Louisiana Joins Parent Coalition for Student Privacy

July 24, 2014

For more information contact:

Leonie Haimson: leonie@classsizematters.org
Rachael Stickland: info@studentprivacymatters.org
Lee P. Barrios: lee@saveourschoolsmarch.org

New Coalition Urges Congress to Listen to Parents and Strengthen Student Privacy Protections

A new national coalition called the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy released a letter this week to the leaders of the committees of the House and Senate Education Committees, urging Congress to strengthen FERPA and involve parents in the decision-making process to ensure that their children’s privacy is protected.
Many of the groups and individuals in the Coalition were involved in the battle overinBloom, which closed its doors last spring.  They were shocked to learn during this struggle how federal privacy  protections and parental rights to protect their children’s safety through the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)  had eroded over the last decade. These parents represent a broad spectrum of personal, political, and religious beliefs but are united in their concern for their parental rights and the privacy of their children.  

The letter is posted here, and calls for Congress to hold hearings and enact new privacy protections that would minimize the sharing of highly sensitive student data with vendors and among state agencies and would maximize the right of parents to notification and consent.  The letter also asks for strict security requirements, that the law be enforceable through fines, and that parents have the right to sue if their children’s privacy is violated.

Lee Barrios, teacher,  member of the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education, Information Coordinator for Save Our Schools March, and PCSP founding member said that Louisiana parents crossed only the first hurdle in protecting their children with the passage of Act 837 during the 2014 legislative session.  The legislation was precipitated by parents whose investigations revealed that State Department of Education Superintendent John White had contracted with inBloom to store personally identifiable student information including social security numbers. The bill requires that the Louisiana Department of Education develop anonymous student identification numbers and the department will also be prohibited from seeing or keeping any personally identifiable data about a child. Students' names, addresses and other information will only be 
maintained at the local school district level. 
St. Tammany parent Debbie Sachs, along with her daughter Rachel, became privacy activists as a result of Rachel's realization that her personal information was targeted.  Rachel's testimonies before legislative committees and the State Board of Education were compelling.  Ms. Sachs says, "It is a sad day when children have to take a day off of school to travel to Baton Rouge to ask legislators to please protect their right to privacy.  it is an even sadder day to see the chilling effect of the 21st century data mining in the classroom.  Children no longer feel safe using technology to submit essays, opinions, and other assignments.  Teachers and parents are becoming wary as well."  In Rachel's words, "Will this data be used against me?  It all comes down to fear." 
Jason France, Baton Rouge parent formerly employed by LDE as an IT expert, said,"Information is proving to be the most valuable commodity of the 21st Century. We must all fight to keep ourselves and our society safe from the information prospectors that see us and our children as little more than their next Klondike while they conspire to chain us inextricably to their Big Data mines."
Louisiana attorney and parent of four Sara Wood, who understands the legal and constitutional ramifications of massive data collection, said, "Privacy is a foundational principle of freedom.  Freedoms are not absolute and they can be burdened by government action, however,  the integrity of that freedom is maintained by requiring due process and consent where applicable for government action."  

Rachael Stickland, a leader in the fight for student privacy in Colorado and co-chair of the Coalition to Protect Student Privacy points out, “inBloom’s egregious attempt to siphon off massive amounts of sensitive student information and to share it with for-profit vendors took parents by surprise.  Once we learned that recent changes to FERPA allowed non-consensual disclosure of highly personal data, parents became fierce advocates for their children’s privacy.  We’re now prepared to organize nationally to promote strong, ethical privacy protections at the state and federal levels.”

Diane Ravitch, President of the Network for Public Education said: “Since the passage of FERPA in 1974, parents expected that Congress was protecting the confidentiality of information about their children. However, in recent years, the US Department of Education has rewritten the regulations governing FERPA, eviscerating its purpose and allowing outside parties to gain access to data about children that should not be divulged to vendors and other third parties. The Network for Public Education calls on Congress to strengthen FERPA and restore the protection of families’ right to privacy.”

“The uprising against inBloom demonstrated the extent to which parents will not tolerate the misuse of their children’s sensitive personal information,” said Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s Associate Director Josh Golin. “But parents cannot be expected to mobilize against each and every threat to their children’s privacy, particularly if they’re not even aware of which vendors have access to student data. It is critical that Congress take real steps to protect schoolchildren from those who see student data as a commodity to be exploited for profit.” 

“Parents Across America, a national network of public school parents , emphatically supports this call for hearings as a first step toward reversing federal actions that have eroded parental authority over student data, and including even stronger privacy protections for our children,” said Julie Woestehoff, a Chicago parent activist and PAA secretary.  She added: “PAA recommends restoring parental authority over student data that was removed from FERPA by the US Department of Education, enacting state laws that include parental opt out provisions in any statewide data sharing program, strictly regulating in-school use of electronic hardware and software that collect student information, and including significant parent representation on any advisory committees overseeing student data collection.”

Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, a Massachusetts public education advocacy group, said, “Citizens for Public Schools members, including many parents, are deeply concerned about threats to the privacy of student information. We support hearings and strong legislation to protect the privacy of this data. Parents are increasingly left out of important education policy discussions. In this, as in all crucial school policy discussions, they must have a voice.”

“Parents will accept nothing less than parental consent, when it comes to their child’s personally identifiable sensitive information. As a parent of a child with special needs, I understand the devastation that confidential information used without my consent could 
have on my child’s future.  As a long-time advocate for people with autism and other developmental disabilities, I implore the U.S. House and Senate to put the necessary language back into FERPA to protect students and uphold the right of their families to control their personally identifiable data,”   said Lisa Rudley, Director of Education Policy, Autism Action Network and Co-Founder of NYS Allies for Public Education.

Emmett McGroarty of the American Principles Project said, “Regardless of intention, the collection of an individual’s personal information is a source of discomfort and intimidation.  Government’s broad collection of such information threatens to undermine America’s founding structure:  if government intimidates the people, government cannot be by and for the people.”

Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of Class Size Matters and co-chair of the Coalition, concluded, “Since inBloom’s demise, many of the post-mortems have centered around the failure of elected officials and organizations who support more data sharing to include parents in the conversation around student privacy.   We are no longer waiting to be invited to this debate.  It is up to parents to see that we are heard , not only in statehouses but also in the nation’s capital when it comes to the critical need to safeguard our children’s most sensitive data – which if breached or misused could harm their prospects for life.  We are urging Congress to listen to our concerns, and act now.”
For more information see www.studentprivacymatters.org

Lee P. Barrios, M.Ed., NBCT

Debbie Sachs
Jason France
Sara Wood

Asking For Clarity on Ethics of John White

To be clear, if you see this reported in the media......


Re:  John White and BESE Members Will Be Targets of New Ethics Complaint

For more information contact:  Lee P. Barrios

Parents, educators and other public education activists find it necessary now to disclose their intent to file a complaint with the Louisiana Ethics Administration regarding questionable activities and professional relationships of State Education Superintendent John White and several Louisiana state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) members

While the public has an expectation that our officials and employees will respect the laws governing them, history has shown that holding them accountable must be the ultimate responsibility of those for whom they are paid or elected to serve. 

We believe that conflicts of interest by certain BESE members do in fact exist and that clarification and the recent expansion of those relationships need to be brought to the Board of Ethics. Our concerns and questions have been rebuffed in attempts to communicate with BESE members directly, and formal public information requests have not been responsive. We will now turn our concerns and evidence over to the office charged with making the final determinations in such cases. 

While specifics of our complaints about BESE members will be left to the Board of Ethics, our most recent concerns for Supt. White can be found in his publicly filed financial disclosures reports.  White has been the recipient of remuneration for travel, lodging and meals from several organizations that we believe garner undue influence. http://ethics.la.gov/PFDisclosure/DisclosureDetails.aspx?disclosure=John%20C.%20White  One of several concerns is White's acceptance of over $700 for his appearance described as Teacher for America Connecticut Benefit Dinner.  White reported to the press that he "typically pays for travel expenses with a personal credit card and then provides a receipt for reimbursement from the state.  . . . . the organization provides a donation to the state in the amount of my travel expenses."  If that excuse flys it will be accompanied by pigs! My public information request for such documentation has not been answered. 

Supt. White has described "subtle shifts in the tone and substance of the public," "insinuations" that his motivations are "potentially nefarious," and has described opposition to the Common Core Standards and its PARCC assessment as escalating political rhetoric "unfairly targeted" at him personally.  We would like to bring clarity to Supt. White's concerns. 

 There is no insinuation or subtlety to our position that, in the words of U.S. Senate Resolution 345 and House Resolution 476:  Whereas education belongs in the hands of our parents, local officials, local educational agencies, and States.http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-113sres345is/pdf/BILLS-113sres345is.pdf

Supt. White and the majority of the BESE members must have an agenda other than that of respect and honor for Louisiana parents and professional educators who work together at the classroom level on behalf of THEIR children for whom THEY are held ultimately accountable. We believe that ethical breaches are indicative of and a result of that agenda.  Not only is the effort to force standardization of our children dangerous to their intellectual, emotional and physical health, but the use of a single high stakes standardized test is an invalid, unreliable and potentially disastrous measure of success or failure. 

In lieu of a full and appropriate audit of the Louisiana Department of Education, we intend to provide through persistent questioning, research and demand for transparency  true clarity to the illegitimacy of the entire Common Core initiative.  The public needs to question why Supt. White has offered up so much resistance.  

Advocates For Child a Privacy Applaud Georgetown University Law School

Georgetown Law Launches New Center on Privacy and Technology

July 21, 2014 —
Georgetown University Law Center Dean William M. Treanor is pleased to announce the establishment of the new Center on Privacy and Technology. The Center will bring Georgetown Law’s legal expertise to bear on privacy debates in federal and state legislatures, regulatory agencies and the academy. It will also train Georgetown Law students to be leaders in privacy practice, policymaking and advocacy. 

“We are in the midst of a debate about privacy that has the most profound importance, and the ways in which it is resolved will shape the most central aspects of our lives,” Treanor said. “The new Center on Privacy and Technology will ensure that our faculty and students stay at the forefront of that debate for years to come.”

Alvaro Bedoya, Chief Counsel to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy and to Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), will serve as the Center’s first Executive Director. The Center’s Faculty Directors will include Professors Julie Cohen, David Vladeck, Laura Donohue and Angela Campbell.
“For too many people, Big Data means Little Privacy,” said Mr. Bedoya. “The Center will be a leading voice in the debate to preserve privacy and civil liberties alongside rapidly advancing technology. I’ll be honored to lead it.”

“Alvaro is one of the nation's leading experts on the intersection of privacy, law and technology. And he's one of most talented and hard working lawyers I’ve ever met. While I'm sad to see him leave my staff after five outstanding years of service to the people of Minnesota, I’m equally excited to see Georgetown’s Center on Privacy and Technology flourish under his leadership,” said Senator Al Franken, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law.
Among the projects the Center intends to tackle are the impact of government surveillance on civil rights and economic justice, the implications of the growing use of “Big Data” techniques to make important decisions about individuals, and the privacy issues presented by breakthrough commercial technologies such as health apps, “wearables” and biometric authentication services. The Center will also offer a practicum course to teach students privacy law and basic technology tools while working on the Center’s projects.

The Center is funded by a generous grant from the Ford Foundation, the nation’s leading institutional donor for privacy-related initiatives.

Alvaro M. Bedoya currently serves as Chief Counsel to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law and to its Chairman, Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.). He has organized Senate hearings and led oversight investigations regarding many of the nation’s leading tech companies as well as the NSA, FBI and DOJ. Since joining Senator Franken’s staff on his first day in office in 2009, he has advised Senator Franken in crafting legislation on mobile location privacy, health data privacy and NSA transparency and has coordinated the Senator’s work to improve the privacy protections around biometric technology like facial recognition and fingerprint readers. He will join the Center in August at the conclusion of the current Senate legislative work period.

Professor Julie Cohen is one of the nation's foremost privacy theorists. Professor Cohen teaches and 
writes about copyright, information privacy regulation and the governance of information and communication networks. Her recent book, Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice (Yale University Press, 2012), was awarded the 2013 Association of Internet Researchers Book Award and was shortlisted for the Surveillance & Society Journal’s 2013 Book Prize.

Professor David Vladeck recently returned to Georgetown Law after serving for nearly four years as the Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC is the nation’s chief regulatory agency charged with protecting privacy and data security with respect to commercial entities. During his tenure at the FTC, the agency issued many guidance documents on online and mobile privacy and brought over 50 privacy enforcement cases, many against large technology firms, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and others.  

Professor Angela Campbell is one of the nation’s leading advocates for protecting children’s privacy. She has taught at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation (IPR), a legal clinical program and public interest law firm, since 1988. IPR represents nonprofit organizations before the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to enforce and establish media policies in the public interest.

Professor Laura Donohue is one of the nation’s leading experts on national security issues and directs Georgetown’s Center on National Security and the Law. She writes on national security and counterterrorist law in the United States and United Kingdom. Her most recent book, The Cost of Counterterrorism: Power, Politics and Liberty (Cambridge University Press, 2008) analyzes the impact of American and British counterterrorist law on life, liberty, property, privacy and free speech.

Media interested in learning more should contact mediarelations@law.georgetown.edu.

Louisiana Legislators Ask Court to Rule On Common Core

Monday, July, 2014
State Representative Brett Geymann
State Representative Cameron Henry

Ask Court to Rule that BESE & DOE Failed to Enact New Education Standards under
Administrative Procedures Act; Enjoin Implementation.

Seventeen legislators have filed a court action in the 19th Judicial District, asking for a ruling on whether BESE and the Department of Education failed to properly enact the new Common Core academic standards under the Administrative Procedures Act, which governs rulemaking in all agencies of state government. 
The legislators contend that BESE and DOE never implemented the changes in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act, which prescribes a specific process, requiring public notice, a 90 day comment period, open hearings  and legislative oversight.
The legislators point out that all changes to educational standards in the past were implemented properly under the APA as reflected in “Bulletins” published in the Louisiana Register that chronicle the current state of administrative law. There
are no Bulletins for Louisiana Educational standards more recent than November 2005.
The legislators are asking the 19th Judicial District Court to rule on this major oversight, and stipulate that BESE and  DOE failed to properly implement new educational standards under the Administrative Procedures Act.
(See petition below): 
NO.__________ DIVISION____ SECTION: _____ 

FILED:______________________ ______________________________

NOW INTO COURT, through undersigned counsel, come the Petitioners, James
Armes, Terry Brown, Henry Burns, Brett Geyman, Johnny Guinn, Lance Harris, Joe
Harrison, Kenny Havard, Bob Hensgens, Cameron Henry, Paul Hollis, Barry Ivey, Sam
Jones, Rogers Pope, Dee Richard, John Schroder, and Lanar Whitney (collectively
hereinafter “Concerned Citizens of Louisiana”), who respectfully submit the following
Petition to Suspend Implementation and Enforcement of “Common Core State
Standards” (referred to herein as “Common Core”) for Failure to Follow the Provisions
of Louisiana Law and for Injunctive Relief:
1. Made defendants herein are:
(A) Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education,
(hereinafter referred to as “BESE”), which is a body corporate created by the Louisiana Constitution VIII, § 3 and service may bemade at 1201 North Third Street, Suite 5-190, Baton Rouge, LA 70802; and
(B) Mr. John White, in his official capacity as Louisiana Superintendent of Education for the Louisiana Department of Education, who may be served at 1201 North Third Street, Baton Rouge, LA 70802. 

2.Plaintiffs are residents and tax payers of the State of Louisiana. Several plaintiffs
herein have children who are students within the state public school system. 
3. Defendant, BESE, is a body corporate created by the Louisiana Constitution
Article VIII, § 3. BESE is charged with the duty to “supervise and control the public
elementary and secondary schools and special schools under its jurisdiction and shall
have budgetary responsibility for all funds appropriated or allocated by the state for
those schools, all as provided by law.” 
Defendant, John White, as the Superintendent of the Louisiana Department of
Education, and in accordance with the Louisiana Constitution Article VIII, § 2, is the
public official charged with the duty of being the administrative head of the Department
of Education, and implementing the policies of the state board of elementary and
secondary education and the laws affecting schools under his jurisdiction. 
4. All defendants herein are required to follow all Louisiana laws with reference
to the adoption and implementation of policies and rules which impact the educational
opportunities of Louisiana Public School children. 
5. Common Core is a set(s) of standards/rules that impact the education of Louisiana
public school children. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is currently set to  replace the Louisiana English and Mathematics Standards/Grade-Level Expectations (GLEs), which were added to the State’s standards and benchmarks in 2004.
6.Common Core is set to become fully implemented in Louisiana public schools during the school year of 2014-15.  
7. On or about May 20, 2010, the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, in its Board Meeting Minutes, entitled Agenda Item 9-I-5, adopted a resolution that committed BESE to adopt the controversial Common Core Standardsno later than July 2010.
8. On or about July 2010, according to BESE’s website, Louisiana “joined with 44
other states and the District of Columbia by adopting the Common Core State
Standards, a set of educational standards developed by a consortium of states to
ensure consistent, quality education from school and from state to state.”

9. Petitioners fiercely contend that the adoption of these educational standards and/or
the development of rules for the implementation and enforcement of these standards
was, and is, in direct violation of the Louisiana Administrative Procedures Act (LAPA)
Title 49: 953 (3) (b): Procedure for adoption of rules, which reads:

Notice of the proposed rule shall be published at least once in the Louisiana
Register and shall be submitted with a full text of the proposed rule to the
Louisiana Register at least seventy days prior to the date the department proposes
to formally adopt the rule. The Office of the State Register may omit from
the Louisiana Register any such proposed rule the publication of which would
be unduly cumbersome, expensive, or otherwise inexpedient, if the Louisiana
Register contains a notice stating the general subject matter of the omitted
proposed rule, the process being employed by the department for adoption of
the proposed rule, and stating how a copy of the proposed rule may be obtained.
(emphasis added)

Petitioners show that previous changes to educational standards were properly
submitted as “Bulletins” in the Louisiana Register. However, the Louisiana Register fails
to reflect that the “full text” of the proposed rule for adoptions and/or implementation of
the Common Core standards were ever published, as required by law, or a notice of the
general subject matter, as required by the LAPA.
In failing to comply with the Louisiana Administrative Procedures Act Title 49:
953 (3) (b), said Petitioners, and other citizens of Louisiana, were denied their
procedural due process rights to have their comments and concerns heard by
Defendants prior to BESE’s adoption, and BESE’s and/or the Superintendents
implementation and enforcement of the Common Core Standards.
Irreparable harm to children, parents and teachers of children in the State public
schools, and to taxpayers and citizens of the State exists, as the State public school
year is set to begin in approximately one month from the filing of this petition. Unless an
injunction issues herein by the Court, needless time and resources will be expended in
the teaching, testing, learning, and financing of Common Core, all to the detriment of
the citizens of Louisiana.
As a result, Petitioners are requesting this Court to issue an immediate injunction
to suspend the implementation and enforcement of Common Core State Standards for
failure to follow the provisions of Louisiana Law until such required notice is made by
the defendants and for immediate and preliminary injunctive relief during the pendency
of the notice process contemplated under the LAPA.
WHEREFORE, Petitioners, Concerned Citizens of Louisiana, pray that
Defendants be served with a copy of this Petition to Suspend Implementation and
Enforcement of Common Core for Failure to Follow the Provisions of Louisiana Law
and for Temporary Injunctive Relief and be required to timely answer same; and after
due proceedings, that judgment be rendered in Petitioners’ favor and against the
defendants including attorneys’ fees, legal interest from date of judicial demand, and all
just and equitable relief allowed by law.
Respectfully submitted,
Daniel G. Brenner (Bar No. 18136)
Carmella Parker (Bar No. 28462)
Alexandria, Louisiana 71315-1590
Facsimile: (318) 443-1770
Mr. John White, in his official capacity as Superintendent
Louisiana Department of Education
Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70802
Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell
Office of the Louisiana Attorney General
Ms. Kristy Nichols
Division of Administration
Office of Risk Management
1201 N. 3rd
 Floor, Suite 210
Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70821-9106
Mr. Bud Thompson
Division of Risk Management
Office of Risk Management
 Street Street, Suite G-192
1201 N. 3rd
Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70802


Louisiana State's Moral and Legal Obligations to Children!

Statement by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers which I totally agree with.

Tragic and unnecessary

Politics and Policy: Irreconcilable differences?

(Baton Rouge - July 18, 2014) The political feud between Gov. Bobby Jindal and Superintendent of Education John White must be resolved quickly so that teachers and their students can get down to the work of education, Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said today.

“The state has had since 2010 to discuss standards, to develop curricula and to design assessment tools,” Monaghan said. “That was when Governor Jindal and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education signed on in full to Common Core standards.

“But instead of preparing teachers and children,” he said, “our state set sail on an educational misadventure of faux reforms that disrespected our constitution, vilified teachers, siphoned funds from already underfunded public schools, and resulted in endless legal battles. Political ideology masqueraded as educational reform.”

Those distractions made it impossible to have honest discussions regarding the standards, Monaghan said. The failure to fully inform and adequately prepare led to the inevitable botched implementation of the new standards and associated assessments.

“While there is plenty of blame to be shared, none of it belongs to teachers or their students,” Monaghan noted. “They are the victims of wasted time and wasted funds.”

Perhaps the hiatus in testing resulting from Jindal and White’s confrontation can be the silver lining in the cloud hanging over public education in the state, Monaghan said.

“We now recognize the error of emphasizing the testing of children over teaching them,” he said. “We have an opportunity to make education learning-centered instead of testing-centered.”

“With just weeks left before schools open, now is the time for statesmen to step forward and give public education a badly needed sense of direction,” Monaghan said.

Before schools open, the state has a moral and legal obligation to provide:

  • A set of standards that spell out what students need to know at every grade level. The standards should be appropriate for the developmental level of the child, rigorous enough to be intellectually challenging, and aimed at preparing the child for success in life.
  • A curriculum aligned to those standards. The curriculum should be structured enough to ensure that all students reach the goals of the standards, but flexible enough that teachers can adapt them to the particular needs of their students and their community.
  • The resources that it takes to successfully bring the curriculum to the classroom. That means adequate preparation and professional development for educators, safe and welcoming schools, learning materials and technology that meets current standards, and appropriate compensation for the people responsible for our children’s future.
  • Instruments to accurately and fairly assess student progress toward meeting goals. We should replace low-level standardized testing with assessments aligned with rich curricula that encourage the kind of higher-order thinking and performance skills students need. Testing should be a diagnostic tool, and not a threat used to punish teachers and unfairly label schools and students.
Thus far, Louisiana has failed our children, our teachers and our schools on all these counts, Monaghan said. Hope for the future lies in a speedy accomplishment of all these goals.

Why the American System of Standardized Testing Will NEVER Succeed!

I had to re-post this from The Atlantic.


By Meredith Broussard

You hear a lot nowadays about the magic of big data. Getting hold of the right numbers can increase revenue, improve decision-making, or help you find a mate — or so the thinking goes. In 2009, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a crowd of education researchers: "I am a deep believer in the power of data to drive our decisions. Data gives us the roadmap to reform. It tells us where we are, where we need to go, and who is most at risk."
This is a story about what happened when I tried to use big data to help repair my local public schools. I failed. And the reasons why I failed have everything to do with why the American system of standardized testing will never succeed.
A few years ago, I started having trouble helping my son with his first-grade homework. I'm a data-journalism professor at Temple University, and when my son asked me for help on a worksheet one day, I ran into an epistemological dilemma. My own general knowledge (and the Internet) told me there were many possible "correct" answers. However, only one of these answers would get him full credit on the assignment.
"I need to write down natural resources," he told me.
"Air, water, oil, gas, coal," I replied.
"I already put down air and water," he said. "Oil and gas and coal aren't natural resources."
"Of course they are," I said. "They're non-renewable natural resources, but they're still natural resources."
"But they weren't on the list the teacher gave in class."
I knew my son would start taking standardized tests in third grade. If the first-grade homework was this confusing, I was really worried about how he — or any kid — was supposed to figure out the tests. I had been spending time with civic hackers, the kind of people who build software and crunch government data for fun, and I decided to see if I could come up with a beat-the-test strategy derived from a popular SAT prep course I used to teach.
In essence, I tried to game the third-grade Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), the standardized test for my state. Along with a team of professional developers, I designed artificial-intelligence software to crunch the available data. I talked to teachers. I talked to students. I visited schools and sat through School Reform Commission meetings.
After six months of this, I discovered that the test can be gamed. Not by using a beat-the-test strategy, but by a shockingly low-tech strategy: reading the textbook that contains the answers.
Philadelphia is the eighth-largest school district in the country, and its public students are overwhelmingly poor: 79% of them are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The high-school graduation rate is only 64% and fewer than half of students managed to score proficient or above on the 2013 PSSA.
When a problem exists in Philadelphia schools, it generally exists in other large urban schools across the nation
When a problem exists in Philadelphia schools, it generally exists in other large urban schools across the nation. One of those problems — shared by districts in New York, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities — is that many schools don't have enough money to buy books. The School District of Philadelphia recently tweeted a photo of Mayor Michael Nutter handing out 200,000 donated books to K-3 students. Unfortunately, introducing children to classic works of literature won't raise their abysmal test scores.

This is because standardized tests are not based on general knowledge. As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge contained in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers.
All of this has to do with the economics of testing. Across the nation, standardized tests come from one of three companies: CTB McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or Pearson. These corporations write the tests, grade the tests, and publish the books that students use to prepare for the tests. Houghton Mifflin has a 38% market share, according to its press materials. In 2013, the company brought in $1.38 billion in revenue.
Pennsylvania currently has a multi-million-dollar contract with a company called Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) to grade the PSSAs. DRC works with McGraw-Hill as part of a consortium that has a $186 million federal contract to write and grade standardized tests for the rest of the country. McGraw-Hill, meanwhile, also writes the books and curricula schools buy to prepare students for the tests. Everyday Math, the branded curriculum used by most Philadelphia public schools in grades K­–5, is published by McGraw Hill.
Put simply, any teacher who wants his or her students to pass the tests has to give out books from the Big Three publishers. If you look at a textbook from one of these companies and look at the standardized tests written by the same company, even a third grader can see that many of the questions on the test are similar to the questions in the book. In fact, Pearson came under fire last year for using a passage on a standardized test that was taken verbatim from a Pearson textbook.
The issue often has as much to do with wording as it does with facts or figures. Consider this question from the 2009 PSSA, which asked third-grade students to write down an even number with three digits and then explain how they arrived at their answers. Here's an example of a correct answer, taken from a testing supplement put out by the Pennsylvania Department of Education:

Here's an example of a partially correct answer that earned the student just one point instead of two:

This second answer is correct, but the third-grade student lacked the specific conceptual underpinnings to explain why it was correct. The Everyday Mathcurriculum happens to cover this rationale in detail, and the third-grade study guide instructs teachers to drill students on it: "What is one of the rules for odd and even factors and their products? How do you know that this rule is true?" A third-grader without a textbook can learn the difference between even and odd numbers, but she will find it hard to guess how the test-maker wants to see that difference explained.
Unlike college professors, who simply assign books and leave it to the students to buy them, K–12 teachers have to provide students with books. But it's not a simple matter of ordering one book per student per subject. Based on the schools I visited and the teachers I interviewed, each student needs at least one textbook and one workbook per class, plus a bunch of worksheets and projects the teacher pulls from assorted websites (not to mention binder clips and construction paper and scissors and other project-based materials). Books can be reused year to year, but only if the state standards haven't changed — which they have every year for at least the past decade.
Once I realized the direct connection between textbooks and standardized-test success, I tried to find out exactly how many Philadelphia schools were missing books from the Big Three publishers. I was also curious how much money it would take to make up for the shortfall.
The first challenge came when I asked the School District of Philadelphia for a list of which curricula were being used at which schools. If you want to know which books should be in a school, you need to know the name of the curriculum the school uses. (Using a branded curriculum like Everyday Mathallows a school to place its orders more efficiently and negotiate a bulk discount.)
"We don't have that list," an administrator at the Philadelphia Office of Curriculum and Development told me. "It doesn't exist."
"How do you know what curriculum each school is using?" I asked.
"We don't."
There was silence on the phone for a moment.
"How do you know if the schools have all the books they need?"
"We don't."
According to district policy, every school is supposed to record its book inventory in a centralized database called the Textbook Storage System. "If you give me that list of books in the Textbook Storage System, I can reverse-engineer it and make you a list of which curriculum each school uses," I told the curriculum officer.
"Really?" she said. "That would be great. I didn't know you could do that!"
So I did what computer programmers do in this kind of situation: I created a workaround. I built a program to look at each Philadelphia public school and see whether the number of books at the school was equal to the number of students. The results of the analysis did not look good. The average school had only 27% of the books in the district's recommended curriculum. At least 10 schools had no books at all, according to their own records. Others had books that were hopelessly out of date.
I visited some of these schools and asked students how much access they had to textbooks. "We had books at my high school, but they were from, like, the 1980s," said David, a recent graduate of Philadelphia public schools. A junior at a public high school complained to me that her history textbook had pictures of testicles drawn on each page.

Students walking to class

Students transition during the first day of school at South Philadelphia High School Sept. 9, 2013, in Philadelphia.

When I visited an algebra class at the Academy at Palumbo, a magnet school in South Philadelphia, a math teacher, Brian Cohen, seemed surprised by the information I presented to him. Palumbo's records showed that the school used Fast Track to a 5: Preparing for the AB and BC Calculus Exams, a book published by Houghton Mifflin. However, the quantity of books in the system read "0."
"That's strange," said Cohen after I sat in on his Algebra I class. "I'm not sure why it says we have zero copies." Had that branded curriculum had been selected but never ordered? Or had the books had been ordered but intercepted somewhere along the way?
I asked if we could go look in the book closet and Cohen took me down the hall. On the way, we stopped to chat with a colleague of his who taught calculus. "Do you have enough books?" Cohen asked.
"I do now," she said. "Some school in West Philadelphia closed, and I managed to get all the textbooks from there. I had a friend who hooked me up." But she wasn't using Fast Track to 5; she had a different calculus book that wasn't on my record sheet.
Urban teachers have a kind of underground economy, Cohen explained. Some teachers hustle and negotiate to get books and paper and desks for their students. They spend their spare time running campaigns on fundraising sites like DonorsChoose.org, and they keep an eye out for any materials they can nab from other schools. Philadelphia teachers spend an average of $300 to $1,000 of their own money each year to supplement their $100 annual budget for classroom supplies, according to a Philadelphia Federation of Teachers survey.
Cohen and I arrived at the math department "book closet," which was actually just a corner inside the locked and empty office of the math department chairperson. "Here's where we keep the extra books," he said, gesturing to two short wooden bookshelves. A medium-sized box with open flaps sat on the floor. Cohen looked inside. "Well, we found the AP Calculus books," he said. The box was filled with brand-new copies of Fast Track to 5.
It would have been easy to blame this glitch on the lack of a centralized computer system. The only problem was, such a computer system did exist, and I was looking at a printout from it. The printout said Palumbo had zero copies of the book, but 24 books were sitting in front of me in a box on the floor of a locked office.
The Philadelphia schools don't just have a textbook problem. They have a data problem — which is actually a people problem. We tend to think of data as immutable truth. But we forget that data and data-collection systems are created by people. Flesh-and-blood humans need to count the books in a school and enter the numbers into a database. Usually, these humans are administrative assistants or teacher's aides. But severe state funding cuts over the past several years have meant cutbacks in the school district's administrative staff. Even the best data-collection system is useless if there are no people available to manage it.
Michael Masch, the vice president of finance and chief financial officer at Manhattan College and the former chief financial officer of the School District of Philadelphia, told me that he used to routinely send his staff into schools to do bookkeeping and other tasks that overworked principals couldn't handle. "Principals weren't good at managing cash accounts or student accounts. They needed support in performing administrative functions because they were understaffed," said Masch. "If the principal doesn't meet with every parent, deal with every crisis, they get criticized. If they don't do the invisible stuff, like the paperwork, they're not going to read about it in the newspaper. So they triage."
When it comes to the book scarcity, Philadelphia principals react in predictable ways. "They are very possessive of their textbooks," Rebecca Dhondt, the parent of a second grader and a fourth grader at Jenks Elementary School, told me.
"My daughter is not allowed to bring her textbook home because they don't want it to get lost."
"My daughter is not allowed to bring her textbook home because they don't want it to get lost." For the past two years, she has surveyed teachers to find out what's on their wish lists (mostly trade books and basic school supplies) and then collected donations from the community. "When I first did it last year, the principal said, ‘Oh, we have some of that stuff,'" said Dhondt. As with the AP calculus books at Palumbo, the missing items were sitting somewhere in the school but hadn't made it into the right hands. "There's not enough support to connect the supplies in the supply closets or the libraries with the teachers in the classroom," Dhondt said. "They need to have enough money to connect the dots."

Keeping track of supplies is one problem; keeping track of the students who will use them is a whole other challenge. In Philadelphia schools, many students are in foster care or navigating other precarious living situations, which means they frequently switch schools. A recent report by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia showed that one in five Philadelphia public high school students has been involved with the child welfare or juvenile-justice system. One teacher told me that when she taught in a West Philly high school, she gained or lost a student at least every two weeks.
"There is a set of logistical issues in a district this big that most districts in the U.S. don't face," explained Donna Cooper, the executive director of an organization called the Public Citizens for Children and Youth. "Everything isn't what it appears."
After I finished the first round of data analysis in 2013, I went to the school district and asked to present my findings to Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite. The district spokesperson told me Hite wasn't available and instead offered me a meeting with Stephen Spence, the deputy for the office of school-support services.
Spence, a former gym teacher in his early 60s, was in charge of school openings and closings. His job used to be handled by a whole staff, but ever since the cutbacks, Spence had been singlehandedly taking care of everything from desks to carpets.
I asked him how he verified that schools had enough books at the beginning of each year. He explained that every principal was supposed to submit a school opening checklist and a school-closing checklist. On that checklist (a Microsoft Word document that he emailed to all the principals), there was a box the principal could tick to indicate that the school had all of the books it needed to operate.
"Inventory is not micromanaged at a central-office level," said Spence. "A principal that has very good skills with technology might develop an inventory system that they keep online. Another principal who is not so good with technology might have just a person who counts the books, carries them from one location to another, puts them in the closet, and visually checks that they're there."
I wondered about this, since a district-wide electronic system had been created several years back. In 2009, a student stood up at meeting of Philadelphia's School Reform Commission and proclaimed, "I don't have a book." After that, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman had resolved to computerize the District's inventory. Chief Information Officer Melanie Harris had told me that the system had been developed using internal resources.
"You're saying that the online system is no longer in use?" I asked Spence.
The principals preferred to use their own systems, he said, and report their inventory to him. "I rely on the principals and, I'm going to say, real-time data. It gets tracked through the documents we talked about previously: the school-opening and the school-closing checklists."
As Spence receives the principals' checklists, he enters the information into an Excel spreadsheet on his computer.
"Does this Excel document get shared with anyone?" I asked.
"It gets shared with assistant superintendents," said Spence. "We have meetings. We put the Excel spreadsheet on a projector on a large screen during our school-opening meetings."
As a data-science professional, it was clear to me that Spence was in over his head. Millions of books, hundreds of thousands of desks — it is impossible to keep track of all of these objects without technology and sufficient people to track them. It's just as difficult to figure out how to use the data correctly.
The end result is that Philadelphia's numbers simply don't add up. Consider the eighth grade at Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia. According to district records, Tilden uses a reading curriculum calledElements of Literature, published by Houghton Mifflin. In 2012–2013, Tilden had 117 students in its eighth grade, but it only had 42 of these eighth-grade reading textbooks, according to the (admittedly flawed) district inventory system. Tilden's eighth grade students largely failed the state standardized test: Their average reading score was 29.4%, compared with 57.9% districtwide.
One problem is that no one is keeping track of what these students need and what they actually have.
One problem is that no one is keeping track of what these students need and what they actually have. Another problem is that there's simply too little money in the education budget. The Elements of Literature textbook costs $114.75. However, in 2012–2013, Tilden (like every other middle school in Philadelphia) was only allocated $30.30 per student to buy books — and that amount, which was barely a quarter the price of one textbook, was supposed to cover every subject, not just one. My own calculations show that the average Philadelphia school had only 27% of the books required to teach its curriculum in 2012-2013, and it would have cost $68 million to pay for all the books schools need. Because the school district doesn't collect comprehensive data on its textbook use, this calculation could be an overestimate — but more likely, it's a significant underestimate.

At the end of the 2012–2013 school year, the book budget was eliminated altogether. Last June, the state-run School Reform Commission — which replaced Philadelphia's school board in 2001 — passed a "doomsday budget"that fell $300 million short of the district's operating costs for the 2014 fiscal year. (The governor of Pennsylvania had already cut almost a billion dollars from public education funding in 2011.) Philadelphia schools were allotted $0 per student for textbooks. The 2015 budget likewise features no funding for books.

    It may be many years until Philadelphia's education budget matches its curriculum requirements. In the meantime, there are a few things the district — and other flailing school districts in America — can do. Stop giving standardized tests that are inextricably tied to specific sets of books. At the very least, stop using test scores to evaluate teacher performance without providing the items each teacher needs to do his or her job. Most of all, avoid basing an entire education system on materials so costly that big, urban districts can't afford to buy them. Until these things change, it will be impossible to raise standardized test scores — despite the best efforts of the teachers and students who will return to school this fall and find no new books waiting for them.