When we’re talking about student data privacy we’re usually talking about things that can go wrong. We forget what a powerful tool data can be. Not only does it help teachers, parents and students identify strengths and weaknesses, but it can serve as a powerful instrument for creating equity, so long as the information is managed properly with the appropriate safeguards in place.
As I talk to people involved in student data privacy, the one question that keeps coming up is “What do you want us to know and focus on as we work on student privacy?” Student data privacy is a personal issue because it involves children. So it is important that we focus on what information we need to protect for students and how that information will be used in the future. Even though the question is seemingly simple, the answers are complex. As a parent, I want lawmakers and organizations to know that having good data sets is important. That students want information that will help them “learn better”. That the data collected belongs to them. And by recognizing their ownership they will generate more useful data from which we will all benefit.
I am concerned that in our effort to protect some students some will be left behind. For example, if we limit data collection, if we allow some to opt out of data collection, how are we skewing the results of data analysis, and its usefulness. If we want equity in education, we need a comprehensive picture of the educational system: what works and what doesn’t. How can we have a diverse school that helps all children if we do not have the data on what their needs are? How can we ensure disadvantaged children receive free or reduced price lunch so they can have a productive day at school without collecting data on their parents’ income? How can policymakers enact policy that combats societal prejudice unless they have comprehensive data sets demonstrating discrimination? Furthermore, how can we help children with learning differences if we don’t know which therapies prove the most effective? All of this information is only available if we have widespread participation, just as vaccinations only prevent disease when we all get immunized.
I understand the concern that highly personal information may be accessed by unauthorized individuals which is why there must be safeguards against breaches of privacy. Strong privacy standards, confidentiality guidelines and adequate training of personnel are essential to improving the education infrastructure. We cannot leave our most vulnerable learners unprotected.
Privacy concerns about the collection of student data are real. But we cannot allow these concerns undermine our efforts to help our most at risk students. The more we know about our students the better we can provide them with opportunities to advance in school and in life.