2014 is already proving to be the year when questions about appropriate education data use and student data privacy protections come to the fore at the national, state, district and community levels. All I can say is, it’s time.

Concern for student privacy is far from new – it was the original reason that the Family Educational Rights Protection Act (FERPA) was passed in 1974. In the decades since, the issue hasn’t gone untended – local and state education agencies have sought to be diligent and mindful about protecting privacy since the initial days of student-level data collection. But neither FERPA nor many governance policies and practices at the state and district level have kept up with the pace of technological change.

The Ed-Fi Alliance’s stance on the issue is straightforward: The right data, used in the right ways, has enormous potential to empower teachers and parents, and to improve student learning.  Many of the benefits to children of their teachers’ having actionable, easy-to-access data about individual strengths and challenges are already clear. Used effectively, data also serves as an amazing check and balance on the larger educational system – it gives parents insights into how well the classroom or school is serving their children, it gives taxpayers and policymakers a way to gauge how well resources are delivering results, and it helps time-strapped educators gain quick insights into the needs of each student.

But there are also clear privacy risks and concerns that must be addressed sooner rather than later. The bottom line is that each of us who has children, works with children or cares about children must take swift and thoughtful action to safeguard children and their data. We must be good stewards and commit to ongoing vigilance over the sensitive information that’s entrusted to our care.

How do we move forward? The first step is identifying some basic principles we can agree on. For instance:

  1. Rapid action is necessary; so is care. A slew of recent news stories and publications have highlighted critical areas where education policies and practices need to evolve.  As the sector works to address these issues, however, we must also take care to ensure that rapid evolution results in real and meaningful improvement. That means clarifying relevant terminology, agreeing on the relevance and sensitivity of discrete types of data at various points in the chain of collection, working collaboratively to understand how we can foster best practices and sound policies at the state and district levels, and more.

    We’re already seeing flurries of action on the policy front. Bills to protect student data were passed in Oklahoma and New York in 2013. This January alone, five states have seen student data privacy bills introduced, and more are on deck. Meanwhile, Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has issued a call for new student privacy protections. Ensuring such policies are effective means understanding a fair amount of nuance. To help with this, the Data Quality Campaign has begun to amass significant resources to guide policymakers as well as others in an effort to support best practices across jurisdictions.

  2. We must commit to open dialogue about the benefits and protections of education data use, not benefits or protections. Student data collection is unlikely to stop; both state agencies and school districts collect data to inform decision-making and to monitor compliance with state and federal laws. Meanwhile, new technologies make such data increasingly available and valuable to teachers’ day-to-day work. Given this reality, districts, schools, vendors and others must commit to a new level of transparency about what data is collected, why it’s collected, and by whom it is accessed and used; about the contracting provisions and governance policies related to student privacy; and about the benefits and responsible ways to leverage technology to improve student learning.  This type of transparency will encourage fact- rather than fear-based dialogue, and will unearth the issues, concerns, myths, best practices and pitfalls around student data use and protection.
  3. Just as parents, state and district leaders, educators and policymakers have a role in proactively addressing the privacy issue, so do vendors. Common Sense Media’s call to industry to institute national standards for the sharing and use of student data is one we’d echo.

The education sector must find a way forward. The problem is clear, but the way forward is riddled with gaps.  Overcoming those gaps demands multiple actions on multiple fronts. We must devise protection policies that are flexible enough to address emerging technological capabilities. We must ensure that contracts around data storage and sharing policies are clear. We must open lines of communication and establish greater trust among parents, educators, vendors and others. 

Above all, we need a new level of commitment and cooperation across the education sector to move from concern to action. The discussion about solutions must involve all stakeholders – educators, parents, students, vendors, policymakers and others.

Our children deserve our best thinking and most reasoned action as good stewards of their well-being, both in the classroom and in the world beyond. What are the best forums for discussion? How can education, tech and concerned community members come together to build the bridges that will lead us forward?  We are listening for your ideas.  And we are rolling up our sleeves to work together with you to chart the path.