Education Week - February 15, 2017 - 7
Post-Mortem on inBloom Reignites Data-Sharing Debates
on student privacy
By Benjamin Herold
Three years after inBloom's demise, it is still exposing the wildly
different ways that proponents and
skeptics view education technology
and educational data use.
The New York City-based research
center Data & Society released a
new report this month examining
the quick rise and stunning fall of
the nonprofit student-data-management effort. Launched in 2013 with
$100 million from the Bill & Melinda
Gates Foundation and the Carnegie
Corporation of New York, the initiative shut down its operations a year
later, in April 2014. (The Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation
provide grant support to Education
Based on interviews with 18 key
actors, "The Legacy of inBloom" is a
must-read for those interested in a
detailed, insider account of what went
wrong-and why ambitious ed-tech
initiatives often fail to take root.
Perhaps unintentionally, the report-and the early reaction it has
stirred-also reveal how data-sharing
believers still struggle to make sense
of the vocal opposition their efforts
Now, as in 2014, supporters and
skeptics still look through very different lenses when analyzing an effort
tion that inBloom was a revolutionary tool that would transform education, be more secure than existing
tools used by states and districts, and
be fully transparent, then of course
you come to the conclusion that the
opposition of parents was irrational,"
Haimson said. "But all of those suppositions are completely wrong."
Haimson and other inBloom opponents want to see the evidence of improved student learning before moving forward with large-scale student
Supporters, meanwhile, grow
exasperated that talk of potential
harms-rather than evidence of actual harms-has derailed what they
see as promising efforts.
The Data & Society researchers
mostly fall in the latter camp.
"Not understanding something
is not a reason for not allowing it to
happen," Monica Bulger, one of the
report's authors, said in an interview
with Education Week. "When there
are misunderstandings, people turn
to fear-based scenarios. It's appropri-
ate to evaluate whether those fears
The report also explores the ways in
which inBloom represented a threat
to the established business models of
other ed-tech vendors.
Essays issued with the report offer
perspectives on the ongoing need for
data standards in the K-12 sector, the
ways in which inBloom continues to
serve as a Rorschach test for those interested in education policy, and more.
The Data & Society researchers
contend "the legacy of inBloom seems
evolutionary, not revolutionary."
Its failures helped prompt a broad
public discussion of student-data privacy, including the introduction of
more than 400 bills in state legislatures around the country, they write.
"It also surfaced the public's low tolerance for risk and uncertainty, and
the vulnerability of large-scale projects to public backlash," the researchers say.
"Any future U.S. education project
will have to contend with the legacy
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For most of the district and state
administrators, technology company
representatives, former inBloom and
Gates employees, engineers, and privacy experts interviewed by Data &
Society, the focus was inBloom's potential benefits. They cast the effort as
a good idea that fell victim to unrealistic ambitions, poor implementation,
a fundamental misunderstanding of
the United States' highly decentralized K-12 ecosystem-as well as a
failure by proponents to explain why
inBloom would be good for students
and schools. The result, these supporters contend, is a lost opportunity
that has led to a proliferation of closed,
proprietary data-sharing systems that
are less secure and less effective than
inBloom might have been.
Opponents, however, continue to
take an altogether different view.
They see inBloom and like-minded
efforts through a lens of potential
harm. They think the theory behind
expansive sharing of student information is flawed, driven by corporate greed and philanthropic hubris
rather than solid evidence.
Parent activist Leonie Haimson,
the driving force behind the effort
to defeat inBloom, was interviewed
for the Data & Society report. But
she told Education Week that the researchers failed to grasp her central
message, and she took umbrage at
the report giving voice to those who
compare inBloom opponents to the
"If you start out with the assumpEDUCATION WEEK | February 15, 2017 | www.edweek.org | 7