Saturday, August 25, 2012

Pied Pipers Need Not Apply: Harnessing Technology to Track Children

Banner topping web page for Northside ISD in Texas. Found here
I. Pied Piper

A few days ago, Rob gave me Alan Block's book, I'm Only Bleeding: Education as the Practice of Violence Against Children, and asked me to read the chapter, "School as the Product of Adult Fantasy of a World Without Children." The chapter opens with Block describing a run he was taking through his neighborhood late summer when he realized how unnaturally quiet the town was and remembered that the children were all at school. As he runs he begins to link the Pied Piper story with the function of schools. He writes:

So I think of the story of the Pied Piper as I run. And I think of the story's relation to school. You see, I begin to think that school is a vast cave to which children today have been piped; that solid red brick building over there is the cave to which our laughing and dancing children have been led. I am alarmed as I suddenly realize that school may be the product of an adult fantasy of a world without children...I wonder, with whom did we negotiate in such bad faith to have lost our children to this place..." (p.127).

When I read it, I thought it to be over the top. The sinisterness of the Pied Piper did not seem an apt metaphor for schooling.  Block does go on to write some convincing arguments to support the belief that we situate children as "empty vessels into which the state might pour its standardized materials" (p. 129). Nonetheless, the sinisterness of the Pied Piper story gets to me and I can't see the parallel between it and schools as the Piper's task is ultimately harmful.

II. No Piping Needed, Just Tracking

I'm thinking about the Piper when I follow the tweet about two schools in Texas. Starting this school year at Jay High School and Jones Middle School in San Antonio, TX, students will be issued 'smart' ID cards containing RFIDs (radio transmitter becons) and be required to wear their IDs while at school.  These are the same transmitters used to track cattle and boxes at Walmart and now children in San Antonio.

At each school site, hundreds of readers have been installed across the campuses so that the administrators can track the movement of each and every child.  One reason for the tracking says administration spokesperson is that parents insist that school officials know where their children are each and every moment. Another reason is about money.

“If they're not in their chair when roll is taken, we need to find them,” says district spokesman Pascual Gonzales. “The state will not give us money for that child to support that school if they're absent from school...We have got to maximize every revenue stream we can.” (from here).
Huh? This school system is tagging kids in order to maximize the money they receive from the state?  

“In our high schools we have 200 digital cameras,” says Gonzales. “You don't go anywhere in a school without being on-camera. Now the important thing to keep in mind and for the public is that this technology doesn't extend beyond the walls of the school. We don't care if they're at McDonalds at night. That's not our problem or issue. But we do want to know between 8 and 4:00 where they are in our schools.”
Yet, according to Papers, Please blog, the ID cards can be read by anyone who possess a reader.

The school district’s spokesperson also claims that, “The important thing to keep in mind and for the public is that this technology doesn’t extend beyond the walls of the school.” And the school district’s website says categorically that, “‘Smart’ ID Cards will only work inside the school.” But that simply isn’t true. Students carrying RFID badges can be tracked by anyone, anywhere. Nothing in the technology or the law limits the use of the RFID badges to school premises. Anyone carrying an RFID badge can be tracked, legally, by anyone, anywhere, with a suitable reader.

Tracked by anyone, anywhere? Somehow it feels akin to the ankle bracelets criminals wear.

According to the district information sent to parents, these schools were selected for this pilot because attendance is low.  It also indicates that teachers will wear cards too, but it does not seem that they will be tracked. The language is a bit ambiguous, though.

This is a drawing of the cards and lanyards that students are expected to wear.


The Pied Piper has always been a symbol of harm to children.  Oddly, in San Antonio, there's no need to enlist the help of a Piper to keep the children in their place when they can be tracked instead. 


  1. I just finished rereading The House of the Scorpion and there are so many parallels between that book and our current educational system.

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