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Prioritizing Student Data Privacy in the Cloud and Beyond

All of us in education must do more to make sure that we are transparent -- especially with parents -- about what data are collected, who has access to them, how they are used and what efforts are undertaken to protect privacy and keep the data secure.
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Empowered with the right data, teachers can better track their students' progress and target interventions, and parents can a get a more substantive, timely account of how their kids are doing. When education stakeholders are using data to inform their judgment at all levels, student achievement grows. But to make this possible, the use of data must be aligned to the needs of teachers, parents, students and policymakers. And the privacy, security and confidentiality of data must be safeguarded.

All of us in education must do more to make sure that we are transparent -- especially with parents -- about what data are collected, who has access to them, how they are used and what efforts are undertaken to protect privacy and keep the data secure. A recent study by the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham University analyzes how some school districts across the country address privacy concerns when using third-party "cloud computing" services, finding a number of deficiencies in contracting and creating practices that prioritize protecting student data.

While the report is based on a small sample of the nation's school districts, it represents a call to action for every state and school district to change education data use culture and behaviors to reflect the changes in technology.

The gaps identified in the report are not the result of incompetence or deliberate malfeasance by school leaders, but rather they reflect the challenge of implementing new policies and safeguards in a rapidly changing world with limited resources and many challenges to improving student achievement.

Protecting the privacy, security, and confidentiality of student data is not in contradiction with effective data use; rather it is an essential component of effective data use. Safeguarding sees that personally identifiable information stays in the right hands and is used only for appropriate purposes. Federal laws like the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) provide a foundation for protecting student data, but as I've written before, states and districts must provide more support and guidance to schools, educators, and parents on safeguarding data. They are best positioned to help our schools sort through the new world of data tools and resources and set appropriate guidelines -- continually, to keep pace with the ever-changing technology.

State and district leaders need to be aware of all the federal laws protecting data privacy and set clear expectations that these laws will be followed. They must also create explicit roles and responsibilities around the data collected, the purposes for which they are used, the stakeholders who have access, and the privacy and security protections, with clear data governance that delineates who makes these decisions. The report reinforces what the Data Quality Campaign has been saying for years: when states and districts are only focused on complying with federal statutes, we don't end up with the transparency and strong governance we need. We must build the capacity for state and local educators and policymakers to truly be in charge of student data.

Our school boards should adopt clear data privacy policies, and superintendents and their staffs should create guidance to ensure there are no privacy gaps in contract development, execution, and enforcement. Districts also have a clear role to play in building the capacity of end users -- especially teachers -- to think about privacy in context when using student data. We can build trust by being more transparent with parents about how we operate our school systems, and the Fordham University study has a number of thoughtful recommendations about where to go next.

There is a role for the public here, too. As we better educate parents and citizens about the powerful role education data play in improving student achievement, they can demand more access to the data they need to be engaged in their children's education. And they can hold districts and states accountable for ensuring student data is used effectively and protected completely.

We know that education data have tremendous value when they're used to inform decisions by parents, teachers, and others to improve student achievement. States and districts need to act now to fulfill that value, by protecting privacy and using data effectively and appropriately to give our kids the education they deserve.

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