TUSD’s mCLASS translates to: “Give Murdoch your CLASSroom data”

by David Safier

The outsourcing of student data by public schools is a dangerous and underreported part of the ever-growing corporatization of education. It's even more dangerous when Rupert Murdoch is involved. TUSD is now using a data outsourcing product, mCLASS, created by Murdoch's education wing. I imagine TUSD purchased the program without giving much thought to the nature of the provider, but the District should put an end to the contract as soon as possible. Even disregarding Murdoch's politics and his use of the media for propaganda, his companies have a known criminal history of hacking into private citizens' data for profit.

With increasing frequency, information about students is being stored in computer systems owned and run by private companies. That means student data, some of it very sensitive, is sitting in private hands waiting for someone to mine it for profit. As a retired teacher, I consider student information to be a sacred trust between a child's parents and the school, and the information should not be divulged without parental consent. But the fact is parents have no idea that information about their children is in private hands.

The most outrageous project which clearly violates student privacy is the new nonprofit inBloom, funded mainly by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which can write a check for $100 million to fund the project as easily as I can give $10 to a cause I support). The inBloom infrastructure is created by a division of Rupert Murdoch's multi-national mass media corporation, New Corp. The goal is for inBloom to house student data from across the country without getting parental consent first — data which can be accessed by private education companies. The information includes learning disabilities, test scores, attendance and much more — even name, address and social security number for easy identification.

At this point, Arizona is not involved with inBloom. But another Murdoch-owned data storage project, mCLASS, is being used in Tucson to store information about elementary school children. The program was created by Amplify, a company which describes itself as "an independent subsidiary of News Corporation." As I understand it, TUSD has bought the mCLASS program as part of its reading program. Using an assessment tool named DIBELS, mCLASS allows teachers to perform one-minute reading assessments of their students. The information is automatically uploaded and stored in Murdoch-run computers.

This isn't especially sensitive information, though I imagine a parent whose young child is struggling with reading might disagree. Some schools send the DIBELS information to other places for digital storage, which indicates how pervasive this data outsourcing is. But of all companies, Murdoch's is the most suspect and the most dangerous. Rupert Murdoch's U.S. empire  encompasses Fox News, Fox Business, New York Post, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, Barron's magazine and HarperCollins Publishers, just to scratch the surface. So far as I know, Murdoch's U.S. companies haven't indulged in blatantly illegal activities, but the same can't be said of its U.K. holdings.

In 2005, England's News of the World, a News Corp company, was accused of hacking into the voicemail of Prince William. In 2007, the paper's royal editor and its private investigator were convicted of conspiracy to hack into the voicemails of royals, but the paper's editor said he didn't know anything about it. In 2008, News Group Newpapers paid over a million dollars in another phone hacking scandal. In 2010, a former News of the World journalist said phone hacking happened all the time and was encouraged by former editor Andy Coulson, who had since gone on to be Prime Minister Cameron's communications director.

The single most despicable act was when News of the World interfered with the investigation of a missing 13 year old girl who, it turns out, had been murdered. Journalists deleted some of the messages from her phone, giving her parents false hopes she was alive. A journalist also hacked into her mother and father's phones, citing the "relentless pressure" to get the story to justify his actions.

The fact that News Corp simply dodged responsibility for multiple hacking incidents for years by claiming they were the isolated actions of journalists rather than investigating its operations and cleaning house betrays the corporation's lack of even a hint of ethical standards in its pursuit of profits. To expect a company like that to treat potentially profitable data about children with the kind of respect the children and their parents deserve is hopelessly naive.

TUSD needs to look into mCLASS and any other connections it might have with the education company owned by News Corp and sever ties as quickly as possible.

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