John Trudell espoused a policy of non-cooperation. To his way of thinking, when confronted by oppression, it is our responsibility look for ways to gum up the system. This week my wrench-throwing target was Naviance, a subsidiary of Hobsons, a company that promotes itself as a college and career readiness solution.
The Philadelphia School District entered into a five-year, $1.5 million contract with Naviance in 2015. The William Penn Foundation and the Philadelphia School Partnership, both proponents of school privatization, pitched in with $750,000 to cover half the cost. An article from Inside Philanthropy stated the software is “essentially, a high school guidance counselor in a website form.”
It is a program that seeks to replace human interaction with digital ones, which is bad enough, but the company also builds its bottom line collecting data mined from students’ tender, just-forming identities starting as early as middle school. The software deploys intrusive surveys and “strengths assessments” to develop robust profiles used to track kids into career pathways.
I would have fared poorly in such a system. I was a humanities-loving art history student, who took up a graduate degree in historic preservation with a focus on cultural landscapes. Over time, and with the guidance of friends who helped me open my eyes and look hard at the world, I developed an analysis that led me to become a radical researcher intent on exposing purveyors of predatory digital disruption.
Of course the point of Naviance is to preemptively erase people like me. It won’t do for scrappy, critically thinking, non-cooperators to remain on the board when gameplay begins. The “college and career readiness” enforcers expect everyone to passively accept their assigned slot; to be grateful to even have a slot; so grateful they won’t risk imagining another future or challenging the status quo to create an alternate reality. Which is exactly why our family refused to allow our high-school daughter to create a Naviance account two years ago. Parents in other states are doing the same.
But now, as a senior, she had to figure out how to get transcripts to apply to college. In a growing number of school districts Naviance holds families hostage. If they refuse to set up an account and complete all the surveys their children cannot graduate, request letters of recommendation, or have transcripts sent. Naviance, a private company whose profits are manufactured from the student data they collect, is becoming a gatekeeper to college admission. Plus, our district paid them $750,000 (plus the $750,000) for the privilege! Below is a comment on a recent blog post to that effect.
After several email exchanges with school district officials and a productive meeting with our daughter’s lovely human (not web-form) guidance counselor, we came up with a plan to do the application process sans-Naviance. We’d do it the old-fashioned way with embossed seals, paper copies, signatures across envelopes and snail-mail postage. Sure, she’ll have to pull her submissions together a bit sooner to give us a buffer in case something gets lost along the way, but in exchange we’ll enjoy the peace of mind knowing her “strengths” remain beyond the reach of Hobson’s predictive analytics.
Below are two emails I sent to the Chief Information Officer of our district with Superintendent Hite copied, as well as the Head of Student Support Services. It explains our thinking and affirms the stance we took was not just for ourselves, but to keep the door open for others who desire to pursue the same course.
If you can opt out of Naviance at Masterman, you should be able to opt out of Naviance anywhere in the School District of Philadelphia and be supported in your decision to do so. Support your school’s guidance counselor. Opt out and demand funds used to pay these data-mining companies instead be used to reduce counselors’ caseloads and free them up to spend more quality time with their students.
Our Concerns About Naviance
Email dated September 20, 2018
I think you were looped in later, so I wanted to make it clear to all involved that our desire to opt out of the Naviance platform is grounded in concern over:
1) use of student data to create profit streams for private companies
2) use of data to generate profiles of students that may in fact cause them harm, especially given its use of surveys and strengths assessments
3) outsourcing student services to private companies when public funds would be better spent expanding access to HUMAN counselors in our schools
4) Naviance, a private company, becoming a de facto gatekeeper for access to post-secondary opportunities
See the excerpt from a market report for Hobson from 2013.
“Hobson is also developing a third business line – data and analytics – which focuses on this data, much of it proprietary, that flows through its solutions at both K-12 and HE (higher education). The recent acquisition of National Transcript Center (NTC) from Pearson enables Hobson to capture data along the student lifecycle by facilitating e-transcript exchanges…The company’s acquisition of Beat the GMAT in October 2012, together with its College Confidential business, also supports Hobson’s strategy in creating communities with strong underlying data, which has a value to HE institutions and CAN BE MONETIZED.”
Most people don’t take the time to dig into the corporate underpinnings of the online platforms their children are supposed to use, but in this case it does merit serious consideration. Naviance is owned by Hobson, a division of the Daily Mail and General Trust in the UK. Lord Rothermere, former owner of the Daily Mail, consistently gave positive press to Hitler throughout the 1930s link.
Hobson is also based in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is quite interesting in that that is also the corporate headquarters of Knowledgeworks, one of the primary advocates for a shift to a learning ecosystem model. This model seeks to replace schools with drop-in centers, badged credentials, and a combination of digital and out of school time learning opportunities. I have seen the data fields for Naviance, and it appears this platform is aligned to such a model. As a person who values the importance of neighborhood schools as physical places, this worries me greatly.
Among the primary responsibilities of public school districts is the management of student records and support of students in accessing those records. I feel strongly this is a responsibility that should not be delegated to a for-profit, third party company that has a stated interest in expanding their market share through data-mining children. While some families may find this “service” a convenience, we do not.
Our daughter has two institutions to which she intends to apply early action. Those deadlines are the first of November. She is in the process of finalizing her materials now, but we need to know how we can transmit official copies of her transcript and her letters of recommendation to the institutions to which she is applying outside of Naviance. We need to have this information by the end of September.
I very much appreciate the School District leadership’s assistance in helping us with this matter.
Post-Meeting Follow Up Email
September 20, 2018
I just wanted to share an update. XXX and I had a very productive meeting with XXX this morning. There is indeed an embossing stamp of approval for printed transcripts and provisions to obtain paper copies of letters of recommendation in sealed envelopes. I very much appreciate the school’s flexibility in accommodating our desire to pursue the college application process outside this platform, and we have a plan over the next month to pull everything together for her early action forms.
That said I want to re-emphasize that the School District of Philadelphia would do well to revisit its contractual agreements with Naviance, given the fact that their business model is fueled by student data. The amount of data being poured into this company, including sensitive behavioral data, is extremely troubling given its historic origins. It is imperative that adults do all they can to protect the children in their care from being harmed or used as a profit center. Many families do not have access to the background information I do and may not be aware that they have the option to apply to colleges outside of this third-party platform. I hope the district would extend the same level of support to other families that choose to opt out of Naviance.
As a parent and taxpayer I would prefer to see public funds used to reduce caseloads for school counselors so they have more time to spend with students. XXX has been great to work with over the years.
Once again XXX, thanks for your time today and your knowledgeable input. We look forward to coordinating with you as we plan XXX’s next steps.
Examples Of Naviance Gatekeeping
Required to receive cap and gown. Link to source below, here.
Required to apply for honors / AP courses. Link to source below, here.
Required senior exit survey. Link to source below, here.
And here, etc.