By: Todd Feathers
Over the past six years, a little-known private equity firm, Vista Equity Partners, has built an educational software empire that wields unseen influence over the educational journeys of tens of millions of children. Along the way, The Markup found, the companies the firm controls have scooped up a massive amount of very personal data on kids, which they use to fuel a suite of predictive analytics products that push the boundaries of technology’s role in education and, in some cases, raise discrimination concerns.
One district we examined uses risk-scoring algorithms from a company in the group, PowerSchool, that incorporate indicators of family wealth to predict a student’s future success—a controversial practice that parents don’t know about—raising troubling questions.
“I did not even realize there was anybody in this space still doing that [using free and reduced lunch status] in a model being used on real kids,” said Ryan Baker, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Learning Analytics. “I am surprised and really appalled.”
Vista Equity Partners, which declined to comment for this story, has acquired controlling ownership stakes in some of the leading names in educational technology, including EAB, which sells a suite of college counseling and recruitment products, and PowerSchool, which dominates the market for K-12 data warehousing and analytics. PowerSchool alone claims to hold data on more than 45 million children, including 75 percent of North American K-12 students. Ellucian, a recent Vista acquisition, says it serves 26 million students. And EAB’s products are used by thousands of colleges and universities. But parents of those students say they’ve largely been left in the dark about what data the companies collect and how they use it.
“We are paying these vendors and they are making money on our kids’ data,” said Ellen Zavian, whose son was required to use Naviance, college preparation software recently acquired by PowerSchool, at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md.
After growing concerned about the questions her son was being asked to answer on Naviance-administered surveys, Zavian and other members of a local student privacy group requested access in 2019 to the data the company holds on their children from the district under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). But to date, she has received back only usernames and passwords.
“Parents know very little about this process,” she said.
The ed tech companies in Vista’s portfolio appear to operate largely independently, but they have entered into a number of partnerships that deepen the ties of shared ownership. PowerSchool and EAB, for example, have a data integration partnership aimed at “delivering data movement solutions that drive value and save time for Dis
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