Guide may help LEAs avoid student privacy pitfalls

The risk of exposing students’ personally identifiable information is greater than ever, which is why a working group sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics has just released a new guide to help LEAs raise awareness, initiate dialogue on privacy concerns, and help school administrators and educators avoid some increasingly common pitfalls.

Dean Folkers, senior administrator of data, research, and evaluation for the Nebraska Department of Education and co-chair of the Education Data Privacy Working Group of the National Forum on Education Statistics, recently spoke with district leaders about the guide at the annual NCES STATS-DC Data Conference the week of July 11.

He explained that the Forum Guide to Education Data Privacy was developed as a resource for SEAs and LEAs to use in assisting school staff in protecting the confidentiality of student data in instructional and administrative practices.

SEAs and LEAs may also find the guide useful in developing privacy programs and related professional development programs, he noted.

The first chapter presents an overview of important legal and procedural privacy concepts like FERPA and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, while the second chapter consists of case studies covering scenarios — many of which were reported to the group — involving a range of issues such as social media use and procedures for sharing student data with parents, substitute teachers, tutors and office volunteers, for instance.

Folkers said the guide is not intended to serve as legal guidance, nor does it present a framework for a comprehensive privacy program. Instead, it presents a number of examples, each with a description of potential risks as well as various approaches that can be used to minimize those risks, he said.

‘Catalysts’ for discussion

“The case studies are designed to be used independently as catalysts for thoughtful discussions on a single issue,” the working group wrote. “However, many of the case studies are interrelated and cross-references are included to help the reader determine which case studies are best used together.”

A recurring theme in the case studies is the need for staff professional development, they said. “All staff members who are given access to student data need to be properly trained on appropriate data use and security measures,” they wrote. “In addition, classroom teachers need training on how to safely choose, acquire, and use online learning tools in keeping with district policy.”

The guide also presents basic approaches to managing issues related to student data.

For instance, in reviewing online instructional apps for privacy considerations, the guide advises school administrators to ensure that student information and academic content is contained within a “password-protected environment or controlled by teacher invitation, and not discoverable by search engines or publicly viewable on the Internet.”

Also, while schools and some individual teachers may use social media as a way to promote parental engagement in school or classroom activities, Folkers told attendees that educators must remember that “all restrictions on sharing student information apply to the use of social media.”

“One of the examples that I remember as part of the conversation was related to student images [in a] video that was recorded at a [school] concert,” he said. “Students in the concert had opted out; one was in a protection program. But the teacher thought it was great that they had this great symphony playing and posted it online, but it created a risk for that student.”

‘Practical, consumable’

“We wanted something that was practical, consumable, but that would not overwhelm people who don’t feel or understand completely this space of education privacy,” Folkers told Education Daily®, referring to the guide. “I think there’s an increasing awareness on the importance of this, [but] it depends on the state.”

According to analysis by the National Association of State Boards of Education and the Data Quality Campaign, 185 bills related to student data privacy have been considered at the state level in 2016. In all, 35 states have passed 75 laws since 2013 to help restrict the use and access of student data, while providing access where appropriate, their data shows.

“It’s important for states and local education agencies to be aware of all the applicable pieces of that puzzle,” Folkers said. “In states where there’s an increase in the laws or the expectations, there’s an increased level of awareness around that.

¿In other states where that’s not been the case, there’s some awareness that’s happening, and I think there’s some best practice that’s occurring, but there’s a lot of work to do. And that was part of the cry from members of the forum”

This guide, he added, serves as a “tool to help begin the conversation.”

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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