Fordham Study Finds School Districts Lax on Data Protection
Fordham Institute released a study on school districts’ use of cloud technology in their student data collection, storage and dissemination. Schools are looking to this new technology for its cost savings, flexibility, and 24/7 accessibility. There are trade offs for these advantages and Fordham said, “The protection of student privacy in the context of cloud computing is generally unknown both to the public and to policy-makers.”
The study is described this way in the Executive Summary:
Fordham CLIP selected a national sample of school districts including large, medium and small school systems from every geographic region of the country. Using state open public record laws, Fordham CLIP requested from each selected district all of the district’s cloud service agreements, notices to parents, and computer use policies for teachers. All of the materials were then coded against a checklist of legal obligations and privacy norms. The purpose for this coding was to enable a general assessment and was not designed to provide a compliance audit of any school district nor of any particular vendor.
Their key findings are very worrisome. They paint a picture of relatively unsophisticated school districts, using very sophisticated technology without fully understanding it capabilities and limitations.
- 95% of districts rely on cloud services for a diverse range of functions including data mining related to student performance, support for classroom activities, student guidance, data hosting, as well as special services such as cafeteria payments and transportation planning.
- Cloud services are poorly understood, non-transparent, and weakly governed: only 25% of districts inform parents of their use of cloud services, 20% of districts fail to have policies governing the use of online services, and a sizeable plurality of districts have rampant gaps in their contract documentation, including missing privacy policies.
- Districts frequently surrender control of student information when using cloud services: fewer than 25% of the agreements specify the purpose for disclosures of student information, fewer than 7% of the contracts restrict the sale or marketing of student information by vendors, and many agreements allow vendors to change the terms without notice. FERPA, however, generally requires districts to have direct control of student information when disclosed to third-party service providers.
- An overwhelming majority of cloud service contracts do not address parental notice, consent, or access to student information. Some services even require parents to activate accounts and, in the process, consent to privacy policies that may contradict those in the district’s agreement with the vendor. FERPA, PPRA and COPPA, however, contain requirements related to parental notice, consent, and access to student information.
- School district cloud service agreements generally do not provide for data security and even allow vendors to retain student information in perpetuity with alarming frequency. Yet, basic norms of information privacy require data security.
Fordham offers several recommendations address transparency, data governance, contract practices, and contract terms. They also recommend the creation of “a national research center and clearinghouse to prepare academic and policy research, convene stakeholders, draft model contract clauses, privacy notices and consent forms, and create a repository for research, model contracts and policies.” Great new business opportunity for anyone serious about protecting student privacy. Of course we could all save a lot of time and money by just not collecting it in the first place.