.” We just need reliable disaggregated data so policy makers can allocate limited resources to produce a higher yield…

There are red flags raised over the data stored by Project ALDER. The data is warehoused at Oregon State University’s Open Source Lab, a nonprofit that depends on platinum sponsors like Google to fund its operations.[31] As the website boasts "Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

And more red flags rose over a no-bid contract with Microsoft SQL.[32]

Why would I question the good work of Microsoft’s cloud computing and data mining capabilities? Leonie Haimson, Executive Director, Class Size Matters sees red too.[33]

Here’s where former Portland Public Schools Superintendent Vicki Phillips fits in. As Gates Foundation Director of College-Ready Education, she blogged about the Shared Learning Collaborative.[34] Haimson notes the Gates Foundation funded $76.5 million to give eight participating states free access to open-source software. The vendor of choice to “build the open software that will allow states to access a shared, performance-driven marketplace of free and premium tools and content”? Phillips further gushed about Wireless Generation, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp [35]

Last summer, Murdoch’s phone-hacking scandals seemed to kill New York’s $27 million data project. In December, the New York Board of Regents approved a revised plan that awards competitive contracts to multiple vendors to build similar tools.[36] New York will participate in the multi-state Shared Learning Collaborative. The ‘Shared Learning Infrastructure’ enables “vendors and developers to create applications and content that can interface with the SLI,”[37] allowing further development of the database at “no cost” to taxpayers.

So when Project ALDER’s advice to the U.S. Department of Education is to: "Turn your vendors into partners. Give them buy-in to the project and make sure that they know you value their opinion,[38]" we know that means.

The flags I’ve raised could be just the red, white and blue flags of patriotic do-gooding corporations and wealthy elite. But we should heed the words of President Kennedy.

We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. Mythology distracts us everywhere. For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, contrived, and dishonest. But the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.[39]

Look at your narrative and throw away the myths. Does the knowledge economy enlighten the global collective or skew more money and power to those who use knowledge to serve their purposes?

Humorist and self-acclaimed grad school drop-out, Benson Bruno published Evergreens are Prudish in 1983. He wrote, “We need to save the forests. I have a big warehouse we can store them in.”[40] I know an ALDER that just needs sunlight![41] [42] [43]


[23] Working in Oregon… Now and in the Future, Oregon Employment Department Workforce and Economic Research http://www.qualityinfo.org/pubs/working/working_in_oregon.pdf

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