February 5, 2014

Surveillance and Education

It's undeniable that the NSA files leaked by Edward Snowden had a profound impact on issues of privacy, surveillance, and espionage. It revealed not only that the NSA and the private contractor GCHQ were working with technology and phone companies to secretly obtain data and records from customers and foil encryption, but also were conducting surveillance within online games and using Angry Birds as an example of a "leaky" and exploitable mobile application.

In light of these leaks, the public was able to discuss a formerly unknown phenomena, which has a scope and scale previously unimaginable: that intelligence agencies had been able to expand their powers, since 9/11, to collect unprecedented amounts of data on U.S. citizens, foreign leaders, and residents of other countries. To find a needle in the haystack - present or potential terrorists - the NSA and its partners had mapped out the size and quality of every strand of hay, and set up procedures to ensure their knowledge of future haystacks - the NSA's effort to undermine online encryption.

Virginia Eubanks, writing in the American Prospect, deflates the astonishment about Snowden's leaks: according to her, the poor and working class had already been subjected to surveillance and digital monitoring, including the tracking of welfare benefits by way of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (high-tech), stop-and-frisk in New York City (low-tech), and local law enforcement adopting surveillance and military tactics on a smaller scale.

Thus, it's no surprise surveillance and monitoring is an increasingly present part of education, affecting the daily life of students, notably the children of poor and working-class parents, and structuring how administrators and policymakers think about education.

Watching Teachers

In 2012, the Los Angeles Times sued for, and obtained, records of student test scores which it uses to fuel a database which rates the performance of teachers. Rather than statistics about the district or schools, the database rates the ability of individual teachers at raising or lowering the Math and English standardized test scores of their students. While the fine print of this tool notes that these ratings don't describe the entire performance of the teacher, the database reveals many of the issues and limitations of using a single quantitative factor - standardized test scores - to evaluate teachers, or even students: that these tests aren't design to measure teaching success, and the exams may not even accurately measure real student learning.

While the Los Angeles Times' teacher rating database can be seen as a public asset to promote the accountability of schools and districts in removing "bad" teachers and promoting "good" ones, it reveals the inner working of using high-standards testing to evaluate performance, a practice districts around the country have been working on, most notably since the No Child Left Behind Act - which forced already unequal schools and districts to comply to similar strict standards.

Besides using standardized test scores, other methods have been practiced or promoted to monitor and evaluate teachers. Bill Gates recently proposed spending $5 billion in order to videotape every teacher in the United States. Using qualitative data - video - to understand the dynamic and complex nature of teaching is admirable, and serves as a good complement to other data about teachers: their educational background, experience, and their students' grades and test scores. Gates notes in his TED video:

I think that video exposes so much of what’s intrinsic to us as teachers in ways that help us learn and help us understand, and then help our broader communities understand what this complex work is really all about. I think it is a way to exemplify and illustrate things that we cannot convey in a lesson plan, things you cannot convey in a standard, things that you cannot even sometimes convey in a book of pedagogy.

However, the idea of monitoring teachers, or videotaping any other worker on the job, has clear privacy implications. Video can be a useful tool for evaluation and self-reflection in the same way that standardized tests can test some learning, but it's certainly possible that the exuberance and interest in using video ignores its limitations as an evaluation tool, in the same way that an environment of high-stakes testing makes important decisions about policy, hiring, and curriculum by using a handful of standardized tests.

In fact, video evaluation and standardized testing have much in common: an early analysis of pilot schools revealed that employees of ETS, the organization which administers the SAT, remotely analyzed and critiqued teacher's performance as recorded on video.

The idea of analyzing teacher's activities in the classroom in order to promote or encourage particular behaviors has much in common with efforts to create and distribute "teacher proof" curriculum: scripted lesson plans memorized by teachers and responded to in an equally robotic fashion by students. One recent embodiment of this idea is Direct Instruction, which is practiced in this video:

Seeing teachers as mere content-delivery devices is paralleled with the idea of students as passive instruction-receiving actors - information is something to be drilled and absorbed, not reflected on or critically attained. Jonathan Kozol, in The Shame of the Nation, witnesses how scripted instruction has become common in urban schools with a majority of African-American and Latino students, particularly the "Success For All" program.

This curriculum is a wonderful example of technological rationality - that the advances of technology and process can change what is considered rational in society. Direct instruction leads to great results in measures of learning, particularly standardized tests, as students quickly learn information related English and Math which primarily leads to success on exams, rather than ability and competence in actual learning. The complete strangeness of this video - the repetition of the teacher's delivery compounded by actually drumming along with the syllabus, the complete arbitrary nature of the phrases used, and the control of student movement and posture ("I love your learning position: hands on desk, eyes forward") - has modified the rationality of teaching into a mode of domination, subservience, and empty chorusing.

Watching Students

Although there are cases of schools using Orwellian tactics to surveil students, they exist as isolated cases. One could argue that with the digital terrain students live in, cover monitoring is not necessary, as many details about students' lives exist in the open.

The free and decentralized flow of information between children - and between adults and children - allowed by Social Networks and the Internet has become a contentious issue, mediated with fear and misinformation. As cyberbullying has gained attention, some school districts have looked to private companies to mine their students data for signs of bullying and self-harm. While the concern about the welfare of students is valid, this activity represents the overarching of the school's role into the students' personal lives outside of the institution, subjecting them to constant monitoring. The Glendale superintendent is quoted:

"To my knowledge, no student has been disciplined following a social media post found by Geo Listening," he said. "That's not to say we wouldn't."

The Glendale school district, in an uncanny similarity with the NSA, is using a private contractor to maintain a database of student chatter, and reserves the right to use this information in the future to discipline students. A survey of notable people arrested for social media posts reveals disparate law enforcements responding with a lack of irony or humor.

However, students may be subjected to more oversight in higher education, as Universities employ third-party monitors to track the social media posts of its students, particularly athletes, according to a recent Guardian opinion post. While this activity is performed with the familiar intent of protecting students, it is also enacted to protect the integrity of the institution and its stakeholders: donors, parents, and alumni.


While recent developments in surveillance in education and the greater society have sparked a fascinating debate about the reach of institutions into private life, the media has generally chosen to focus on identity theft and online predation above the systematic surveillance of individuals by institutions. Although school districts have taken the Orwellian steps that Alex Jones' conspiratorial Info Wars site maintains, subtle forms of monitoring have quietly become systematic, allying themselves with high stakes testings and teacher accountability.

The study of education has already made a clear and profitable shift towards quantitative data, which puts it conveniently in line with the big data movement: the more data about teacher performance, student testing, and activity of students in and out of school, the better to interpret, manipulate, and guide policy decisions. However, increased amounts of data does not automatically translate to increased knowledge - or better decisions - as some critics have concluded.

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