New Principles Aim to Guide Use, Safety of Student Data

By Benjamin Herold — March 17, 2015 4 min read
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A coalition of more than 30 groups has released a set of “principles for protecting and guiding the use of the personal information of America’s students” in an effort to ensure that the voices of school officials and educational-data-use proponents are heard in the increasingly polarized debates over student-data privacy.

The 10 principles, released last week, seek to affirm the value of student data for improving teaching and learning. They also encourage the mounting call for improved security and privacy protocols, and to make sure that front-line educators are properly trained to both use and protect student information.

“Ethical data use that safeguards student privacy is a critical component of effective data use,” said Aimee R. Guidera, the president and CEO for the Data Quality Campaign, a Washington-based nonprofit, in a statement. “Everyone who uses data to help students achieve should adhere to and build upon these 10 principles.”

The Data Quality Campaign, which advocates for effective use of student data, joined the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, a professional association for school technology leaders, in crafting the principles. An extensive list of organizations supported the effort, including groups representing state education chiefs, superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents.

Seeking a Consensus

The new guidelines are the latest addition to a growing mix of enacted and proposed legislation, federal guidance, professional toolkits, industry pledges, and other materials related to student-data privacy.

Paige Kowalski, the vice president of policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign, said development of the principles was driven by the desire to articulate a set of consensus beliefs among educators about how to use student data effectively and safely.

Existing tools and resources “help people go about their jobs, but we wanted to make a statement about what we believe,” Ms. Kowalski said. “These are important concepts that any law and any policy solution should be grounded in.”

Among the 10 principles are some key recommendations:

• Student data should be used primarily to further and support student learning and success.

• Students, families, and educators should have timely access to information collected about students.

• Students’ personal information should only be shared with service providers for legitimate educational purposes.

• Student data should be used to inform and not replace the professional judgment of educators.

• Educators and their contracted service providers should only have access to the minimum amount of student data needed to support student success.

• Everyone who has access to students’ personal information should be trained on how to effectively and ethically use, protect, and secure it.

Amanda N. Karhuse, the director of advocacy for the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals, one of the signatories to the principles, said her organization supported the effort, in large part, to make sure the many related legislative and policy efforts underway “do no harm” to schools.

“Our folks really value the data, and it can be used to transform what’s happening in their schools,” Ms. Karhuse said. “There is obviously concern about who has access to data and how it is being used, but [principals] also don’t want to limit innovation.”

More training and better professional development are key, Ms. Karhuse said.

“The use of digital technologies in schools is growing exponentially, and it’s hard for [principals] to keep up with all the changes,” she said. “It used to be so much easier when there was a filing cabinet with a lock.”

Voluntary Industry Pledge

The new principles, which are geared towards educators and school officials, will serve as an effective complement to the voluntary industry pledge that has been signed by more than 100 ed-tech companies, said Jules Polonetsky, the executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington-based think tank that helped develop the pledge along with the Software & Information Industry Association.

“There shouldn’t be any gap between what schools ask for from their vendors and what the vendors agree to do,” Mr. Polonetsky said. “They’re partners who have to be on the same page.”

The new principles will help, he said, because they convey both a “high-level sense of purpose” around the importance of using data wisely and “a very specific set of parameters” on how to limit such use.

The guidelines come amid significant legislative activity around data-privacy issues. More than 20 states enacted student-data-privacy laws during 2014. President Barack Obama has been pushing for new federal legislation that would hold ed-tech vendors to stricter standards for safeguarding student information. And some in Congress hope to update the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, the major federal statute related to student-data privacy currently on the books.

The coalition supporting the principles, led by COSN and the Data Quality Campaign, has not yet taken a formal stance on such proposals.

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as New Principles Aim to Guide Use, Safety of Student Data


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