The National Student Privacy Symposium


In 8 hours of intense debate about student data privacy, we heard panelists use the words sexy, naked, sex ed class and constipation. This coming from researchers, education policy leaders, privacy advocates, IT experts, teachers and parents, all in one room. And besides making us aware that anyone working in privacy has a pretty good sense of humor, it brought into focus that privacy is an everyday event.

There are a few points I want to highlight from the day. One of the things that struck me the most was that we need to discuss privacy concerns from two different sides – students and parents. Because privacy to a student is not the same as keeping one’s own children’s data private. We can’t forget that the purpose of student data is for students to learn better and not for our research teams to have more data to study learning. And well, if we can improve our research while at it, then so be it. There was also discussion of the implications of opting out of more data sharing. I would argue that the more data we can share, in more useful ways, is a step in the right direction. It can foster trust between students and the adults in the student’s life. Lets make parents partners not only in education but in privacy matters.

The Future of Privacy Forum released the results of the parent survey and it wasn’t surprising to me that parents are in favor of data collection as long as it is not used for commercial purposes. One statistic that jumped out at me was the fact that most parents want to opt out of data collection for racial and socioeconomic concerns. I’d argue that in a world where we see racial profiling happening every day, and increasingly in schools, the concerns about the collection of biased data are real. But I feel we need to start asking the question to parents and students on what they feel a student profile should contain, what it should be, and who should get access to it. Further, when looking at these results, we need to be aware that if only certain demographics opt out of sharing information they would significantly alter the results of big data sets and inadvertently divert much needed funds away from high need districts and schools. We also need to constantly remind ourselves that not all parents have access to the technology we discussed at the symposium, and as Rafranz Davis pointed out “anyone who things BYOD is equitable doesn’t know what school in many places is like.” All kids should have access to their own devices to learn, and it’s easier said than done. How do we help districts with limited resources achieve this?

One of the things I struggle with when discussing the results of the survey is that even though collecting data is valuable and using the information to improve teaching practices is the purpose, I find the all or nothing approach of my children’s school district regarding FERPA opting out problematic. For example, what if I want my kids information on the school directory so that we can meet other families and communicate about activities, homework etc. but I don’t want my child’s information released to a third party that will use it to try to sell me something? I can either opt in all the way or opt out completely. So we need to discuss these issues and come to a happy medium where parents have control over the information schools share about their child.

I think we can all agree that the consensus is that we need to discuss what types of data we really need? Are we collecting the right data that will help disadvantaged students and help create a more equitable educational environment? Are we finally recognizing that student data belongs to students? Kathleen Styles made an excellent point and reminded us that teachers need to be trained not only in protecting student data but in learning how to use it effectively.

We can’t place the burden on students to understand policy and law but at the same time, privacy and security need to happen every day in schools. At the end of the day, we need to get this right. I certainly walked away with many lessons learned and points to think about and debate in the future. Student privacy is complicated, that’s for sure, but everyone in that room is trying to work it out so we can do good by the kids. We can’t afford to not do right by kids, and if that means talking FERPish (as Kathleen Styles said) then we should be knowledgeable about it…..

And if you want to read a play by play of the day’s conversations check out the #NSPS2015 hashtag on Twitter. It was fun!




A privacy maze


We moved. We left our beloved Brooklyn for a new State to call home. Moving means not just a new house but new routines, new friends and new schools! And as excited and anxious as the kids were to start in new schools, well, so was I. The schools are great, we’re slowly making new friends and we’re getting to know the school system. It’s vastly different than New York City, that’s for sure. Technology is more accessible and all schools have online portals for parents. There is an integrated platform that allows me to login and look at my children’s personal information, grades, attendance, homework assignments and teachers’ notes about my kids. Mind you, they are in two different schools. I log in to one system. This is so much more than we had in NYC so I should have been happy, ecstatic actually. But I wasn’t.

For starters, no one asked if I wanted to partake in this online system. A few weeks before school started I began receiving emails about the schools. I am glad to be receiving important information, but felt rather uneasy by the fact that my email and my children’s information was provided to a third party without my knowledge. Further, this application connects to other platforms that collect my children’s information. For example, there is an online school lunch system, school garb shopping portal, bus routes and of course, the school’s directory. All of these collect, at a minimum, parent names, student names and school they are enrolled in. And I do want to be clear, I am not so concerned about the information collected as the way it was released. I was surprised when I received a FERPA notice to opt out of directory information. I received an email from the school district, clicked on the link, logged on to the portal and opted out. But here is the issue, the login for the portal was already populated with my children’s information and had been done without my knowledge. This lack of disclosure is not optimal to build trust between schools, parents and third party vendors. An email informing me would have been enough. And that is why communication is key to building trust when it comes to student data and privacy. Trust can’t be built if a school district can’t be bothered with informing families that this information is collected and placed in an online portal for third parties to use, and then sends a link to the FERPA notice. After I logged in, I diligently looked for the portal’s privacy policies. I am still looking for them. If they are published, they are in such an obscure link on their website that I had to give up after three days of searching.

But it doesn’t have to be that difficult. There are a few simple things that schools and vendors can do to build trust with parents and students. They ought to list all the vendors that work with the schools, list the data that is provided to these vendors, and a clear and easy to link to their privacy policies. I looked at both the online portal and the district’s website and couldn’t find this information. I understand that schools have many things to work on and that the beginning of the school year is particularly hectic, but these lists are basic and should not be a heavy lift for any school district. Transparency builds trust and accurate information can help dispel many fears parents have when it comes to student data and their privacy.

With the attention being given to student privacy and technology I hope that schools shift their focus a bit and realize that this is important information to make accessible to parents. I would also hope that the tech companies providing this service have clear and easy to understand privacy policies so that parents can make informed decisions.

We like to put the responsibility of student data privacy on school districts and tech companies, but it is also our responsibility to look for privacy policies and understand how data is being used in schools. If we can’t get the information easily we should reach out to the school and ask for the information. So as I am now buying school supplies, the question arises – should I go to a store and physically buy the school supplies, or order them online through a school portal that will collect my credit card information in addition to the other data previously gathered.

We are in a privacy maze, it seems, but it is up to us to call out school districts, tech vendors and demand they make their privacy policies transparent so parents can understand what they’re signing up for.




What do parents think about student data privacy?


I know that nobody asked me what I thought about student data privacy when I began inquiring about my children’s education records and how their privacy was protected, but now the Future of Privacy Forum conducted a survey that showed that the majority of parents with children in the K-12 environment are concerned about the privacy and security of their children’s information. With privacy being discussed more and more in education circles and by parents, I find that a survey that addresses parents is worthwhile, as parents (and more so students) are often left out of the conversations surrounding student data.

The results came in AND….not surprisingly, 85% of parents said they are willing to support the use of student data and technology in education but that it must be coupled with clear efforts to ensure its security. I would add that once parents are assured that their child’s data is safeguarded, they are more willing to give access to third parties as long as there is a clear educational intent. Once I am assured that my kids’ information is protected and only visible to appropriate entities, I am ready to have data sets that include my child’s information. And that is what matters, because there are so many ways of linking information that datasets can generate new insights – is my school addressing my child’s needs? Is the data showing that certain groups of students are being discriminated against? What is the graduation rate? For parents to have confidence that their child’s data is being protected, they must see first hand that collecting student data is valuable. Only then will they trust the process.

So I conducted my unscientific, most likely biased, survey amongst a few parents I know. Their responses were similar to those in the survey. My group of surveyed parents expressed that they are more willing to use student data for individual students when they can see the clear benefit of this data collection. For example, can the data help identify a struggling student so that schools can provide adequate support services? Another important result was that they are all encouraged by the use of personalized learning tools if they were able to see the results and trends of their children’s performance. But what we all came back to in our conversation was the trust factor. They all agreed that if we can trust the institutions that work with our children’s data we would all be more comfortable with it. And the only way I see how trust can be built is by schools, districts, States and the Federal government is by communicating with parents on a regular basis, to listen to their concerns and together come up with a plan that can be supported by the school’s organizations, such as the PTA.

So there you have it. A very reliable survey from the Future of Privacy Forum and my very own homegrown survey both agree that data is important and that parents are willing to allow for such data collection as long as we have adequate safeguards in place to protect student privacy.

I do wonder what a group of 6th graders would think of this debate and what they want to see protected in their records. We need to revise the methodology and compile results from students and how they would like their data protected. Maybe I will ask them soon…..

In the meantime, the entire survey will be released at the National Student Privacy Symposium on Monday, September 21st and if you haven’t registered I hope you do! The conversation promises to be engaging and I can’t wait for the debate amongst different panelists since we all have various perspectives on this issue. I’ll be there so please come by and say hello!