Why Public School & Privacy Advocates Should Be Wary of Project Unicorn, InnovateEDU Inc., its Funders, and their Motives

Is your school committing its students’ data to profiteering ed tech vendors (and perhaps others) via a Project Unicorn pledge? You can check out the answer here. Project Unicorn makes the claim below. My school district, Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD), is listed as a participating school; however, Project Unicorn does not represent my child nor would I ever give it permission to.

Project Unicorn is an intitiative run by New York based InnovateEDU Inc. to get schools to share children’s information and data with ed tech vendors and perhaps others as part of a data interoperability project. InnovateEDU Inc.’s list of supporters include, in part, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the NewSchools Venture Fund, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, LLC. Issues include that data may not be properly secured against third parties, third parties may have a profit motive in gaining access to children’s data, third parties may politicize the data, and/or children can be educated without this massive collection of data by non-governmental third parties (or even governmental entities).

Zuckerberg, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. If Facebook cannot protect its users’ information (see here), why should parents trust that relative unknowns like InnovateEDU Inc. or its initiative Project Unicorn or profiteering ed tech vendors will  protect children’s information and data? Parents and privacy advocates should not trust these entities, especially when children’s information can be mined and monetized for commercial purposes and worse, the results used to manipulate children’s future behavior.

Just think. When an adult researches a car online or even searches for a vacation spot or pair of shoes and then logs into Facebook, related advertisements pop up in an attempt (sometimes successful) to nudge the adults into making a purchase. Do parents truly want companies to have the same opportunity to sift through their children’s data, personalized or not, look for patterns, and then use the information garnered to manipulate children’s behavior? Will parents’ goals for their children even be the same as the companies using the data?

By the way, below is how NewSchools Venture fund, one of InnovateEdu, Inc.’s self described funders describes itself with regard to “Ed Tech.

NewSchools Venture Fund invests in both nonprofit and for-profit organizations that are working to improve public education in a variety of ways. Our venture portfolio includes more than 150 organizations across the country.

For more information about NewSchools Venture fund, see here. The Massachusetts Teachers Association’s  Threat from the Right Intensifies (May 2018) also has an interesting write-up about the NewSchools Venture fund here on pages 25-26.

Schools are not legally required to share children’s information with InnovateEDU Inc., Project Unicorn, or ed tech vendors. Yet, the Iowa City Community School District made the Project Unicorn pledge.


Screenshot from Project Unicorn website showing some of the school districts and charter schools that have pledged.

Even if children’s data is anonymized in the future, what exactly “anonymize” will mean is unclear. For example, will location, whether the child works on a device at home or at school, be removed? Going forward, profiteering ed tech vendors and others will be able to track massive amounts of data on individual children and eventually data analytics will result in enough information to identify a child.

Many ed tech vendors profit off of selling products to “close the achievement gap.” If the achievement gap were ever closed, these profiteering ed tech companies might have to shut down profitable lines of business so there is a financial incentive for business entities to not actually close the achievement gap. There is also an incentive for ed tech vendors to sell products to schools to “test” where the kids are at and then to sell products to schools to improve the test scores. How many of these products are unnecessary? How much time is being devoted to assessing/testing on a tech device that  instead could be devoted to instructional time from a teacher?

When untrusted and relatively unknown third parties, big foundations, limited liability companies, ed tech vendors, etc. operate a data interoperability project, there is a possibility that the data and its use will be politicized and manipulated to drive their own agendas. Consider that public schools, charter and other private schools have made the Project Unicorn pledge. Since charter and other private schools can essentially cherry pick students and leave others behind, non-public school’s data may look better than public school data, and this perception may then be used to drive support for more replacements (charter, online, etc.) for public schools.

Too often education reform has resulted in replacing public schools with charter schools or even digital education where children are educated with little to no teachers present. There are even public schools moving toward a model of education where much of the curricula is delivered online, and the teacher then becomes more of a data manager than an educator. Public school advocates are rightfully wary of taking the humanity out of children’s classrooms.

Embarking on a data interoperability project with untrusted third parties, even those that espouse a public benefit, is an inherently bad idea for public schools.  Schools using ed tech need to remember children can be educated without it or that ed tech can be used without participating in a data interoperability project. Don’t let the fox guard the henhouse. Public schools should not participate in Project Unicorn. Frankly, charter and private schools should not either. From this parent’s perspective, such participation is a huge breach of trust.

This entry was posted in Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Children's Data, CZI, Data Mining, Ed Tech Ethics, Facebook, InnovateEDU, Privacy, Project Unicorn, Public Education Advocates, School Board Ethics, Trust, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Why Public School & Privacy Advocates Should Be Wary of Project Unicorn, InnovateEDU Inc., its Funders, and their Motives

  1. Pingback: Data Interoperability: Is it the next phase of Common Core? – Missouri Education Watchdog

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