*This article first appeared at American Lens news on 09-16-17*
A family engagement program being employed in North Carolina’s largest school district has some parents concerned about data mining.
Wake County Schools has partnered with Harvard University to pilot a family engagement program called “My Student’s Team.”
Parents contacted American Lens about the alleged family engagement program within hours of receiving sign-up documents from the district.
“Right away this struck me as just another data mining scheme,” said one Wake county mom who asked not to be identified.
“It is common knowledge that students with the most support outside of school perform the best academically so what exactly is the point of this research? When you read who gets access to your student’s data it seems pretty clear,” the mother said.
The consent forms sent home bear the Wake County Schools official logo and ask for personal contact information, including the birthdate of the child.
However, according to the documentation and a statement from Harvard, this program will have access to nearly every piece of academic information the district has on the child in question.
The forms sent home came with a pre-addressed envelope to be sent to My Student’s Team, c/o Student Social Support R&D Lab, 79 JFK St. Box 64, Cambridge, MA 02138-9903.
The consent document letter was signed by Cathy Q. Moore, Deputy Superintendent for Academic Advancement for Wake County Public Schools.
American Lens sent a series of questions to Harvard about this alleged family engagement program. The following answers are what we received from our request. As one can see, there are massive amounts of data being collected and shared on participants of My Student’s Team.
Question: What specific data sets are being captured?
Answer: The Harvard research team will have access to the following information about students: name, contact information, grade level, schools attended, birthdate, student ID, parent/guardian names, parent/guardian preferred language, emergency contact information, demographic information, English Language Learner status, special education status, free and reduced-price lunch status, grade, homeroom/advisory teacher, course schedule, progress reports, report cards, attendance data, behavior data including disciplinary records, dates of exams and assignments, information about household (e.g., household composition, parent’s educational levels), dates of enrollment, standardized test scores, grade point average, and evaluative tests scores (e.g., mCLASS).
The information about students that may be shared with the supporter is: course schedule, progress reports, report cards, attendance data, behavior data including disciplinary records, evaluative tests scores (e.g., mCLASS), upcoming exams and assignments.
Question: What entities have access to this data? What “vendors” are being given access?
Answer: The information would be shared with those necessary for implementing the intervention and assessing the outcomes, such as our research team, potentially a mail vendor that would be printing and mailing the treatment materials, and a phone survey vendor that would conduct surveys of participants.
This project has been approved by Harvard’s Institutional Review Board which requires all vendors are required to meet certain data security standards.
In addition, the supporter named by the parent may be provided the more limited data discussed above.
As discussed above, the vendors that would have access to the data are those that are necessary for implementing the intervention and assessing the outcomes.
Question: Is this aggregate data or individual specific?
Answer: The research team and vendors will receive individual student data, as this is necessary for implementing and assessing the intervention. In addition, the information provided to supporters would be specific to the student that they are supporting. However, only aggregate data will be publically [SIC] reported.
Question: Are Wake County Schools being subsidized in any way for their participation?
Answer: No (though Wake County Schools are also not paying for the project).
Question: How and where is this data being stored?
Answer: The data is being stored in accordance with Harvard University’s standards for Level 3 data, as described here: https://policy.security.harvard.edu/level-3
Email on Family Engagement Program
An email to all Wake County parents followed the documents that were sent home.
——– Forwarded Message ——–
Subject: Exciting Project to Help Support Your Student’s Success in School
Date: Wed, 06 Sep 2017 20:41:43 +0000
From: Wake County Public School System <email@example.com>
Reply-To: Wake County Public School System <firstname.lastname@example.org></email@example.com>
You care deeply about your student’s success in school.
We’d like to offer you the opportunity to participate in My Student’s Team, a research program in which an adult of your choosing may contribute to your child’s school success. That adult might be a grandparent, aunt/uncle, coach, or family friend. This adult may already be very connected to your child’s academic life or may be willing to become more connected.
With your permission, this adult can receive information from your student’s school about your student’s academic experience that will help him/her be a more effective supporter. This program would not reduce the information you receive from the school about your child.
The district is partnering with Harvard professor Todd Rogers and his research team to run this program and to study its effect. The project will last for the 2016-2017 school year.
To learn more and sign up, click here.
For more information, visit https://mystudentsteam.org/WakeCounty
Wake Schools Website Nearly Devoid of Family Engagement Program
A search on the Wake County Schools website didn’t yield any direct results for the alleged family engagement program. The documents sent home to parents, however, did.
The family engagement program, My Student’s Team, has its own website, as mentioned in the email from Wake County Schools.
The only document relevant to the family engagement program found on the Wake schools site was a summary of the program.
Reading between the lines of this summary document shows that the district is seeking an end-run around Family Educational Rights Protection Act (FERPA) by going through a third-party.
Many students have relationships with supportive adults who care about their success. These include grandparents, coaches, mentors, and family friends. However, schools are prohibited from communicating with these supporters for several reasons, not the least of which is FERPA.
This project involves guardians identifying supporters within their students’ pre-existing support “team” to receive frequent, actionable, and personalized communications about the students’ educational activities.
The summary goes on to say that, “The district is partnering with Professor Todd Rogers at the Harvard Kennedy School and his research team to run this research program, study its effect, and learn more about how to effectively engage and empower student support systems.”
The summary also says that the research team, “will randomly assign supporters to either an intervention group or a comparison group.” This statement seems to imply those signing up for My Student’s Team have entered into some type of research study.
Wake County Schools Communication Director, Tim Simmons, issued the following statement to American Lens:
This fall the school district is piloting a new communications strategy designed to increase family engagement called My Students Team (MST).
The program allows us to provide academic updates to select adults outside the immediate family. Such communications are typically reserved for only parents or guardians, but MST allows parents to name up to two other supporters who may receive this information.
The parents must explicitly authorize the district to provide the information to others they name. The purpose is to see if the additional support helps a student academically.
These supporters–siblings, aunts/uncles, grandparents, friends, etc.– will receive periodic text and mail updates related to such topics as achievement, attendance, and scheduling. The project is developed, financed and implemented by the Student Social Support Lab at Harvard University.
Origins of Family Engagement Program, My Student’s Team
WCPSS’ Strategic Plan is called Vision 2020 and was finalized in a Wake Board meeting held in October of 2016. Turning to the last page of the plan, a single paragraph makes mention of the program:
“Family Engagement: Meet with the Family Engagement Sub-Committee and the Harvard group to merge as one group and begin planning Family Engagement Framework implementation.”
Wake county’s Family Engagement framework may have been devised as part of suggestions by the state’s Department of Public Instruction’s guide: Parent and Family Involvement.
The guide suggests that the term “parent” is not just the child’s actual guardians, but a wide range of people not even related to the child in question:
“Finally, this guide uses the term “parent” liberally throughout. Users should construe the word to mean any adult in a child’s life who has the responsibility of developing the child socially, mentally, academically, and otherwise. Ideally, users should be educators, school administrators, parent education trainers, and child advocates. In any case, they should feel more comfortable in the organizing of quality, sustained, family and community involvement programs for their school or organization.”
In other words, the Department of Public Instruction is asserting that others should be responsible for any given child and thereby marginalizes the biological parent.