The Power of Data and Transparency


“It’s a massive database and why do they need so much information?” That was what someone said to me the other day when talking about student data. When we think of databases, we most likely think of enormous files that contain every piece of information whether it’s needed or not. Some databases could potentially include information we don’t even know is collected about us. But I have learned not all data is created equal when it comes to education data. I often get asked how I got involved in the student data privacy debate. It’s not a simple answer but I can try – I am a parent of three children, children that are students in a system that increasingly collects data on them. I am concerned about the information collected on my kids but more importantly on the security and privacy protections that surround it. I have worked for over 15 years in an industry that handles tremendous amounts of financial information and I wanted to understand the differences and sensitivities around the different types of data. My friends would probably say the biggest reason I am involved is because “she can’t keep quiet and tries to get involved to understand what is going on.”

And who wouldn’t be concerned when we read about State Longitudinal Databases (SLDS.) According to the US Department of Education, the program provides grants to states to design, develop, and implement statewide P-20 longitudinal data systems to capture, analyze, and use student data from preschool to high school, college, and the workforce. But the reality is that these databases provide valuable information as to how students are being served (or not) by the educational system. For example, an SLDS can provide information on when students enroll, transfer or drop out of school. It can also provide graduation rates for particular schools. This information is valuable when deciding how to allocate resources. Further, the stories these data sets can tell are significant. For example, Melinda Anderson’s article in The Atlantic poignantly explains that the need for a diverse teaching body is essential for an equitable learning experience for all children, in particular students of color because studies have shown that students of color are disproportionally discriminated against – “One study in 2007 found that youth aged 10 through 19 had just as much “implicit racial bias” as older generations did—and compared to some age groups, even more of it.” Further, Statewide reports can provide information on equity and reports that can help close achievement gaps. But none of this discussion could take place without big data sets so that analysis could be done

I would like for all of us be aware that in our effort to protect student data we might inadvertently prevent the collection and proper analysis of these important stories. We must be careful that in our effort to protect some students we are leaving others vulnerable and we just cannot afford to do so. The Data Quality Campaign has great information, in particular this one “separating Fact from Fiction” that illustrates clearly what information is collected and why. It also references an article by Elana Zeide regarding the so called “Permanent Record” and it’s virtual non existence in the k-12 space.

So the next time we talk about collecting information about our children let’s take a good look at what information is being provided and how it will be used. Because without educational databases we will not be able to determine who is getting a good education and who is unfairly being targeted.

So the next time we think about “massive databases” let’s acknowledge that there is a good side to them and we must take advantage. And this nifty graphic from Data Quality Campaign illustrates who can access student data and how it can be used. And no, I am not saying that more information than we need should be collected. Nor am I making the claim that the system is perfect. But we cannot perfect the educational system (or any system for that matter) without this valuable information.


Google, surveillance and student privacy


Having technology in our new schools has been an adventure. It’s exciting to watch the kids have access to technology and integrate it into their education. Even more interesting is how the technology has not taken over instruction but is a compliment to the teacher’s toolkit. And so it goes in middle school with the latest announcement “all students will use Google apps for education and will have an email account. They can upload their homework etc etc etc”

Very exciting, I guess. So naturally I asked my middle school son what he thought of the use of Google apps in school. His response “I hate it.” Yep, he hates it. I asked him why and the answer had nothing to do with functionality, purpose, ease of use, or anything else. He hates it because he said “teachers and the principal can see everything we do. We have no privacy. We can’t send an email to a friend in school because we know teachers can read our stuff.” His statement made me stop and think, and not because he is frustrated that a teacher will read something intended for a friend but I was taken aback when he expressed the feeling of being observed all the time. And so goes their privacy. We talk about listening to students and acknowledging their voices when it comes to privacy discussions but the sentiment “on the ground” so to speak, is very different. And it could be that teachers are conveying the message in a manner that make kids feel under observation the whole time. I am not saying that there shouldn’t be a degree of monitoring school accounts and that teachers should make their students aware of this, but there is a big difference between knowing your emails are being scanned for appropriateness and feeling under surveillance.

However, I do feel that we can take advantage of this situation and use it as a teaching moment for our students. The same constraints they feel in school are actually the same constraints we all operate under at work with our employer’s email. And I think that to make this a true teachable moment, we need to acknowledge that students can understand more than we give them credit for. At work, most of us sign an understanding that our work email is the property of the employer, can be monitored and should not be used for personal correspondence. For students, their school email is their “work” email and maybe we should convey that clearly to them. There is a difference between their online “school environment” and their online “personal environment”. Personal messages to friends should not be sent through school email but notes to a friend on a class project are fine. This takes me back to when email first started to be used at work (and yes, I am dating myself here but bear with me) and the CEO of the company I worked with at the time sent out a memo on the company’s email and internet use policy. He wrote “never write anything on an email that you would not be comfortable printed on the front page of a national newspaper”, and that message has stayed with me through the years. Maybe we need to explain this to students so they understand the difference between monitoring and surveillance and we should be cognizant of the message we are conveying and how it is perceived by students.

There is so much reading material on student privacy and debates on what should and shouldn’t be collected for educational purposes when it comes to student data but I didn’t find many materials on adequate teacher and school staff training, particularly helping adults convey the message to students. So I turned to a few blogs I frequently read and found this one by tech teacher extraordinaire Rafranz Davis and she, of course, had written something that related to my kid’s statement “When we decided to move forward with creating our student Google Apps accounts, I started to hear all about monitoring of teacher and student accounts.”

Rafranz explains why we need to provide teachers with the tools to implement tech effectively in the classroom and not only to use tech for tech’s sake but with purpose. Tech in the classroom cannot be effective if we only use it to “test prep” or because the kids are entertained. It needs purpose. And there has to be monitoring of students because they are being used in the school system but we have to convey the correct message to students or they will literally shut the system out. There is a big difference between monitoring student accounts for appropriateness and conveying a feeling of surveillance to kids. So much so that they decide to not use their Google accounts in school and would rather text each other. So a tool that could be very effective in communicating and helping students in their day to day classes is not being used because we, adults, have not communicated correctly with students.

Rafranz Davis’s post details some of the challenges in implementing tech in schools. More importantly, it highlights the need for adequate teacher and student education on the appropriate use of tech and how to respect student privacy while monitoring school accounts without the school becoming a surveillance state.

If you want to read the entire post you can do so here at Confessions of a Digital Leader

And let’s not forget to listen to the kids!