It’s back to school! Buying school supplies, meeting new friends and FERPA notices

It’s back to school time! Many parents spent the last few weeks buying school supplies, sharpening pencils and filling out forms. These first days of school are filled with excitement for what the school year will bring and the friends our children will make. But it can also be overwhelming and a challenge for parents to keep up with the flood of information sent home. Many flyers will come back home in kid’s backpacks – parent meet up night, volunteer fairs, bake sales, field trip forms and, maybe, a notice that explains your rights under FERPA. Wait! What is that?

FERPA is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It was enacted in 1974 to ensure parents had access to their children’s educational records and to protect the privacy of this sensitive information. As a parent or guardian, you have the right to inspect your child’s records, request that corrections be made and opt out of your school sharing directory information with third parties.

School’s sharing information about your child? Why would a school share any information about your child? Well, here are a few examples – consider the school yearbook, the team roster with student names, the playbill of the school play or the Honor Roll listing in a newspaper. There are other ways such information could be shared and other third parties unknown to you could legally request this information, including marketers.

It’s important to keep in mind that a school can’t just decide to share this information. The school has to officially declare which information they consider to be directory information and then they have to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing this information. Typically, directory information includes basic information such as name and address, phone number, date of birth and email address. It may also include pictures, hobbies, interests and awards. FERPA requires schools to annually notify parents and eligible students of their right to opt out of sharing this directory information.

There are, however, other ways in which third parties can access your child’s data. School districts, state agencies and vendors that do everything from running the cafeteria and school buses to technology services your school may be using or requiring students to use are considered third parties with access to student data. FERPA has different rules for these type of uses and I will discuss this in future posts.

Why should parents be on the lookout? Because, according to the US Department Of Education, the actual means of notification is at the discretion of the school. So you won’t necessarily receive a FERPA notice in your child’s backpack. The notice could be in a link on the school’s website, a note on a PTA bulletin, the school calendar or student handbook and can be easily missed.

If you missed your school’s FERPA opt out notice, here is an example: http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/mndirectoryinfo.html

Add student privacy to your “back to school list” and ask your school for the annual FERPA notice and decide whether you want to opt your child out of directory information disclosure.

If you want additional information you can contact the US Department of Education at 1-800-USA-LEARN (1-800-872-5327) or at the following address:

Family Policy Compliance Office

U.S. Department of Education

400 Maryland Avenue, SW

Washington, D.C. 20202-8520

Or visit the National Opt-Out Campaign website here – http://www.opt-out-now.info

Did your school make sure you saw their Directory Information Opt Out Notice? Is it on the school’s website? Is this all news to you, as it was to me several years ago when my kids entered school and I started digging into this? Questions? Comments? I will do my best to answer or point you to the appropriate source.

Wishing you all a wonderful school year!

Olga

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 FERPA|SHERPA 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