An Introduction

An Introduction

Student data privacy has become a central topic of conversation in education and amongst parents of school aged children. Common questions include, “What data about students is being collected?”, ”Who is looking at this data?”, “How is it being used?”, “Are third parties outside of educational institutions using the data responsibly?”, and – more importantly -– “Is it being kept secure and private?”

Parents are commonly left out of the conversation taking place amongst policymakers, school districts and tech companies. My goal in this blog is to open the discussion from a parent’s perspective and include all stakeholders in the discussion. What are the issues we should be looking at? What improvements are being implemented? And, how can we collaborate to ensure student data privacy?”

But when we talk about student data privacy, we must first ask how we define “privacy” when talking about student data. What do students define as their privacy? What do students think of their data and who owns it in order to make decisions about their education? What protections may parents and students expect?

Maybe, for parents and students, privacy should be defined on the context of the situation and we should engage in debate about what data collection is appropriate to address personal and public concerns.

Building trust among all stakeholders is imperative. For only with trust can we ensure the level of participation necessary to obtain and deploy the information critical to raising student standards and achievement. While I believe we must not argue for increased data collection or none at all, rather, I believe we must advocate for data that is collected for meaningful purposes and kept private and secure. After all, there are amazing opportunities to put information into the hands of parents and teachers enabling them to tailor individual instruction to education plans, so all students can meet their potential.

Student data is collected in State Longitudinal Databases for federal reporting purposes. What questions are these databases answering, and as parents, how can we benefit from them? Data can be useful to help study chronic absenteeism or drop out rates. But, on a smaller scale, these reports can help parents and teachers identify early warning signs of learning disabilities, for example. The purpose of student data should be to help states, school districts and schools in their day-to-day operations. But also, and more importantly, to help our students. But parents need to be able to access that information in a timely manner in order to have productive discussions with their children and their teachers. Together, we can achieve tangible results with an effective system of data and collaboration.

Technology is constantly evolving and so should the conversation around student data privacy. Technology is scalable and dynamic, and we should advocate for policies, legislation, and terms of service that reflect this while keeping the focus on students and their privacy. A system that empowers students to take ownership of their education will help them make informed decisions about their privacy

In 2014, 110 education data privacy bills were introduced and 28 were signed into law. What does that mean for parents? Some of these new laws include data governance that define roles and responsibilities to ensure student data is used appropriately, and others look to protect data by prohibiting certain data to be collected and analysis to be performed.

Recently, U.S. Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the “Protecting Student Privacy Act”, a bill that asked for FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) to be updated. Some say the bill is not strong enough; others argue that it is unnecessary to revamp FERPA. Should parents be concerned? Whatever the approach, transparency is vital. And, while parents should not be asked to be privacy auditors, we need to know how these bills affect students and schools. That’s why the newly launched Student Privacy Compass website includes a “Parents” section that hosts information important to parents and explains how data and technology in schools affects students – so that we can all make informed decisions.

I’ll be writing about different issues surrounding student data privacy. Data is more than test scores or innocuous data points. Data can be any piece of information that helps parents, students and educators know more about their students. To make it work well and responsibly, we must look at the entire system and actively discuss the ramifications of data collection, what equity issues are unaddressed, and the privacy challenges it raises.

I’m looking forward to having you join me in this timely and critical conversation.

Olga M. Garcia-Kaplan

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