Toward a culture that values data and protects student privacy

By Alexa Posny, PhD, Former State Chief School Officer

Which kids do you worry about? I worry about all the kids, each and every one of them. Why do I ask this question? Because without data, without knowing how well each child is doing, we can’t help them. We need the highest-quality and most robust data to help parents, educators, and policymakers make better decisions about the education provided to every child. And, as the quality and uses of data are improved and refined, we must ensure that this data is safeguarded and that student data privacy is protected.

Protecting student data privacy is an essential component of effective data use, but what does this mean? Simply put, though data security and data privacy are related, they cover slightly different ground. Data security ensures that data isn’t being used or accessed by unauthorized individuals or parties. Data privacy ensures that data is used appropriately for its intended purposes. For example, when companies use the data that is provided and entrusted to them, that data should be used for agreed-upon purposes only. Clearly, we should be just as concerned with data privacy as we are with data security, and it’s a subject that is increasingly getting the attention of educators across the nation.

What we know is this: data matters to everyone. Parents want to know if their child is on track to graduate from high school and ready for college and, ultimately, a career. Teachers want to know whether their students are learning what they need to learn, which in turn helps them improve instruction. School and district administrators are looking at the big picture; for example, are more of their students prepared for college and careers than the previous year? Researchers study what helps students learn, which in turn helps teachers know what works. Policymakers are asking whether their states’ colleges and universities are producing enough graduates with the right skill sets to meet local and state workforce needs. And the public has the right to know how well schools are doing in each community and across the state.

As an example, researchers at Renaissance Learning determine what evidence-based practices help struggling readers learn to read better. Data on student learning allows us to build products that help teachers personalize learning experiences, inform instructional decisions, and know which skills to teach next and which are prerequisites for other skills. Another great example of how invaluable data can be is our yearly What Kids Are Reading report. Unlike book-sale records, bestseller lists, or library circulation data that tell us what books were purchased or checked out, this report reveals the books students actually read, from cover to cover. It helps teachers, librarians, and parents find out which are the most popular titles for approximately 10 million students across the country.

Additionally, districts, states, and the federal government all collect data about students for important purposes, including to inform instruction and provide information to the public. However, the type of data collected is different at each level. According to the Data Quality Campaign, there are three types of data. These types are summarized here, along with information about how each type is typically used by different stakeholders:

  • Personally identifiable information (PII) – Information that can be used to identify individual students. This data is used primarily by teachers—and to some extent schools and districts—enabling them to make changes in instruction to increase student learning. Vendors and researchers access PII that is directly relevant to the work of managing instructional tools and critical functions.

  • De-identified data – Information about individual students but with identifying information removed. This data is used by schools and districts to make decisions about the resources each school needs to support its students. Researchers access some de-identified data to determine what is helping students learn.

  • Aggregate data – Information about groups of students without any identifying information. This data is used primarily by state and federal agencies to measure how districts and states are meeting goals for students, determine how state funds are improving education, and provide aggregate information to the public.

There’s no denying that the use of data through educational technology has the potential to transform learning for any child anywhere. Yet data and the information it yields are only as useful as their ability to answer any stakeholders’ questions. So, we all must continuously work to harness the power of our data systems to improve student and teacher performance, while also ensuring that every student’s right to data privacy is protected.

For Renaissance, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) provides important guidelines we are proud to adhere to, and we ensure that any data used for research purposes is isolated from any personally identifiable information (PII) to provide complete anonymity while using the data. In this way, we are able to help teachers know how well, how much, and at what level of challenge kids are reading without jeopardizing data privacy. Safeguarding student privacy and using data effectively to improve teaching and learning are not mutually exclusive actions. In fact, the safeguarding of data is essential to building a culture that values, trusts, and uses data to help every child thrive.

It is in everyone’s best interest for all stakeholders to work together in this critical effort to protect student privacy while embracing the incredible insight that data provides us about what students know, what they like, and how they learn. This is the only way to ensure our students benefit from the transformative promise of data while guaranteeing that their privacy is preserved. What we need now is a shared vision of an environment committed to every child’s educational development, one in which personal information is protected. The question we should ask next is, how can each of us contribute to this shared vision?

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Alexa Posny, PhD, Former Chief State School Officer
Alexa Posny, PhD, Former Chief State School Officer
Alexa Posny, PhD, has more than 30 years of experience in education. After teaching at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, she served as chief state school officer in Kansas and assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the U.S. Department of Education.

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