A new data portal for students

Finally a new student data website that delivers better information on students? I was excited, thrilled actually, to learn that in New York City, parents of students in public schools would be able to view their children’s educational records (and information) on a new website replacing the previous ARIS data system. So I promptly made an appointment to go to my kid’s school to request a login and temporary password to access my children’s information.

Information in hand I quickly setup my login so that I could test drive this new data portal. NYC schools says the new portal is designed internally for less than $2 million and is expected to cost under $4 million for further development over the next four years. So what did I find? The portal has my kid’s name, address, last term’s grades and attendance. No more. As the parent of two children in elementary school (three kids actually but the third is not yet school age), I want comprehensive information on how my children are doing in school. I know where they live and how many days they have been absent. But what I do not have access to is how my children have progressed over time. There is no linked data through their school years. I know my 11 yr old has a good grade in math but what are his weaknesses and strengths? Where can he use some extra help and what can linked data tell his teacher about him next year? Unfortunately the new portal does not have any of this information.

The NYC DOE promises that at the end of the school year, report cards will go online and that test scores will be added once the state releases them. Previous year scores and test grades are expected to be added later in the year. But what the NYC DOE does not specify is if parents will have access to data analytics. If the portal will deliver more than a report card.

I was hoping for a robust buildout, a data portal that would extract the valuable student data that is most likely sitting in a black box somewhere in school. I understand more features will be added as the portal is expanded but unfortunately the kids continue to grow and study. We can’t afford to wait for a buildout. There is value in data but it is only valuable if we can have access to it.

I hope that over the next few months the portal will have added features, in particular features that provide valuable information that allows us to answer questions about our kid’s education and their progress. I would certainly love to have information on teacher assessments, curriculum, reporting and analysis of my child’s education. The portal has a section for parent comments and I’m certainly entering my wish list.


What does it take to protect student privacy?


We often discuss privacy in terms of what needs to be done to protect student data but the thing that has become clear in my conversations with different stakeholders is the need to focus on providing training and awareness to everyone involved in working with student data. In particular, teachers and school administrators.

Though there are numerous federal and state laws that regulate privacy and we are slowly building a greater awareness of what we need to do to increase protections for student data, I feel that we are often missing the point in these debates and conversations. There seems to be more information shared about students than ever before. Sometimes, teachers with all the good intentions breach a student’s privacy revealing deep personal details about their students. And even though this point is important, there is an even greater need for teachers and school administrators to understand that student data can be leaked, because of a mistake or misunderstanding on the implications of disclosing student data. Disclosing student data can hurt students. If a teacher is discussing a student, or group of students, struggling with certain issues then that student’s privacy was not protected. And failure to respond to these incidents can damage the relationship between teachers, parents, schools, etc. The trust we need to build upon is lost.

Privacy “accidents” happen, but we need to invest in educating schools on what are adequate privacy protections, what are best practices for discussing student information and protecting their privacy so they do not happen unnecessarily. There are a number of privacy best practices across other industries in which employees are trained. We need to have this structure available to schools. If we are going to invest time and funding to develop laws at the Federal and State level, we need to invest in “privacy education” for educational institutions. We must be able to explain in clear and easy terms – what does it mean to protect student privacy, what issues schools need to be educated on and why it matters. Recently the US DOE created PTAC – the best source for government guidance to learn about data privacy and of course the one stop shop for all things on student privacy and ed-tech FERPA|Sherpa (shameless plug). These are great resource, full of important information and videos, but I believe we need to be able to give teachers a support system that will enable and encourage them to learn more about privacy. We can’t just leave it up to them and hope schools are taking privacy seriously.

We leave our children in the care of teachers whom we trust. They are charged with making good decisions on behalf of our children. To do so, they require our support.



What is PPRA? Another student data privacy law


We hear a lot of conversation around FERPA and the need to update the law but there is another law that protects student privacy that has a different purpose, yet is no less important. That law is PPRA, the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment. Both laws are important in that they provide protections for student privacy but they are different.

FERPA protects student educational records and ensures parental access to these records. It allows for a system enabling parents (or students) to correct inaccuracies in their records. FERPA also provides guidelines for who has access to these records and gives students the means to opt out of directory information (name, address, school clubs, etc.) that may be disclosed without consent unless a parent opts out of this disclosure.

But PPRA is completely different. PPRA’s purpose is to allow parents to limit the kind of personal information that a school may collect from students. For example, this information can be collected as part of surveys, physical examinations, or certain evaluations. The law requires that schools obtain written consent from parents when students are required to participate in any U.S. Department of Education funded survey, analysis, or evaluation. A simple way to understand the difference between FERPA and PPRA is that FERPA protects information the school already has on record and PPRA protects information that schools do not have but can collect for surveys.

It is worthwhile to clarify that the law applies to U.S. Dept of Ed funded surveys. Not all surveys that come home are necessarily funded by the USDOE. However, in 2001 NCLB expanded PPRA to include all applicable surveys in public schools, not just those funded by U.S. Dept of Ed funds in 8 protected categories:

  1. political affiliations or beliefs of the student or the student’s parent;
  2. mental or psychological problems of the student or the student’s family;
  3. sex behavior or attitudes;
  4. illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating, or demeaning behavior;
  5. critical appraisals of other individuals with whom respondents have close family relationships;
  6. legally recognized privileged or analogous relationships, such as those of lawyers, physicians, and ministers;
  7. religious practices, affiliations, or beliefs of the student or student’s parent; or,
  8. income (other than that required by law to determine eligibility for participation in a program or for receiving financial assistance under such program).

In other words –

For surveys that contain questions from one or more of the eight protected areas that are not funded in whole or in part with Department funds, LEAs must notify a parent at least annually, at the beginning of the school year, of the specific or approximate date(s) of the survey and provide the parent with an opportunity to opt his or her child out of participating.  LEAs must also notify parents that they have the right to review, upon request, any instructional materials used in connection with any survey that concerns one or more of the eight protected areas and those used as part of the educational curriculum.

So while PPRA doesn’t cover all surveys it does cover surveys that collect information considered “intrusive”. What I also learned is that it appears that in these cases, the surveys require prior parental consent otherwise the school cannot collect information from that student. And this is truly an opt-in option as opposed to an opt-out one. And worth noting that PPRA also has some other key requirements, besides surveys that have received little attention. Such as requiring that all instructional material (besides tests) be available to parents for review and (c)(1)(E) requires that every school have a local policy concerning “the collection, disclosure, or use of personal information collected from students for the purpose of marketing or for selling that information (or otherwise providing that information to others for that purpose), including arrangements to protect student privacy that are provided by the agency in the event of such collection, disclosure, or use.”

While our first reaction is to opt out our children from any school survey we need to think about what we are opting out from. It is important to recognize that some of these surveys could provide valuable feedback to schools – are the right kids getting support, lunch assistance, or are our children being discriminated against because of their race or gender? These surveys could yield important information so that schools get adequate funding or professional assistance to address deficiencies that are identified. Of course, not all surveys’ goal is to identify this. Others could be just aimed at marketing or addressing issues that we are not comfortable providing our children’s information for. The process must be clear, the mechanism for opting out clear and easy in the event parents feel uncomfortable. Parents must know what the survey is for, who is conducting it, how it is funded, how their child’s privacy will be protected. If we can trust the information we are given regarding the survey we can trust that if we decide to provide this information it will be used for the benefit of our children, and that is important.

I am a big advocate of having data and using it purposely. There is value in information. But parents must be given the information needed so that we can make informed decisions and be comfortable when providing details, sometimes extremely personal details, about our children.


What is an educational record?

This week I was fortunate enough to partake in two interesting but vastly different student privacy events. Both events discussed student data privacy in the context of online and personalized learning, and even though each event was presenting to different audiences (one was mostly to privacy lawyers, the other was to Ed-Tech companies) both events discussed student data in educational records. It is interesting because I think we all have different opinions of what an educational record is. According to the US Department of Education, an “’education record’ is defined as records that contain information directly related to a student and which are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a party acting for the agency or institution” But what does that mean? At first glance I think of student grades, attendance or IEP information, but when we think of an educational record in the context of personalized learning it can mean and contain so much more.

It is worth thinking about an educational record as a more complete picture of a student’s learning story (or data trail) that is created as they use technology in the classroom. Let’s think this through – a student has a school educational record with name, address, grades, attendance etc., but then we begin to add more to it. For example, a teacher uses a certain software package to teach the math curriculum and students get guided by their hits and misses in answering questions and thus the software tailors the “teaching” to that particular student’s strengths and weaknesses. That information is stored and attached to that student. Further, this particular student has support services for an IEP and the service provider uses an educational app that assists with the therapy that is being provided to the child in school. Again, the software “learns” the student’s pattern and records that for the next therapy session and modifies the “teaching” as needed based on the progress that student makes. Finally, this student uses a school provided device that has location tracking. At this point an additional software is recording that student’s activity and whereabouts.

And while this data generation and tracking could sound creepy, there is tremendous value in the data the student generates. In particular, if parents and teachers can collaboratively work with the student. Because when we can use tech to not only improve learning but give students real feedback then we are empowering students to make decisions about them that can help them develop and disclose their educational story as they see fit.

And this brings us back to examining the educational record. If a student in a school system uses this software and generates data maintained by a third party provider – is that an educational record? And if it is, what ownership does the student really have of the data they are generating? Who has access to the data and who decides how it is used? At this point I struggle with the lack of recognition of student ownership. Because from an educational sense we are not allowing students to analyze the data trail they are creating. If we do not do that we continue to make education as something that happens to them, instead of the force by which they chart their progress.

So when we think of an educational record containing a story, a student’s story, there is a significant implication. I think it is worthwhile to allow students to partake in the creation of their record and have a say in how they share certain parts of their story.  Personalized learning, if done right, can provide tremendous opportunities, in particular for students with special needs. We say students ought to be informed, to make their own decisions but we deny them this opportunity when we do not allow them to participate in the creation of their educational record and reduce them to mere observed objects. The challenge in front of us is to deconstruct our traditional view of an educational record (paper files in a cabinet, anyone?) and allow students to make a decision on what their data trail tells someone about them and what story they would like to share. For example, once a 10 year old told me, “I like that I can explain to my teacher what makes it easy for me to learn in class but I don’t like repeating it every year”. So lets take that statement and think about it. What if students were given enough insight into their educational record so that they can point to their teachers / parents / therapists to the information that they feel someone should know about them. And while I advocate for learner control I do not think this is a case where we give kids carte blanche to add or delete to their record as they see fit. I see the educational record as a comprehensive picture of a student in which a student can decide what matters to them and what they can illustrate to a teacher. But they cannot do that if we do not allow them to help us construct their educational record. Maybe taking a look at the issue in this manner we can become more comfortable with the “proverbial permanent record”