As part of our ongoing commitment to advancing the protection of student data, we are talking with leading vendors and educational organizations to learn more about the ways they are using and safeguarding student data. We’ll be sharing what we hear in this series.

We recently talked with Eric Wong, VP of engineering and chief security officer of Ellevation, LLC to understand his organization’s approach to using and safeguarding student data to support educators.

Founded on Shared Goals

Protecting school districts’ student data is a complex task, particularly in complicated school district IT environments where multiple applications, vendors, and stakeholders all have vital roles. For vendors like Ellevation – who work across multiple schools and districts in multiple states – the complexity comes in managing numerous sets of local and state requirements, business rules, and objectives for using products and services.

“Everyone involved shares a common goal – delivering useful and useable student data so educators can spend more time on instruction, and ensuring that data is properly protected.” explains Eric. “Our district partners are widely varied – small, large, urban, rural. We need to understand their specific needs so we can deliver value for their educators and students.”

Using Privacy as a Key Design Principle

Responsible software vendors in the education data space aim for student privacy first and foremost. “We are very clear on the fact that the data is the district’s, and we are the caretakers,” Eric points out. He explains that the Ellevation model is single-tenant by design, meaning that each district’s data is housed separately.  The company also supports secure automatic transmission of data between the school district and Ellevation.

Ellevation’s approach to security hinges on smart technology choices – which is where Ed-Fi enters the picture. “One of the things that attracted us to Ed-Fi technology in the beginning is the model’s ability to clearly define complex relationships,” says Eric. This capacity is especially important for Ellevation, whose software is designed to help educators working with English language learners (ELLs) to help them master certain linguistic skills. Matching educators and specialists with the right students is critical, and according to Eric, “With Ed-Fi technology, we got accurate, consistent results right out of the box.” The Ed-Fi data standard also helps simplify data flow, making it easier for Ellevation to move data and correct any inaccuracies quickly.

Working Beyond the Technology

Protecting student data requires more than cutting-edge technology. On the non-technical side of the equation, the people involved with student data must be well trained and properly supported, using consistent, easily-monitored protocols and procedures.

That’s why Ellevation immerses its new employees in data privacy regulations from day one. Eric points to company rules such as “Never email student data – ever,” along with systematic monitoring to ensure that those rules are being followed. “We also have an internally-designated chief security officer to guarantee the highest levels of privacy, security and accountability,” Eric adds.

Ellevation holds itself to high standards of transparency and communication. For instance, the company makes its contract terms and conditions, along with its product privacy statement, available on the company website.

Ellevation is also committed to following district-published guidelines and requirements checklists that help eliminate guesswork for vendors. “District checklists are very helpful,” says Eric, “but ongoing communication and transparency is what really allows us to keep improving the quality of our work.”

For Ellevation, that commitment to improvement calls for a continual refreshing of skills, knowledge and approaches so agencies and their vendor partners can stay on top of issues and concerns. “We’ve found resources like the Future of Privacy Forum’s boot camp to be very helpful in keeping us on the leading edge,” notes Eric. “We’re constantly seeking other resources as well in our efforts to keep student data safe.”

The new student data privacy frontier requires that almost everyone involved in schools must think differently about how they do their job – from the vendors and IT and procurement departments to classroom teachers to the superintendent and board members. “Security work is never done” Says Eric, “it requires ongoing vigilance!”

More information about student data privacy, security, and confidentiality can be found on the Data Quality Campaign’s Student Data Privacy, Security, and Confidentiality issue section.