Advocates: Stronger Focus on Data Requires Greater Responsibility

Efforts to improve education are increasingly dependent on data — its collection, processing and use. Although parents overwhelmingly want to see schools get better, they’re worried about sacrificing their children’s privacy in the process.

This has put a premium on permission regarding data collection and use. Whereas years ago schools were not required to notify parents or obtain consent before sharing student details with outside vendors, more parents are demanding that schools obtain a parent’s permission before sharing information.

According to Natasha Singer of the New York Times, a leading children’s advocacy group is challenging the educational technology software industry, an estimated $8 billion market, to develop national safeguards for the personal data collected about students from kindergarten through high school. In a letter sent to 16 educational technology vendors including Samsung School and Google Apps for Education, advocates urged the industry to use student data only for educational purposes and not for marketing products to children or their families.

“We believe in the power of education technology, used wisely, to transform learning,” said James P. Steyer, the chief executive of the group. “But students should not have to surrender their privacy at the schoolhouse door.”

Digital technologies are increasingly used by school districts to collect details about students’ achievements, activities, absences, disabilities and perceived learning styles in an effort to tailor instruction to the individual child. The hope is that personalized, data-driven education will ultimately improve students’ graduation rates and career prospects.

Experts in education privacy law say that a majority of school districts use student assessment software and other services without placing sufficient restrictions on the use of children’s personal details by outside companies. They say that parents may be in the dark regarding the security and privacy risks to their children, as schools are not required to notify parents or obtain their consent before sharing data.

New research on how school districts handle the transfer of student data to companies found that administrators have signed contracts without clauses to protect personal details like children’s contact information, age ranges or where they wait for school buses every morning. For example, school district contracts for cafeteria payments via student ID cards could allow companies to collect, store, share and sell information on everything a student buys and eats at school, say researchers at Fordham University School of Law in New York.

“Companies could sell that information to advertisers or insurance companies,” said Joel R. Reidenberg, a law professor at Fordham and the lead researcher on the report, whose findings his team plans to publish next month. “Because a kid drinks a lot of soda, a family might have to pay higher insurance premiums or have trouble getting dental insurance.”

Recent data-sharing cases have renewed interest in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which requires schools to obtain a parent’s permission before sharing information in their children’s records — and advocates say the Act needs to be updated for the 21st century.

10 17, 2013
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