Privacy and Trust: The Keys to Effective Data Use

Just before the New Year, announced that its word of the year for 2013 was privacy. They wrote that discussion about "privacy -- what it is and what it isn't -- embodies the preeminent concerns of 2013." That was certainly true in education, and we at the Data Quality Campaign would take it a step further: Privacy isn't just the word of the year; it's the word of the decade. That's why we're excited to be an official champion of Data Privacy Day, supporting the principles of respecting privacy, safeguarding data, and enabling trust.

The same conversation about privacy is happening now in every area of our lives, and the questions raised about data privacy in education make up an important piece of that broader concern. When parents and teachers are empowered with the right data, they can better track students' progress and make the best decisions -- for kids, schools, and whole systems. But that data isn't useful if the public can't trust that it will be kept private and secure.

Concerns about safeguarding education data (which include things like teacher and student attendance, courses taken, academic progress, teacher prep information, test scores, and more) are legitimate indeed, yet 2013 saw an unprecedented proliferation of misperceptions and misinformation about it.

What is collected, and who gets to see it? How does the law protect your child's data from being shared inappropriately? Accurate answers to these questions were hard to find, and this vacuum allowed a lot of scary untruths to flourish. Many of these myths are still around. (Do you think students' educational records can be sold off for marketing purposes? Think again: federal law expressly forbids it.)

This misinformation does real harm to students, parents and teachers, who stand to benefit most from the effective use of data when it's kept secure and used the right way. But you can't trust what you can't see. States and districts must be perfectly clear with families and the public about exactly what data are being collected and for what purpose, who gets to see them, and what happens to them once the student leaves the system.

People need to know where to go if they have questions and concerns, and they need to know their perspectives will be heard, respected, and addressed. In turn, school systems need to examine their own data collections to ensure they're using data to the maximum benefit of students. Data systems are only as valuable as their ability to answer people's questions. Understanding this is essential to harnessing the power of data to improve student achievement -- and also to making sure we are not collecting things we don't need and for which we don't have a clear purpose.

Perhaps most important, families need to know how data benefit them personally. What is their state and district doing to get them access to their own kid's information? How can that information help them influence their child's learning, take advantage of school resources, and make decisions that serve their child? The communication has to be a two-way street. What kind of reports and information do parents need about their children, their school, their district, etc.? That's the type of question states and districts should be asking parents and teachers --and listening to their answers. Informed by this dialogue, school and policy officials can shape our laws and policies to get the appropriate data into the right hands.

People won't use data if they don't find them useful and if they don't trust them. When those two conditions are met, data can have tremendous power. They can be a great equalizer. The promise of data is not to be consolidated in big warehouses, whether maintained by governments or corporations. The true promise of data is to put parents and students in the driver's seat in ways they never have been before. Useful, trustworthy data gives them the keys.