All parents want to keep their children safe and protecting their privacy falls under this premise. So when we talk about student data, a parent’s first reaction is “let me decide if I want my child’s information to be used by the school or not”; essentially deciding whether to opt out of data collection for school use. At first glance, the option of choice is obvious – let parents decide what data is collected about their children and what ought to remain private. But when we look at the issue more deeply we see it is not that simple. Not all data are created equal. If parents opt out, it can prevent schools from efficiently managing the day-to-day operations of such administrative tasks as dispensing free lunch to students and organizing bus routes. Furthermore, how will teachers help students learn without access to their histories, including detailed information about their special needs affecting their school performance?
We need to critically look at the implications of our choices and recognize that we cannot address privacy in education in a vacuum. The issues of equity and discrimination in our schools today cannot be addressed without adequate information. We must be able to clearly determine whether we are truly serving our students. How can parents be assured that our schools are addressing these issues if they have incomplete data sets? Providing parents with consent forms for every data collection issue in school runs the risk to protect some but not all. And we shouldn’t ask parents to be privacy auditors either. What if a parent cannot understand a complex school contract or simply does not have time to read it? We risk excluding students from beneficial educational programs and therapies, if information about them is not in the system. When wealthy parents fight to protect their children’s privacy, because their children have access to the same (or better) technology at home, they may in effect deprive lower income families of such access, since their only access to such technology is in school. We need to critically examine the role of consent and question how in our attempts to protect the privacy of some we leave others behind.
Which takes us back to student ownership of their data. As we continue to have conversations of privacy and consent on data collection we must shift our focus to include students in the decision making process. If we do not do that, we relegate them to being passive participants in their education in which education and privacy becomes something that happens to students instead of something that belongs to them. For it is their education, that is at stake. And the opportunities open to them over the rest of their lives will depend on the quality of the education they receive as children.
All students deserve the right to privacy but they also deserve access to the best education possible. If parents do not give consent to information being collected about students what opportunities are we inadvertently denying our children? It is their information – their education, and in making decisions whether asking for parental consent or not, we must make them with all students in mind.