Part 4 in a series
By Michelle Antoine
Johnston County Schools are changing. In a shift of departments at Johnston County Schools Central Offices – Student Services was recently moved under the umbrella of the Office of Equity, a department that has actively been disseminating Critical Race Theory training modules. I came across a Twitter post from Johnston County Public School (JCPS) Student Service Counseling Office – Social Emotional Learning (SEL). It was a graphic with a bunch of buzzwords like Restorative Justice, Adult SEL, Staff Equity Committees, and Panorama. All of the terms were familiar to me, but not Panorama. I had no idea what it meant or just how deep the well would go with that one word.
Panorama is Panorama Education, a Big Data company that collects and performs analytics. Data Analytics takes in raw data and formulates it to make process decisions, oftentimes changing or manipulating next steps for a more desired outcome. YouTube and Facebook are platforms that utilize data analytics, they use all of your shared information, search history, and likes to determine what to put into your feed or what suggested ads or videos to recommend for you. It is highly manipulative and amazingly persuasive. On their website Panorama states, “The all-in-one data platform for your district- Panorama pulls your key student information into one spot and gives you visual dashboard reporting. Move from interpreting data to taking action and improving student outcomes.”
Schools collect massive amounts of data on each child, and having an electronic tool to help manage those many categories of information like contacts, attendance, grades, and health needs seems reasonable. To reduce paper and create efficiency Johnston County Public Schools (JCPS) uses tools like PowerSchool. Panorama has designed an interface to take Powerschool data and incorporate it for a distinct dashboard that includes all possible data points for each student.
It is not the data collection that is unusual with Panorama, rather the data analytics and the nature of the company. A company that focuses on Social Emotional Learning (SEL) with tools to gather qualitative, observable but not measurable data – like behaviors and feelings, then combines it with measurable quantitative student data like absences and grades into one dashboard file, which tracks students.
A relatively new company Panorama Education was founded in 2012. Aaron Feuer had the basic idea that student surveys could be used to instruct schools how to help improve student satisfaction and social needs. Feuer, along with his Yale classmates Alexander Tanner and David Carel, created what is today Panorama Education. The three worked with a Harvard researcher, Hunter Gehlbach, to develop a survey that was a valid psychometric instrument, which provided statistical reliability for the main survey.
The NC State Board of Education and NCDPI partnered with Local Education Agencies (LEA) to take part in the reliability testing of the initial Panorama survey in 2013-2014. With a research backed, reliable tool to sell to schools Panorama went to the marketplace they found big capital funding partners to support their model.
In 2013 Feuer went to Y Combinator, an open equity funding source, which gave Panorama enough money to launch. It was at a conference for Y Combinator a few months later where Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg was introduced to the start-up, and saw big potential for data, but more importantly social change.
From a 2013 interview in Inc. “Feuer says it was the promise of Panorama’s social impact, not its financial return, that first caught Zuckerberg’s eye.” Zuckerberg’s foundation called Startup:Education infused $4 million dollars into Panorama in 2013. Panorama has found multiple social change and educational technology equity partners including; Spark Capital a San Francisco Bay area company- capital funders behind Twitter and Tumblr, Emerson Collective a Palo Alto company self described as a social change organization, and Owl Ventures, the world’s largest holder of education technology with $1.2 billion in assets- based out of Silicon Valley founded in 2014. By 2017 Panorama Education had raised $32 million in venture capital to data mine children and implement social transformation into schools.
The rolling out of Panorama as an educational tool that measured feelings, observable behaviors, and thought perception was timed perfectly with the implementation of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which replaced No Child Left Behind. The Obama era Act gave a new opening to measure emotions as an academic category. Under ESSA federal public school funding was more able to be funneled directly to school counseling programs. The schools had money and Panorama was ready to provide service.
Panorama charges between $500 to $3,000 per school for their basic data tools and Playbook. Just the annual survey screener for the Chapel Hill- Carrboro City Schools was $29,000 for a one year contract. Through a records request it was disclosed in 2020-2021 JCPS paid $214,000 for a one year contract with Panorama Education.
JCPS utilizes Panorama’s customizable social emotional survey, these surveys just completed May 15th in JCPS, you may have been emailed links. A survey with optional questions for students like; How often were you polite to adults?, How possible is it for you to change being talented?, What is your gender?, How well does your school help students speak out about racism?
Parent questions may include: Given your child’s cultural background, how good a fit is his/her school?, In the past year how often have you helped out at your child’s school?, How often do you help your child with content he/she is learning in school?
The teacher survey has options for very personal questions that include: When there are major news events related to race how often do adults at your school talk about them with each other?, How easy do you find interacting with students at your school who are from different cultural backgrounds than your own?, How easily do you think you could make a particularly overweight student feel like part of the class?, What is your gender? What is your race or ethnicity?, What was the primary language spoken in your childhood home? What is the highest level of education achieved by your father?
JCPS is part of Panorama’s marketing. Executive Director of JCPS Student Services, Dr. Amanda Allen, has written a blog post for Panorama called “How Johnston County Public Schools Uses Panorama to Support Students’ SEL Through Tiered Interventions.”
Allen says JCPS mapped back 23 character traits the school wants students to integrate into their lives, and can expect 20% of students to require SEL interventions. An intervention is a form of behavior modification or thought re-education. I reached out to Dr. Allen and asked her several questions about the services Panorama provides.
“I’m thankful to have a way in which our students can share their perceptions of their own social-emotional learning progress.” Allen said. “The way in which we receive this information from students does not allow us to see specific ratings they gave themselves per question, but rather an overview so we can identify students who need additional support in these skills.”
This statement seems to conflict with Dr. Allen’s article on Panorama’s website where she wrote, “we dial down the results to the student level to understand how students are rating themselves.”
Interventions for students with low-scored SEL marks can include frequent Panorama Check-ins, which ask two or three questions, and the specific answers are recorded and added to the child’s dashboard. Panorama’s large student surveys have a constellation of 3 or 4 questions that focus on measuring one characteristic or what they call a scale. The dashboard will then display a score for those combined answers.
Allen said in her article the characteristics they look to implement in students through the lens of SEL include; growth mindset, ethical, communicator/collaborator, critical thinker, balanced, grit, knowledgeable, value creator, cross culturally proficient, and self-directed learner.
Most of us have no idea how these terms can be measured, but they certainly seem partial to interpretation and are traits parents should be the main directors of developing, not the school counselor. Giving students a social score on these elements seems a profound overstep in the role of public schools.
According to Allen the teacher and parent surveys, “do not disclose specific entries, but rather give overall insight into the overall perspective.” She reported in her article that adult SEL programming has been carried out with JCPS staff since 2017. Panorama has specific student survey measures which rate their classroom, effectively tracking teachers by student entries. It creates an unwritten SEL score for teachers and Panorama has new tools for teacher interventions. In addition to students critiquing teachers, teachers have the available surveys to rate the emotional level of students.
When asked if she was concerned about data collection of mental/physical health information in the survey questions Allen said, “This tool is not what I would consider to be a mental health screening tool.”
When asked about the implications of Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in the collection of such sensitive emotional health data to a third party without consent in which all of the student, parent, and teacher aggregated data is owned by Panorama education to use in whatever capacity they chose, including the sale of such information. Allen reported, “the data being collected is anonymous when speaking to students’ feeling of safety or academic behaviors, which is essentially what social-emotional learning is.”
The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA) is seemingly being side-stepped, the survey questions fall squarely into the federal and state regulations that demand specified parental consent. While FERPA gives parents the right to access educational records for their children, specific areas are excluded and third party vendors that strip metadata from all direct and indirect identifiers do not fall under FERPA in disclosing or use of records. The type of data being collected, under the counseling aspect of SEL, has no clear guidelines whether parents would have full access to their child’s SEL records.
Students with Special Education plans have more rights and protection for their data under IDEA, but these big data collectors seem to be moving cleverly around all of the legal protections in place.
Parents are routinely asked to sign blanket consent forms for all digital tools before their child is allowed to participate in the classroom, which places an undue burden on parents to give up what little rights to access and privacy they had left.
Panorama Education has open source access to all of its blogs, surveys, and tools. Anyone can go to the Panorama Education website to interact with all of their sources for free. They charge schools for customizable surveys, use of their dashboards, professional workshops, and teacher Playbook. When a student or teacher isn’t meeting their target performance on an SEL scale an early warning system flags for intervention. The guidance in the Playbook can be utilized by leadership to change the thought or behavior process through intervention tools. Panorama states’ “Access hundreds of activities, strategies and interventions that promote student and adult SEL with Panorama’s Playbook. Playbook provides actionable and adaptable lessons created by expert partners, including: Second Step, CharacterStrong, Teaching Tolerance, Newsela, Open Circle, and Move This World.”
The most radical partner, Teaching Tolerance, now called Learning for Justice, is a far leftist organization funded and run by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Learning for Justice lessons, which may be used for interventions in JCPS if a student or teacher has a low SEL marker for cultural proficiency include titles like: “Sexism: from identification to activism, Making Cents of Privilege, Confronting the isms – a social justice lesson, White Anti-racists Biographies: for early grades (kindergarten), Labor Matters, understand the importance of the [union] labor movement.”
The list seems endless, full of radical progressive lessons to be forced on children by public schools starting at 5 years old. A slog through the Twitter feed of Learning for Justice should make even the most committed leftists question the place Learning for Justice would have in a publicly funded classroom, let alone a student training intervention.
When a low social score alarms the dashboard for intervention a program called Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) is utilized. Instead of the former low-tech Response to Intervention where a teacher would notice a problem and submit for an evaluation to a counselor or therapist, MTSS incorporates all students into intervention. MTSS has three tiers, level one is monitor- a universal level for all students with a schoolwide SEL program, level two is targeted interventions, and tier three requires intensive interventions. MTSS interventionists monitor SEL targeted individuals, to ensure the thoughts/behaviors improve with the assigned intervention tool, to bring the SEL social score to a deemed appropriate level. The JCPS has secured funding through Title IV grants and hired two new full-time SEL interventionists.
Equity has become part of the social justice movement, it is about perceived fairness and Allen’s stated SEL Equity commitment is demonstrated by her partnered work with Panorama in a new tool called District Leaders Guide to SEL Equity.
JCPS promoted SEL day, along with Panorama. Panorama held an “SEL as Social Justice” workshop via zoom which is still available. The workshop was titled “Dismantling White Supremacy Within Systems and Self.”
Inside the modules, it plainly states “SEL is a System to Dismantle Systems of Oppression.” Panorama CEO has issued an affirming statement saying “We commit to dismantling systemic racism, we commit to embodying and spreading anti-racist practices,” they describe the unique position Panorama has to make that happen, with direct control over data for 10 million students and 1,500 school districts.
Panorama admits the challenges of keeping the school data safe, and acknowledges possible hacking of the most private details of SEL, grades, behaviors is something not easily managed. Notable scholars question the untested SEL curriculum, deeming it a form of pop psychology, with only unreliable data to prove its effectiveness. Lessons about treating others how you want to be treated doesn’t require a social justice lens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It certainly shouldn’t administer social scores that may likely follow students through school and into their careers. The implications of bringing Big Data into our schools to oversee the moral character development of children should concern all parents and educators- likely the biggest activist is the one we aren’t even seeing at all.
Michelle Antoine, B.S., B.A., M.S. is a Johnston County resident, formerly licensed teacher, counselor, education reform advocate and mom to eight children.