Workforce Development

Guest post: Crafting strong educational policies while protecting student data

By: Mary Gifford, Senior Vice President of Academic Policy and External Relations, K12

In September 2013, Oklahoma passed a bill safeguarding student data, and since then, student and family data privacy issues have received greater attention in state houses, largely because of increased data collection requirements and availability of data. There is also a growing need to provide parents with timely, relevant data to make informed choices regarding schooling options.

To successfully navigate data privacy issues, it is important to consider existing policies and safeguards in place at the federal level. These safeguards include several significant and far-reaching policies such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA). These policies describe rights afforded to parents and families, restrict access to data, and define the purposes for which data may be collected and used. Additionally, there are laws, policies and practices at the state and local levels that define state and school-level business practices. Some of these policies, laws and practices do not, however, contemplate the amount of data available in 2015.

As lawmakers consider data privacy laws this year, there is a complicated balancing act they must perform. Laws and policies need to strike the appropriate balance between:

  • Provision of relevant, timely information to parents to allow them to participate in state-level school choice options
  • Opportunities to personalize learning, forge data-driven innovation and improve instruction products
  • Obligations to ensure local flexibility, transparency and governance, capacity and training and
  • Responsibilities to safeguard the collection, use, and distribution of student and family information

A software industry group sums up this challenge as the “need to ensure privacy floors don’t become digital learning ceilings.”

ALEC has long been a leader in safeguarding student data. Looking at the strengths of the original ALEC model policy, Student Data Accessibility, Transparency and Accountability Act, there are several components that remain relevant: inventory of what type of data is being collected; avoiding unnecessary collection; ensuring data remains close to the student; defining parental access; establishing a chief policy officer; and developing security plans.

While these components remain the core of strong data privacy legislation, there are additional nuances to consider, given the pace at which the digital world is evolving and the expansion of school choice policies:

  • Collect student personal information for the educational purposes for which it was entrusted
  • Create definitions that focus on personally identifiable data; this is the data that is potentially most destructive if usage breaches occur
  • Focus on data empowerment for parents – not on consent restrictions, especially with respect to core data needed to operate schools
  • Adopt usage policies that provide educational institutions needed flexibility while challenging them to use data/technology to develop new instructional models that personalize instruction
  • Avoid one-size-fits all approaches to data deletion and legitimate contractor use of data
  • Encourage educational institutions to engage the industry’s best people, systems and practices to drive instructional improvements

Most importantly, legislators should consider policies that harness the power of technology and data to improve instruction. This will require supporting policies that bring infrastructures, systems and instructional practices into the Digital Age.

As a dedicated public servant, school choice advocate and leader within a curriculum company, I value the opportunity to use data, for example, from student Algebra exams across the 50 states to determine if there are curriculum or instruction issues. The data allow me to see that most students missed question number three on an exam, which tells me there is either a problem with the question or the way material is presented through the online portal. If students in Mr. Smith’s class all missed question number three, I know there is an instruction issue.

Timely, relevant data collection should drive instructional improvements at a pace previously unimagined. States should consider policies with these expectations in mind.


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