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.




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  1. Brooke Anderson

    November 28, 2015 - Reply

    Thanks for continuing this important discussion of making good use of system data for the benefit of all students. Too often the discussion of student data privacy focuses on accommodating individual concern rather than optimizing an essential system. I’m sure there are ways states can build trust and good practices around longitudinal data.

  2. Melissa Westbrook

    November 29, 2015 - Reply

    As a parent, I would never try to guilt other parents out. That’s mostly what this article does AND tries to say that not only will you hurt other children (by standing up for your own child’s student data privacy), you’ll be hurting low-income and students of color.

    What is left out beyond that issue is that there is a tsunami of software, apps and programs being used in classrooms where parents don’t even know it’s happening. Asking for your child’s full name, birthdate and other personal info.

    That the database that each state has contains line after line of information include health and discipline records.

    I think saying no benefits ALL children, not just your own, because this kind of massive data collection is not good for any child.

  3. John Jennings

    December 4, 2015 - Reply

    @Melissa – You do understand that the same “line after line” of information you’re talking about was once (and in some cases still is) stored in large folders in a filing cabinet somewhere on district grounds? Do you know where your own educational data is right now? Is it really any safer?

    You do understand that the “discipline records” you reference have played a key role in spotlighting the school-to-prison pipeline and have led to the adoption of PBIS, Restorative Justice, and other alternative behavior management methods?

    How about the health records that have led to an increased awareness of the importance of nutritional planning and exercise routines? Have you seen school lunches lately? They’re exponentially better than the greasy menu I was served 20 years ago.

    To say that “this kind of massive data collection is not good for any child” is just ignoring the facts. I am keenly aware of how much data is being collected about my son and I embrace it. As long as his data’s not being sold, shared with those who do not have a legitimate educational interest, or otherwise mishandled, I understand that it’s all for the common good.

    If I have concerns about any of these things, I will be the first person to spring into action. Until then, I’ll be thankful for the opportunities he has that I didn’t – and the role that data has played in that process.

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