Is the collection of data from schools an invasion of students’ privacy?

Schools are increasingly using technology in a variety of settings and there is more record keeping of how students learn and information about them than ever before. Technology advocates tout its use and the ability to personalize a child’s education. Privacy advocates warn that vast amounts of personal data students generate can be misused.

In Room for Debate, The New York Times invited outside contributors to answer the question –Is the collection of data from school’s an invasion of student’s privacy? 

It’s an interesting debate with contributions from Khaliah Barnes, Tyler Bosmeny, Richard Kahlenberg, Jules Polonetsky and myself.

My contribution is below:


While there are surely benefits to the collection of student data, as a parent, I am concerned about the use of my children’s personal information. Schools and districts rely on students’ personal information (and test scores, behavioral records and, sometimes, health evaluations) to conduct day-to-day operations and the state relies on it to plan policy. Access to this data is important as it can alert to warning signs of learning disabilities so they can be addressed early and efficiently.

But what is the educational goal of collecting all the other information? Don’t our students have the right to learn imperfectly, and with the privacy for trial and error? It is difficult to justify data collection that may be used for commercial purposes if that data does not show a clear educational advantage. We must consider the implications this will have on our children and their future.

Parents need to understand what data is being collected, who has access to this information and what security protocols are in place at the school, district and state level to ensure that student data is kept private and secure. In a more practical vein, schools must also make smart decisions regarding what data should be collected about students for it to be meaningful at all.

And empowering students to have a larger role in deciding what ought to be included in their educational records would improve the value of the information: students would be invested in their data — as some are with grades, for example — and not merely passive participants, harboring concerns about their privacy. As more data is collected about students, including on their strengths and weaknesses, we must ensure that we do not inadvertently punish their failures and miss celebrating their successes.

 

 

Student data? Who owns it?

Students are at the center of all data generated in education and the debate centered on privacy, data access, and security needs to acknowledge data ownership. Who should be the owners of student data? I like to think that the answer is clear – students should be the owners of their data, even when cloud providers are being employed. Kathleen Styles, the US Department of Education Chief Privacy Officer said – The provider never “owns” the data, and can only act at the direction of the school or district. We need to define the roles in the education system so that we can make decisions of how student data is used. If we recognize students as having ownership of their data we can in turn trust parents and schools to act as stewards and technology companies as processors of such data.

Students should be able to decide what data about them is used, who has access and how security is maintained. Students every day provide information about themselves, and parents should not be asked to relinquish the personal information of our children unless there is a tangible return for this exchange of information.

However, we need to recognize that today schools are using technology in a variety of settings, from interactive dashboards and personalized apps for students with disabilities, to recording test scores, running reading records, class exams and sometimes, parent feedback. There is more record keeping of how students learn and information about them than ever before. But all this information would not be generated absent a student sitting in a classroom. Once we acknowledge students as owners of their data we can have a conversation in which our focus becomes improving educational outcomes. But if we do not do this we reduce them to innocuous data points in which the only debate is whether the information should be shared or not.

For the conversation on data ownership and privacy to move forward, we need interactive communication between the owners, stewards and processors of this data. Technology needs to acknowledge parental concerns and show value to students. The success of data analytics depends on having access to the sources of data. And in order to address student and school needs, technology companies can look at their datasets in order to gain insights about their students with the goal of increasing the learning potential in the classroom. Students empowered to help make decisions about their data can inform app developers what works and what doesn’t so that in turn technology can adapt and help them.

The conversation needs to be transparent and respectful of student privacy. Acknowledging the challenges in protecting student privacy while using technology and working together with students at the center of the discussion enables all stakeholders to collaborate at all levels to create trusted environments for learning. The guidelines for creating and using student data will need to evolve as technologies present new challenges that require new approaches to privacy, but we must not prevent the conversation from happening. Parents and students need a consistent and enforceable commitment to student privacy from the technology community to protect student information. If we recognize students as active participants and owners of the data we can move our conversation away from concerns of commercializing data to a cooperative environment that benefits everyone.

I am an advocate for using technology in the classroom, I have seen first hand the positive impact it can have when used appropriately as a complement to the instruction students receive from teachers. I am also fiercely protective of my children’s privacy but firmly believe we can achieve a balance. Let’s recognize who owns the data, who processes it, and together make decisions to protect and use it efficiently.

What does it mean to be in the “system”?

Recently, I was having a conversation with a group of friends. One of them broke the big news – she had just registered her daughter for Kindergarten. Certainly a milestone in a parent’s life. “Kindergarten!” “Wow” “Congrats!”

And right on cue, a friend said (jokingly) “Oh no! She is in the system.

We laughed and joked how life was about to change for this soon-to-be kindergartner. But the thought lingered in my mind. What exactly does it mean to be in “the education system”?

There is much talk about the collection of student data, how it relates to privacy, and sharing data with third party vendors. The conversations also veer into discussions of government overreach in collecting student data for state databases. And while I understand these concerns, the fact is schools collect a tremendous amount of information about students today. Some of the information collected goes into state databases called State Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS). The purpose of the SLDSs is to enhance the states’ ability to efficiently analyze education data and help make data driven decisions to improve student achievement as well as to facilitate research to direct resources where needed.

The SLDS program was created through the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA) in 2002. In order to support this (expensive) undertaking, the federal government has been awarding grants to states since 2005. By 2012 every state had an SLDS in place.

So what can be done with all this data? On a large scale, the data collected can help analyze chronic absenteeism or drop out rates, for example. It also helps schools and districts in their day-to-day operations. The Data Quality Campaign has a great info graphic illustrating the various ways data is used.

And while I don’t believe in collecting as much data as possible about my children, I do believe in maximizing the valuable information contained in these databases. This information can help states identify and address issues of equity and channel much needed resources into underserved schools. Big data sets can tell important stories. It would be interesting to look at which stories states focus on and which they choose to ignore. We know from previous decades that children who have breakfast do better in school, and so we have programs in place to provide that meal for children who won’t otherwise get it. And a recent Civil Rights Data Collection study (CRDC) from the 2011-12 school year showed racial disparities in discipline in the early years of schooling. This information identifies gaps and allows schools and districts to address discrimination issues and ensure equal access to education. What other causes and effects are waiting to be identified, now that we have the ability to evaluate some of these questions?

What I find especially interesting is how information contained in an SLDS is potentially useful to students and parents directly. How can we take this information and put it in the hands of students so they can make decisions about their education? We should seek ways to let students decide “what works” and provide mediums for them to be active participants in “the system.” Students should be empowered to tell their own educational stories; after all they are the main characters.

I recognize any collection of data poses some risk to student privacy. But without data we cannot make informed decisions. It is important for policymakers to erect safeguards so that student data is used responsibly. As data collection continues, we must weigh the privacy risks against the benefits of data analysis but the benefits of having the information can yield great results for students. It is essential that parents see tangible results of the progress that has been made in answering the questions we have using SLDS data. Parents must be able to trust that their children’s data is secure and being managed responsibly, much as we rely on our banks to handle our electronic finances. The more trust parents have in the way their children’s data is used, the better the opportunity for collaboration that will improve educational outcomes.

There is no question that the topic of student data collection and privacy is personal and emotional, but we must deal with specifics and be correct about the facts. There is great potential for student empowerment in enabling students and their parents to be advocates and owners of their learning. We have the data, let’s use it effectively and responsibly.

 

Guest Post: Sharing FERPA Information Online

Last week I wrote about FERPA notices and how we, as parents, can prevent our children’s schools from sharing directory information. Schools should be able to provide accessible and accurate information online on parent’s FERPA rights but this can be easier said than done as Bill Fitzgerald wrote recently.

I am delighted to introduce Bill as our guest blogger this week. Bill is the founder of FunnyMonkey, a software development company. He writes a blog focused on technology, education and student privacy and brings an important voice to the student privacy debate. Bill recently wrote a blog post on a survey he conducted on the accessibility and ease for parents to exercise their FERPA rights. With back to school in full swing, this could not have been more timely.

You can read more of Bill’s writings on his blog at funnymonkey.com/blog

Thanks Bill!


Sharing FERPA Information Online: An Incomplete Survey

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, gives students and parents rights to access, review, and dispute educational records. FERPA also attempts to define an “educational record.”

However, having rights is one thing, being able to use them is another, and being informed of those rights is yet another. In order to get a sense of how easy or difficult is is for students and parents to learn how to use their FERPA rights in different educational settings, we conducted a series of basic searches on charter school districts and large urban school districts.

Our method is pretty simple: start with a Google search on the term FERPA and the phrase “Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act” limited to a specific school district or charter organization.

In some cases, we would then do a follow up search using the site’s native search for both terms separately: FERPA, followed by “Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.”

In the text below, we link to our searches and include screenshots so you can see what we saw.

Recovery School District

The Recovery School District returns three documents via Google. Two link to gibberish, and the third has nothing about student or parent rights under FERPA.

The Recovery School District uses Google for their local site search, so the results are identical to what we see when searching via google.com.


Education Achievement Authority

The EAA has no information about FERPA on their site.

No results are returned via Google.

No results are returned via site search.


Rocketship Education

Rocketship Education returns several hits via Google, and they appear to link to pdfs for different schools. However, the pdfs appear to be scanned documents, which means that people can’t search within them using the “Find” feature of their web browser. As a result, the only way to find anything is to scroll through and skim each page, which is pretty laborious. This could be fixed by using actual html pages, having their docs available as read-only Google docs, or even uploading pdfs that have been generated directly from word processing software.

Several results are returned via Google, and I found FERPA information in their “Policies” document, which is the first result returned by Google.

Rocketship Education has no obvious site search on their site.


Aspire Schools

Aspire Schools fares pretty well when searched via Google.

Several results are returned via Google, and the third hit is for their student handbook, which includes FERPA information on pages 27-28.

However, their site search returns nothing, which is not very useful.


Green Dot

Green Dot returns several results via Google. The third hit links to the Student Policy Manual, a 125 page pdf that appears to mention FERPA several times without specifying student and parent rights under FERPA. My method for searching this doc was to use the “Find” feature in my browser, however, so if the language on FERPA was added as an image when they were creating the PDF, I would not see it.

No results are returned via site search.


Success Academy Charters

The Success Academy Charters return one result via Google. However, this document does not contain any information on parent or student rights under FERPA.

The site search returns no results.


KIPP

KIPP is a slightly different setup because it has the the main KIPP site, with local sites broken down by region.

The top level KIPP site has no results for FERPA via Google.

The top level KIPP site also has no results via site search.

However, it’s possible that the regional sites could have FERPA information – to get a sense of what the local sites shared about FERPA rights online, we can look at what comes back when we search 5 regional sites. Each regional site covers multiple schools; this search covers KIPP in Massachusetts, the San Francisco Bay Area (including San Jose), Colorado, Austin TX, and Chicago IL.

This search returns three hits. None provide any information about parent or student rights under FERPA; two of the hits are a form (in Spanish and English) asking parents to renounce their rights under FERPA so their students can be included in a Mathematica Policy Research study.


YES Prep

YES Prep returns several results via Google. Included in these results are links to both English and Spanish language versions of their student handbooks. Both handbooks contain detailed information on FERPA, and also mention that students and parents have the right to opt out of directory information.

Other schools would do well to follow YES Prep’s example here.

Unfortunately, YES Prep’s native site search does not return any results.

On a technical note, if the YES Prep web team is reading this: your site runs Drupal. You could probably add this module to search within attachments.


Democracy Prep shows no results via Google.

And, Democracy Prep has no obvious search feature on its home page.


Concept

The Concept web presence is organized like KIPP; it has the main organization site in one domain, with schools at other domains. To get a sample, we searched through a subset of sites (the main organization site and five regional sites). Searching via Google brings up two hits; one is a web page that contains a variety of legal links, including two about FERPA. The second hit is a document only posted for the Columbus, Ohio schools in response to an Ohio legal case.


Uno

Uno Charter Schools show no results via Google.

Additionally, no results are returned via site search.


Noble Charter Schools

Noble Charter Schools show no results via Google.

Noble shows no results via site search.


Urban Prep

Urban Prep shows no results via Google.

Urban Prep shows no results via site search.


Chicago International Charter Schools

The Chicago International Charter Schools return many hits via Google. The first hit is an English and Spanish version that outlines basic FERPA rights, but does not mention the right to opt out of directory information. However, many of the the other hits on the page are forms that can be used to request access to data as part of research, including this form to avoid review by the data monitoring committee.


Chicago Public Schools

Chicago Public Schools shows several results via Google, but no information on FERPA at the district level. One school within CPS shows up; the link leads to the school’s information on FERPA. Based on this review, the CPS site does not have any obvious resources online showing students and parents their rights under FERPA.


Los Angeles Unified School District

Los Angeles Unified School District returns immediately relevant results via Google. The top hits include both information on FERPA and information on the review process. The LAUSD documentation also flags that students and parents can opt out of directory information.

So, while LAUSD has a hard time with technology acquisition and Student Information Systems, the visibility of their FERPA information is something that other districts would do well to emulate.


Portland

Portland (Oregon) Public Schools returns several relevant results via Google. The top hits are all immediately useful.


Boston Public Schools

BPS gives several results via Google, including their student handbook in multiple langages. The English language version of the handbook specifies that additional information on FERPA is available in each individual school.


Dallas Independent School District

DISD returns several immediately relevant results via Google. Of all the districts and organizations surveyed here, Dallas provides the most complete and helpful set of materials. They include a set of brochures on what FERPA means, an opt-out form for directory information, and their documentation includes human-readable breakdowns of the legalese. Ideally, they have versions of these documents in multiple languages.

It’s also worth highlighting that they are the only organization with a page set aside to explain FERPA on their site: http://www.dallasisd.org/ferpa – over time, I suspect that this practice will become the norm.


Conclusions

Out of all the organizations and districts reviewed here, Dallas Independent School District provides the best example of how students and parents should be informed about FERPA online. The things they do right include:

  • Set aside a page for FERPA information, at a URL (http://www.dallasisd.org/ferpa) that makes sense;
  • Include human-readable guides to FERPA;
  • Include information and a form that allows students and parents to opt out of directory information;
  • Include information defining that parents have a right to review records

It’s also worth noting that, among the public school districts surveyed, the majority of them included comparable information as Dallas, just not as well organized. The notable exception was Chicago Public Schools, where district-level information was not readily available online.

Moving on to charter school organizations, YES Prep did the best job of providing online resources. Aspire also has taken steps to make FERPA information easy to find. However, the number of high-profile charter organizations with zero information available online about FERPA is an oddly avoidable oversight. It’s especially troubling given how data and tech heavy some of these schools are – it’s imperative that both students and parents are informed of their rights by their schools. The fact that some schools have information and forms online that are used to remove parental rights under FERPA without any accompanying information that defines those rights is especially problematic.

And, it’s also worth noting that FERPA rights can be given to parents offline, on paper. It’s also possible that there are other places where schools are sharing this information online that did not get seen in this review. However, privacy concerns are going to increase, and schools need to be ahead of these concerns. Sharing accurate, useful information online is an easy step to take.