Back in the fall of 2020, a few staff members from the Philadelphia public school system’s central office brought a vexing problem to Sarah Galbally, the district’s lobbyist in the state capital of Harrisburg.
They’d already advanced a local policy aimed at making transgender and gender nonconforming students feel more welcome at school. Those kids now had the right to be addressed by the name and pronouns that corresponded to their gender identity.
But the district’s student information system, used to digitally track everything from attendance to grades to class assignments, still forced students to identify as either male or female. And the software couldn’t be altered without first tweaking state guidelines for how schools report information into Pennsylvania’s longitudinal data system—a change that the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature and many of the 499 other school districts in the state, which often serve smaller, more conservative rural communities, were unlikely to support.
So Galbally decided to tread lightly. During the 2021 legislative session, she omitted Philadelphia’s request for a nonbinary gender option from the written policy wish list circulated among other elected officials, instead communicating the district’s desire directly to the office of Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.
“We are aware of the political atmosphere in Harrisburg, so we really tried to use back channels on our own on this one,” Galbally said in mid-December, a week after the School District of Philadelphia announced that students could now identify as nonbinary in Infinite Campus, the student information system that the district uses.
With public schools now a battleground in raging culture wars over diversity, equity, and inclusion, similarly messy processes are playing out all across the country. In Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of Education is currently seeking comment on a proposal that would allow those districts that collect data on nonbinary students to report such information to the federal government—a change that would represent a significant departure from current practice, in which the department requires students to be labeled either male or female.
But some states and software providers are unwilling to wait and have already started down their own paths. Infinite Campus, for example, now offers gender options beyond male and female to students in about 650 districts spread across 17 states, according to Julie Lane, the company’s chief product officer.
One problem with the resulting patchwork is inconsistency. The new gender options available to students range from “nonbinary” in places like California, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to “other” in Rhode Island to “transgender” or “prefer not to identify” in Utah.
Another is uncertainty. No one is comprehensively tracking all the different approaches to collecting data on students’ gender. And given the recent backlashes over bathroom access for transgender students and school libraries offering books that explicitly challenge the idea that gender is limited to male or female, there’s plenty of incentive for district leaders to avoid open public discussion about whether their technology systems affirm the full range of students’ gender identities and sexual orientations.
Experts, however, warn that such factors may be preventing the nation’s K-12 school system from hashing out a critical larger question: Do the benefits of collecting information on students who are nonbinary or transgender or queer or gender-fluid outweigh the potential risks?
“Good intentions are not enough,” said Paige Kowalski, the executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit that advocates for better data use by states and schools. “Every data element you collect can be misused by whoever has power and access to the information.”
Schools are making their own moves to be more gender-inclusive
Although a clear national picture is not yet available, there are some clues about where the K-12 sector is headed when it comes to collecting data on an expanded range of student gender identities.
In 2019, for example, popular ed-tech company Clever added a new gender option to its platform, which helps schools and software providers more easily share student information. Two years later, at least 1,000 of the districts using Clever now count at least one student who identifies their gender as “X,” meaning other or anything that is not strictly male or female, rather than “M” or “F.” At least eight student information systems that integrate with Clever are also on board with the change.
“I think having gender values in our systems that reflect students’ identities is critical,” said Dan Carroll, Clever’s co-founder and chief technology officer.
And PowerSchool, one of the most widely used student information systems in the world, already offers district users the option to customize fields related to gender and legal and preferred names, including providing gender-neutral options, according to a company spokesperson.
At the district level, meanwhile, the School District of Philadelphia’s decision to add a nonbinary gender option to its student information system follows similar moves by public schools in places like Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, and Montgomery County, Md., as well Indiana Connections Academy, a statewide online charter school.
The change was only possible because of the district’s carefully calibrated push on state officials.
“They were certainly instrumental in getting us thinking about this,” said Julie Kane, the policy director for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Kane said the department was hoping the federal government would institute the change first. When that didn’t happen, Pennsylvania officials decided this fall to tweak the “data dictionary” for their own statewide longitudinal data system, known as PIMS. The system’s traditional gender field is still in place. It is still mandatory and still only allows for male or female options, consistent with state and federal law. But Pennsylvania officials also added a new field labeled “gender identity,” which is supposed to “reflect the student’s personal conception if they are ‘nonbinary or not listed,’” according to the technical manual associated with the system. School systems can choose whether or not to use the new field. Due to federal reporting requirements, even those students who do select the new nonbinary gender option will also have the gender they were assigned at birth reported to the state.
No new legislation or regulations were required to alter the data dictionary. Kane described the change as “within the administrative authority of the department.” She defended the process behind it.
“This was not a secret,” Kane said. “Did we have meetings where we sat people down and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do’? No. However, we do have a data advisory group that is representative. We also have an equity and inclusion task force that we discussed this with, and we put our manuals out for comment.”
The Pennsylvania education department won’t know how many districts choose to take advantage of the new option until data collection for the 2021-22 school year is complete.
Already, though, the changes have made ripples in Philadelphia. About 50 of the district’s 115,000 students requested to be identified as nonbinary within a week of the option being provided, district officials said. Parental permission was not required to make the switch, causing consternation among some conservative news outlets. Students are advised on the implications of identifying as nonbinary, information that will now show up on their report cards and other official documents.
The hope is that those children will feel more seen, respected, and cared-for when they’re using the software systems in their schools, said Rachel Holzman, the deputy chief for the Philadelphia district’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities.
“Every kid has a right to own who they are, be comfortable with the name and gender they’re choosing, and be referred to by their chosen pronouns,” she said.
Among the groups in agreement is GLSEN, a national nonprofit that advocates for more-affirming learning environments for LGBTQ+ students and has long called for more-inclusive data systems in the K-12 sector. Solid majorities of transgender and nonbinary students report feeling unsafe in school, said Aaron Ridings, the group’s director of public policy. Collecting more and better information on their experiences will help educators and policymakers craft more effective policies, programs, and supports.
“What we’ve learned over the past 30 years is that when a school is safer and more inclusive for a Black trans or nonbinary girl, it is safer and more inclusive for all young people,” Ridings said.
Culture wars, logistical challenges, and unintended consequences are all concerns
Spokespersons for the Republican heads of the education committees in the Pennsylvania Senate and House of Representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
But given the fights over gender identity in schools around the state and country, it seems likely that efforts to change school data systems to include nonbinary options will meet resistance.
And even some observers who generally support more-inclusive data collection practices urge caution.
One set of concerns involves logistics. Despite federal laws that have been on the books for nearly two decades, more than a dozen states still don’t report student performance data separately for male and female students, said Kowalski of the Data Quality Campaign. That raises questions about their willingness and ability to handle a broader range of gender identities.
Complicating matters, no consensus has yet emerged on what a fully inclusive list of gender identities—which hypothetically might include a deep well of options, from androgyne to omnigender—should include.
“Data quality can suffer when too few gender response options are provided, as well as too many response options,” said Kevin Guyan, a research fellow at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and the author of Queer Data: Using Gender, Sex, and Sexuality Data for Action. He recommended that students themselves be involved in the design of the systems that collect data about them.
Then there are the thorny questions about whether and how information on students’ gender identities will be used.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education, for example, doesn’t yet have any plans to analyze or publicly report whatever information on nonbinary students it receives from districts. That could end up undermining the desire to be more inclusive.
“It is bad practice if data are lumped together during analysis in ways that ignore or obscure how students wished to record themselves,” Guyan said.
And while proponents hope that districts and state education agencies might someday use data that captures a broader range of students’ gender identities to shine a light on problems such as bullying and chronic absenteeism among nonbinary students, there’s also a very real fear that such information could someday be misused.
During World War II, for example, federal officials used U.S. Census information to send Japanese-Americans to internment camps. More recently, immigration advocates raised alarms about federal agencies possibly seeking to use data on migrant children and English-language learners to target undocumented immigrants for deportation.
The reality, said Kowalski of the Data Quality Campaign, is that data can almost always be used to cut multiple ways.
“Information is power,” she said. “If you control information, you have a way to control the story that’s being told about what’s happening in our schools and communities.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as Students Embrace a Wide Range of Gender Identities. Most School Data Systems Don’t