The education data field is awash in FUD[1]. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we’ve seen an active campaign of misinformation. However, we have most decidedly entered a period where fear often overshadows facts.

So how do we cut through the shadows to accomplish the goal of giving teachers better tools while also ensuring that sensitive student data is protected? I’d argue that the first step is embracing transparency. I propose three ground rules to get us started:

  1. Full disclosure: Parents need as much clarity about student data usage and protections as possible. That means we must help parents understand how data informs classroom teaching (for instance, allowing teachers to hone in on each student’s strengths and areas of need). Just as importantly, we need to ensure parents understand what student data is collected, how it’s stored, how it’s managed, who can access it. Who’s the “we” here? A number of players spring to mind:
    • State and local education agencies must fully disclose of data governance policies and practices, making such information easy to understand and easily available on websites. They should also ensure that such policies and practices are the subject of appropriate public meetings and discussions.
    • Districts and schools must ensure that parents understand 1) the benefits of giving teachers access to rich data about each student’s needs and 2) the range of data that’s being collected on each student, the purpose for which it’s being collected and the parties to whom it’s accessible. They should publically share standard contract provisions that relate to access and use of student data. They should also ensure that anyone who communicates with parents about student data (most importantly teachers) has a clear understanding of how data is used and protected.  
    • Vendors must develop and adopt best practices around student data protection and security (e.g. don’t share student data with marketers), and should also support an increased level of disclosure about contract provisions, data usage and the like.
    • Organizations like the Ed-Fi Alliance, Data Quality Campaign should collect and champion best practices, and seek to build bridges between privacy and security experts and the education sector.
  2. Clear terminology: The dangers of moving forward without agreed upon definitions of key terms are twofold – first, that we’ll just talk past one another and second, that a hastily-developed patchwork of jargon-laden policies end up providing as much confusion as clarity. What exactly do we need to define? Basics such as “education data,” “anonymity,” “security,” “confidentiality” just scratch the surface. Plenty of work remains to be done on this front, but the Data Quality Campaign’s cheat sheet on data privacy, security and confidentiality sets out a handful of key terms, and the US Department of Education’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center offers a longer, if drier, glossary.
  3. Open dialogue: Open, inclusive dialogue remains the best route toward ensuring that we use education data tools to improve both student outcomes and student privacy protections. The media has a role in ensuring fact-based discussions. Town halls, school board meetings, school-based meetings – all offer a forum for parents, educators and policy makers to come together over critical privacy and data governance issues. State legislators must likewise solicit public input from the full range of perspectives as legislation evolves. Technologists and vendors should actively partner with a range of stakeholders to ensure that products and contracts include adequate student data protections.

We have the opportunity to evolve solutions that preserve the benefits of the new generation of student data tools while also protecting the data itself. Transparency can help us get there. Who’s in?

[1] Fear, uncertainty and doubt, for all you nontech types.

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