3 trends connect NSA snooping and Common Core testing

In recent days, yet another problematic revelation has roiled Washington, D.C. This time it goes beyond snooping around journalists looking for a scoop. It involves the National Security Administration collecting phone data on of Verizon customers.

This is a problem. A real problem. The U.S. federal government derives its power through the consent of the governed through a system of duly elected representatives acting as agents for their local populations. Additionally, the Constitution goes to great lengths to curb the tendency of government to overreach its bounds, and therefore set up a system of checks and balances.

Across the panorama of history, the United States stands out as an aberration because of its constitutional protection of citizenry. And, its population has prospered and thrived in a remarkable epoch of individual liberty. Globally, the United States has been a blessing to the world. While understandably imperfect, the nation has been a beacon of liberty for individuals the world over. But troubling trends seem to be converging that threaten personal liberty through information gathering.

In light of the federal agency’s incursions, parents and lawmakers should likewise revisit the data privacy standards in Common Core testing approach. I recently wrote about the lack of data privacy protections in Utah’s testing contract with a Washington, D.C. social research firm. While Utah State Office of Education (USOE) officials verbally assured community members that they should not be concerned, they’ve provided no such assurance legally or operationally.

A bit of context might be helpful. The USOE contracted with DC based social research firm American Institutes for Research (AIR) to develop and host the Utah Common Core assessments that track student data and performance. AIR’s stated mission is, “to conduct and apply the best behavioral and social science research and evaluation towards improving peoples’ lives, with a special emphasis on the disadvantaged.” Their board of directors includes professional backgrounds in sociology, psychology, psychometrics, federal data management vending, and data and statistics software. While no board members have experience in K-12 education, they collectively have remarkable experience in social and behavior research, and federal data analytics and contracting.

For me, these trends converge and lead to three things that should trouble and motivate parents and lawmakers to revisit data privacy in communications and education:

1. First amendment violation. The recent phone record collection by the NSA follows communication patterns, or free speech, between individuals and groups. If individuals believe someone has the capacity to listen in on their private conversation, and thereby adjusts their communication, it is clearly a violation of the first amendment right to free speech. Similar tapping of education data would lead to additional dampening of speech.

Whether rogue or under pretended auspices of the Patriot Act, NSA officials have gone too far and an accounting should be made to their fellow citizens.

2. Government overreach. Government overreach is 100% predictable. It is laughable when proponents of new programs try and soothe fears of ever more federalism by labeling opponents as detractors and alarmists. The reality is that citizens are the ultimate check to government that individually may have noble aims but as an institution trends inexorably toward power and restrictions on liberty. Case studies across the world and throughout history don’t favor government’s ability to limit itself.

As citizens, we are the ultimate watchdogs, and that role cannot be outsourced to representatives, media or other institutions. We must demand transparency, accountability and restraint.

3. Cradle to grave data collection. The data collected by AIR and USOE on children’s attitudes, home life, and socio-economic status alongside their test scores provides very valuable early life indicators for government decision makers. Combined with communication throughout life will paint a very vibrant life-cycle picture of individuals and their proclivities. Such data is understandably very appealing to policy-makers and politicians, but should be very concerning to parents and local lawmakers.

Parents should meet with their local school representatives to assure privacy standards are upheld. Lawmakers must revisit the relationship between local education organizations and federal contractors to ensure the protection of child privacy.


  1. Carie

    Thanks for your insight into this troubling program. I recently wrote a letter to the USOE, the governor, and the members of the education committee about my concerns regarding their contract with AIR (http://www.utahnsagainstcommoncore.com/zinger-letter-to-state-school-board-members/). I have not gotten one response back indicating they have even read it. There is a complete and utter disconnect between many of our elected officials in Utah and what the people are asking them to be accountable for. They don’t answer our questions, they brush us off as being paranoid and hysterical. I find it interesting that almost daily there is another report of government overreach and intrusion. We aren’t suppose to worry about it though. Just let the politicians take care of it and everything will be fine.

  2. Oak

    Matt, excellent article. I’d never even thought about how a violation of our first amendment rights exists when we change our speech because we feel someone is listening in. Great point. Thanks so much for writing this and pointing out the issues with A.I.R.

  3. Anna Barbieri

    Excellent observation. If the past month of IRS, AP news reports and Verizon scandals has taught us anything about the government it is that they WILL use private information when the need serves them. Regardless of the party in power, we need to be aware of potential abuse. It is the duty of citizens to protect our liberty and that of our children.

  4. Kimberly Call

    Thanks, Matt, for researching Common Core. Many parents still are unaware how this issue is affecting their families. Many, many more teachers are oblivious. Thanks for writing the facts.

  5. Dennis Lisonbee

    I took the time to attend two presentations by a representative of Utah Office of Education on the new testing program. As a university professor, I can say that much of the information presented was contradictory, unsound and untested. The concept presented by the Office of Education that learning “line upon line, precept upon precept” is outdated and false was troubling; it is similar practice to constructing a home with no foundation. No wonder the concerned citizens that attended these presentations were angry and frustrated.

    We put a man on the moon in the 60’s by people who were educated in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. That was before the disciples of Dewey and a lazy culture got hold of things. So what we have are great grandparents who put a man on the moon and their great grandchildren who can’t make change at the local fast food joint. That’s not the path to producing rocket scientists or a truly educated society. Dewey and pop culture, you done good!

  6. M Wiley

    Thanks, Matt, for keeping the facts about common core in the news. Please keep up the good work, as your efforts are greatly appreciated.

  7. Chrisdy Epling

    Loved the article. I loved the reminder that we as a people have the responsibility to check the power of our government. Keep up the good work Matt!!

  8. Darren Rollins

    Amen to this article. We need a revolution of the mind in this country and thinkers like this are leading the way. Time to become constantly, unflinchingly, perceptively, doggedly, unabashedly, courageously and unreservedly skeptical if government and government power and intrusion. We can’t be lulled to sleep with our complacency and comfort.

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