Pearson is Selling Data on 15 Million Students

Pearson is selling PowerSchool, data on 15 million students

Pearson article

One of the main responsibilities of parents is to protect their children and try to make sure that the mistakes that come with learning and growing up do not become permanent detractors later in life. With the digital age this has become much tougher as so much information is shared around on Facebook, Snapchat, Vine, and other services by children and teens that act without understanding or worrying about the consequences. Unfortunately, parents may now have a new worry that is completely out of their control with absolutely no way to protect their children. PowerSchool, a set of databases that track everything that happens in public schools around the country, is up for sale.

PowerSchool is a student information system (SIS) currently owned by the Pearson K-12 Technology Group. It is currently used in 65 countries and several US states and stores information on 15 million students (13 million of those are in the United States). Its also no for sale. In their 2014 earnings report Pearson states:

Pearson has initiated a process to explore a possible sale of PowerSchool and our other Student Information Systems businesses including PowerSchool SMS, Gradespeed, and eSIS Forms. This process is at an early stage and there is no certainty that it will lead to a transaction. In 2014, PowerSchool contributed $97m of revenues and $20m of operating income. Our guidance assumes ownership of PowerSchool for all of 2015. Pearson has appointed Evercore to advise on the process.
PowerSchool, which Pearson purchased from Apple in 2006, boasts the following features:

Address Management and Boundary Validation
Family Management
Health Screenings
Immunization Screenings
Over 200 Built-in Reports
Tracking of individualized education programs (IEP) for special education students.
Faculty Management
Discipline management and reporting
Online Grade Book
That is a massive amount of very personal and private information that Pearson has served as custodian for. In the wrong hands it could be used for identity theft. In slightly less evil hands it could be used to target students for marketing, emails, etc. It could even potentially be used against a new graduate trying to apply for college or a job if the data ever ended up in an available and searchable database. Everyone remembers going through school and having a “permanent record”. Now that record is online including all the embarrassing mistakes made as part of growing up in the form of discipline records as well as demographic data, grades, etc.

According to Pearson’s CEO, John Fallon, the sale is to free up Pearson to focus on “intensifying its focus on demonstrating learning outcomes and efficacy.” If and when Pearson does sell PowerSchool, the division will most likely come with all the data that has been collected from public school systems over the past few years. As the Charlotte Observer reports, Pearson refused to sign a voluntary pledge in January to refrain from monetizing student data collected from their products. This pledge has been signed by 92 other companies including Google so Pearson’s refusal to sign is a big warning sign. While some states such as California have laws that make selling student data illegal, many other states do not.

The massive amount of data contained in PowerSchool databases definitely adds value to any potential sale of the service. In 2012, then CEO Jonathan Harber stated that Pearson was the largest custodian of student data anywhere. That massive collection includes data might be the main selling point for a potential buyer. This is because PowerSchool has been described by at least one Superintendent as a “train wreck.” According to the Huffington Post:

Superintendent Heath Morrison of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system described the 2014 implementation of the system in North Carolina as a “train wreck.” It was so flawed that the local News Observer reported the” keeping track of student information has so many problems that the accuracy of transcripts, athletic eligibility and the number of students enrolled in schools is uncertain.”
The problems were so widespread that in 2014, state education officials in North Carolina requested a partial refund of the $7.1 million (per year) paid for PowerSchool. These issues can only hurt the ease in which Pearson can sell PowerSchool, making student data a diamond among a lot of rough to potential buyers. Hopefully Pearson will find an ethical company willing to buy PowerSchool, but in the meantime a lot of very private and important personal data is hanging in the balance.

Image by woodleywonderworks via Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.


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