A+ Advice for Parents

The Risks and Rewards of Sharing Students' Data

Q: Our school district is under fire for not storing student data securely. I wasn't even aware my kids' information was stored. What should parents know about this privacy risk to our children?

A: Schools have always used data to improve instruction. Teachers once maintained bulky cumulative folders for each student -- with notes and test scores and other records -- and passed them from grade to grade.

Since the dawn of "big data," schools have used technology to collect information that helps educators tailor instruction and catch learning problems early.

For example, data generated by a computer math game allows a teacher to individualize problems in real time: If Emma has mastered multiplication by 5 and 10, but needs to practice 8 and 9, her teacher adjusts the game as Emma plays and the program tracks her progress.

Schools also use trend data to troubleshoot problems. Because poor attendance in elementary school often predicts who might drop out of high school, educators assess attendance and tardiness records, grades and teacher observations to identify students who may need intervention.

A 2013 study by the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School showed that student privacy was threatened because most school districts now use cloud computing provided by third-party vendors to store and manage data. This data includes health and attendance records, grades, teachers' notations, suspensions, expulsions, cafeteria records and bus routes.

Professor Joel Reidenberg, the study's co-author, says the third-party contracts fail to address privacy issues such as how the data is used, how long it's stored and whether it could be sold.

What can a parent do?

"We can't afford not to use data," says Aimee Guidera, executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, an education policy nonprofit. "Educators need the right data at the right time to improve student achievement. Administrators must show parents the value in the data collected, dispel myths and clarify the use in teaching, learning and decision-making."

But Guidera says districts also cannot afford to let their students' data fall into the wrong hands. She suggests parents ask administrators four questions: What is being collected and how is it used? How is the data stored? Who has access to it? When does it expire?

Adds security expert Alan Katzman of Social Assurity (a "social media management service"): "Who is financially liable for the safekeeping of student data? What will keep the data secure from unauthorized users? What end user authentication procedures are used? Will the data be encrypted when sent over the Internet? Does the vendor have data protection insurance? What steps occur if there's a data breach -- including mandatory notifications, corrective measures, compensation penalties?"

There's no denying that education technology has the potential to transform learning if it's used wisely, says Joni Lupovitz of Common Sense Media, an education advocacy group.

The organization launched the School Privacy Zone initiative to raise families' awareness of the increased sharing of students' personal data.

"We want to help ensure that we're creating an atmosphere where kids can learn and be engaged but thrive without putting their personal information at risk," Lupovitz says.

For more information, go to dataqualitycampaign.org and Commonsensemedia.org.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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