Cynthia Liu is CEO/Founder of K-12 News Network.
Bob Braun, an education blogger and former journalist, got ahold of a note from a school superintendent advising parents in the district that a student in NJ had tweeted outside of school hours about a PARCC test he had completed earlier when school was still in session.* (The exact contents of the tweet are unknown now.)
Pearson, a multinational corporation which monitors its brand on Twitter for reputation defense and intellectual property rights violations, saw the tweet and contacted the New Jersey Department of Education which then reached out to the superintendent of the school district where the child attends. Pearson labeled this a “Priority 1 alert” breach of the confidential nature of the test’s contents and the NJDOE instructed the superintendent to have the student remove his tweet and he complied.
The framing of this by Braun as “spying” has caused the hair of many education activists to catch on fire. HOWEVER.
Pearson is not “spying” on student tweets, it’s enlisting public school officials — the New Jersey Department of Education — to defend its intellectual property. The latter is worse and a bigger problem.
People need to realize that corporate brands monitor their Twitter mentions. This is a fact and not a new thing; this is how hashtags and searchable Twitter handles work, and this is how successful issue campaigns have been launched against corporate brands in the past. (In 2011, I wanted to force Procter & Gamble to divest monetary and other support for ALEC, which is the right-wing clearinghouse for state legislation like “stand your ground” aka “kill at will with your gun,” parent trigger, and other toxic legislation, etc. So some activists and I used their shareholder meeting hashtag and tweeted embarrassing news reports about P&G’s shameful corporate citizenship, costly lawsuits over metal hip joints, and so forth. Which of course they saw and any shareholders tuning in to the hashtag also saw. And not long after pressure from many much larger activist groups, including perhaps my own small contribution, P&G withdrew from ALEC.)
To observe that Pearson monitors its social media mentions, then jump to the conclusion that monitoring equals spying, is to miss the point and show that you don’t understand how social media works. Or that you seem unaware that if a student uses his or her real name then much public information about that person is but a few Google searches away. Your misunderstanding undermines any other credible claims you might make about actual student data privacy issues.
Anything that’s tweeted from a public account is open to global eyeballs via a keyword search using Twitter’s search feature. It would be like claiming that someone is “spying” on you because they read what you hashtagged because they too are following that hashtag, keyword, or Twitter handle. You put something out there for the entire world to see, and some of the people in the world are indeed seeing it.
That’s what happened here: Pearson monitors what’s said about it on Twitter for reputation defense and intellectual copyright reasons — they want to minimize cheating on their tests. Yes, then Pearson took the additional step of finding out where, generally, the student went to school — but did the student have this information posted up front on his Twitter account? “Joe Smith, Class of ’16, XYZ High School”? We don’t know, and Bob Braun did not address what information the student had already made publicly available about himself when Braun labeled Pearson’s ability to locate the student’s home school district as spying. But we don’t really need to know, because that’s a red herring.
On its face, this is not a student data privacy issue, but a student free speech issue.
The fact that Pearson monitors its online reputation closely is not a cause for alarm but an avenue for redress.
Push back on Pearson should be because this for-proft company is attempting to make principals and superintendents infringe on free speech rights of students in order to protect Pearson’s property interests, which is a corporate abuse of public school officials. And the NJ DOE is avidly assisting in this effort to pressure local school officials.
The main issues are:
- do students have First Amendment free speech rights on social media?**
- do students have the right to discuss tests in online forums and networks? If a test question is wrong, poorly framed or written, inaccurate, or otherwise has problematic answers, shouldn’t students be able to raise this issue? They are, due to Pearson’s secrecy rules to protect its IP, one of the few groups of people allowed to see these tests. Parents are not allowed to see them.After all, the stakes are high for students to “do well” on these tests so the test makers *should* have impeccable standards in crafting these questions and answers. Schools can be closed and teachers demoted or even fired in some states because test scores are tied to these practices. And when is it best for students to raise the issue of questionable test questions? (Again, I have no knowledge of the original tweet that precipitated this incident, but nevertheless are we simply supposed to take the quality of Pearson high stakes tests on faith?)
- what measures does Pearson, a multi-billion dollar company with business all over the world, take using its own personnel and resources to protect its intellectual property (its tests)? After all, the corporation has the resources to grapple with an inherently leaky social media-saturated world. Maybe in an always-on, global media environment, it’s not possible to deliver standardized testing at such massive scale. (Some would say it’s not desirable either.) That’s for Pearson to figure out. It’s not the job of public school officials to protect Pearson profits — or is it?
- what is the role of school principals or superintendents in balancing the free speech rights of students with the pressure from Pearson to act as enforcers or protectors of Pearson’s intellectual property rights?
- when does “protection” of Pearson’s IP rights become the government suppression of a student’s free speech when a public school official (a representative of local government) censors students’ undesirable social media postings?
- isn’t free speech about tests and their content a necessary check on the quality and integrity of the tests? Tests are not infallible — if we were never to have access to test questions, how would we know how many errors or poorly crafted/ambiguous questions there are? Shouldn’t these always be released after the testing period is over?
Recall that classic First Amendment issues have to do with government’s place in suppressing or censoring the speech that all Americans — even students! — are presumed to have free exercise of.
Know as well that school districts have already begun monitoring student social media accounts for intelligence on crimes, to intervene in anti-bullying efforts or suicidal ideation, and in some cases school districts have even asked for students to hand over passwords to social media accounts. Talk about your hair catching fire — did it catch fire when these things happened in 2013 and 2014?
All of this law is developing as we speak. It’s grey right now and the lack of settled law is disturbing. But even more disturbing is fundamentally misunderstanding what Pearson did wrong.
* I suggested that Bob Braun remove the contact information for the superintendent as it isn’t doxxing her per se, but if you truly want outrage to be directed at Pearson, you would redact the unnecessary information and provide Pearson Twitter handles, phone numbers, etc.
** A developing part of free online speech and a cousin to privacy issues is the European concept of the “right to be forgotten,” discussed in this New Yorker piece:
In recent years, many people have made the same kind of effort, from actors who don’t want their private photographs in broad circulation to ex-convicts who don’t want their long-ago legal troubles to prevent them from finding jobs. Despite the varied circumstances, all these people want something that does not exist in the United States: the right to be forgotten.
This concept is behind the 2013 California law that allows students to erase social media posts they find regrettable so that they aren’t dogged throughout adulthood by embarrassing or deeply inept statements or images.
This is volitional for the student and very different than being asked to take down a tweet by a public school official.