On Monday, the Future of Privacy Forum, with money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, held a Student Privacy Forum in Washington DC. In attendance were representatives from public advocacy groups, research organizations and policy makers. Panelists included representatives from national research organizations, parents, bloggers, USDoED and Microsoft. The main message was that everyone is concerned about student data privacy, there is much activity in this area, but there is no clear path forward to address everyone’s concerns. The symposium was just a discussion with no specific answers provided.

The national eye is on student data collection and there are many different attempts to rein in this unruly child of technology which has facilitated the expanding collection and distribution of data on our children in the public school system. The National Association of State Boards of Education Policy Update (Vol. 22, No. 1)  reports that last year state legislatures introduced over 180 student privacy bills. Sixteen were enacted into law. They covered a broad range of collection mechanisms from private companies supplying educational support products, to government to research.

Representatives from Standford’s CREDO ( Center for Research on Education Outcomes) and CALDER (National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research) and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (which focuses primarily on postsecondary education) detailed the extreme lengths that they go through to protect the privacy of the data they collect from school districts all across the country. They described how “extremely painful” it is for them to have to destroy the data sets they spend hours de-identifying once their studies are complete.

Jane Hanaway from CALDER claimed in the panel on Student Data and Research that in the 10-15 years that such research has been going on there has never been a problem with student data privacy. She also claimed that such research was vital to schools and produced such insights as, low SES (socio-economic status) schools “are a dumping ground” for poor quality teachers.

Statements like these showed how much in a bubble the researchers live. While talking about the data they get and their professionalism in handling it, they failed to consider that most of the parents of the students they were studying were completely unaware that data about their child was being given by the school district to researchers like them. There is virtually no informed consent for the sharing of data. This violates the long standing American Psychological Association ethical guidelines for research with human subjects which makes clear that researchers are obligated, for ethical, as well as accuracy reasons, to obtain inform consent from their subjects, even if the data is anonymized. This greatly increases the chances of the data submitted being honest and accurate which is essential for, as Macke Raymond from CREDO said, “sexy research.”

Hanaway’s comment that there has not been privacy issue with their research ignores the other issue that research, like that done at CALDER and CREDO, has caused harm to parents, students, and teachers. The mere fact that researchers are collecting data and looking for more data to help with their statistical analyses, affects policy at the very local level.  It was researchers who pointed out that schools’ reporting of average daily attendance was “hiding” low attending students whose days of absence were masked by the super attenders who never missed school. Schools now have to report on individual student attendance. And since such statistical studies showed that low performing students who missed even a few days of school could fall hopelessly behind in their academic advancement, policies were instituted to make sure all students  miss few days of school. Cases of parents being hauled into school or threatened with referral  to family court to defend their decision to keep high performing students home because they were sick are well documented. Such research formed the basis for poor policy which has led to the erosion of parental rights.

The statement that low performing schools are the “dumping ground” for poor quality teachers is an example of the limitation of such statistical studies and should be a cautionary tale for their use in policy setting. Statistical studies can indicate that there ARE a number of teachers whose students do not score well on standardized tests in low SES schools, but they cannot paint the full picture of what is going on in those classrooms. The intense focus on standardized test scores (which gives researchers nice clean numbers to work with) has caused the environment in such schools to change to where good highly professional teachers are forced into rigid, sometimes scripted, curriculum that doesn’t meet the student where they are. Such schools frequently have response to intervention strategies that  are highly structured often away from negative consequences for poor behavior because, again, we don’t want our numbers of academic detentions to be too skewed towards one subgroup or another, which increases the likelihood that students will misbehave, reject doing the work assigned or physically lash out at the teacher.

What good teachers, except for the few saints there are out there, are going to choose to work in such environments? The policy implications of statements like Hanaway’s are disturbing. Equitable distribution of highly effective teachers is being examined across the country. The Missouri State Board of Education is wrestling with this problem right now – how do we get good teachers to go into these low performing and sometimes dangerous districts in a country that recognizes the individual’s right to choose where and how they will labor to earn a living? The policies that will be based on this kind of research could have very negative impacts on teachers and students as good teaching candidates avoid a career that may force them to work where they do not want to, thus lowering the overall quality of the pool of candidates available to good districts and also will certainly not help the students in these low SES schools.

Parents and advocates on the panels lamented that finding information about where their child’s data is collected and shared and for what purpose is very difficult with most districts. The advent of education software that collects data has made this even more challenging. Digital content is the new wild west for education. It is being considered for everything from helping raise the literacy rates of poor readers, to opening communication pathways for children with learning disabilities, to paving the way for competency based learning which benefits primarily the high performing highly motivated students. It is still in its infancy with few clear guidelines on how best to use it, and what cautions schools should consider before using it.

Teachers have been incentivized to work with digital content and sometimes can’t contain their excitement for a fun new app and sign off on terms of services and privacy notices without getting district approval. Presenters warned districts to make sure that their contracts and TOS were signed by authorized representatives after a through review of data collection, protection and sharing policies.

An audience member expressed her concern about granular data she has seen displayed publicly in classrooms and school hallways, such as BMI, reminding panelists that not all concerns about data privacy are related to identity theft. Sometimes they are about personal data getting into the hands of others who may use it to hurt the child.

The message was clear that the liability for data breaches lies at the local level. Our privacy chain is only as strong as the weakest link, and struggling or technologically unsophisticated districts are extremely weak links.

The researchers also noted that they regularly get calls from vendors with new products and apps who want their advice on data privacy. Companies recognize that the liability lies with the collector and they want to protect themselves, but also seem genuinely concerned about data privacy.

Parents on the panels and in the audience complained that their ability to control data dissemination was an all or nothing prospect. If you don’t want your child’s directory information shared with vendors or local support groups, as panelist Melissa Perry from Seeding Success in Tennessee does regularly with PII data that her organization shares with support services in her area, but do want your child’s name in the year book or local paper when the team wins, you are either All In or All Out under the current system. A parent in the audience said he has written in his own amendments to privacy forms sent home from school because it was his only way to express his frustration with the all or nothingness of his options. The schools tended not to acknowledge his contractual changes. This is one of the great limitations of FERPA.

MEW has posted on the technology use policies in Missouri that allow the Superintendent or his/her designee to override the parent’s written prohibition on their child’s use of technology in the classroom. Parents ability to actually control data collection on their child is extremely limited if not completely absent.

A bright spot was the statement by one of the panelists that students should “own their own data,” which was positively received by the room of approximately 250 attendees.

Also reported at the meeting was an on-line parent survey done on behalf of FPF by Harris Poll on Student Data Privacy: Beyond the Fear Factor.  Key findings of the poll of 672 parents were that they were more comfortable with schools collecting data on their child to help their child in school (90%),  but less supportive of sharing data with vendors to improve their products (57%) and saw less value in such data being used to grade school/district performance (71%).

The poll had some serious flaws in that it asked parents if they knew things or were comfortable with things, but never verified if they actually knew these things. For example, a question asked, “How well do you understand how your child’s school collects or uses information about students?” Answers varied from “Don’t understand at all” to “Understand very well.”  All these responses indicate is what parents think they understand, not what they actually understand. How many would be surprised to learn how schools and/or vendors actually use such data?

IMG_1924Kathy Styles, the Chief Privacy Officer at the USDoED was on a panel but offered little of any substance in her remarks.

It was reported that there are several efforts at the federal level to pass legislation on student data privacy. NASBE produced a summary table of these efforts which was provided to attendees and included FERPA, COPPA, SAFE Kids Act (Blumenthal & Daines), and Senate bills from Markely & Hatch (S1322.IS), Vitter (S1341.IS), Hurd Amendment to HR5, as well as House bills from Polis & Messer (HR2092.IH) and the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2015 (Sen. Markley and Rep. Daines).

The overall impression is that public school data collection is going to continue. The collectors are merely trying to find ways to make it acceptable to the public, through pledges, handling policies, breach notification programs and some access to the data itself to verify accuracy only. For now, the general rules are; if we’re a researcher – trust us, if we’re a vendor – caveat emptor.


Helpful Tips from the Symposium

Digital Literacy means understanding the electronic landscape that we operate in, how it collects and disseminates information and what your rights as a consumer in that landscape are. For example, most free things on the internet aren’t actually free. They are gathering data from you in some way to either improve their product or sell to advertisers. Though required by law to provide terms of use, most people never read these and uninformed children regularly violate them (e.g. signing that they are older than 13). Another issue is children sharing too much personal information about themselves and others on social media.  FPF has a parent guide for student data privacy that is a primer for such literacy.

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 7.50.03 AMHave you seen the blue triangle from the Digital Advertising Alliance? This indicates that the ad you are seeing is behaviorally targeted. Those companies are tracking your on-line behavior to send ads to you and you can opt out of such ads by clicking on the symbol. Such ads are forbidden in children’s educational websites and software.  The ad-choice program is the advertising community’s attempt to appease privacy advocates.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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