Data Privacy: Should Parents Control Who Sees Their Kids’ Data?

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I recently came across this article in my local paper.  It describes two mothers in a nearby community who have started a petition to “stop the New York State Education Department (NYSED) from sharing confidential information without parental consent and violating the privacy rights of students and parents”.

My knee-jerk reaction was to jump on the outrage bandwagon.  In attempting to practice what I preach however, I pulled back and decided to look into it a little further before rushing to judgment.  I’ll be honest, it took printing out, marking up, and rereading a few articles to get a firm(isn) grasp on the situation.  The only real conviction that I’m left with is that parents and teachers should at least know that this is happening.  The whole country seems to be continuing to march towards an increasingly data-driven educational system thanks to standardized testing, and if we’re going to have a say, we need to be informed.

I found the most comprehensive article to be a New York Times piece Deciding Who Sees Students’ Data written by Natasha Singer back in October.   In a nutshell, some districts around the country are teaming up with inBloom, a non-profit out of Atlanta, to create a database of student information.  This data includes basic information like names, addresses, and date of birth, as well as more sensitive information like if a student has an individual education plan (IEP), or has been suspended.

It seems important to keep in mind that student data is already being stored by school districts in a variety of systems.  So why all the outrage about inBloom?  inBloom would streamline the data and store it in a cloud, essentially standardizing it so that it could be made more easily available to a variety of other vendors that are contracted by the schools, like busing companies.  Critics are focusing on the fact that inBloom does not actually guarantee that files are not 100% safe.  Was it 100% safe before?  That seems doubtful.

Some parents are understandably upset that they have no say in whether or not their child’s data, as well as their own, is being shared with inBloom.  According to Singer’s article, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) has undergone recent changes to allow schools to “share data with companies with which they’ve outsourced core functioning” without parent consent.  In a state like Louisiana, which uses social security numbers as student identification numbers, this caused a major pushback from parents that resulted in all data being withdrawn from inBloom.  But for a place like New York City, which uses randomly generated student identification numbers, is the backlash reasonable, or is it an overreaction?  Are people being paranoid, or is there real risk in uploading so much personal information about children?  Could this hurt them in the future if it’s somehow released or available?

New York City, for its part, has put out a lengthy document explaining how it plans to use inBloom’s services.  According to the NYC Department of Education, at this point, inBloom will simply replace the current system, ARIS, which has had no security issues and stores the following:

  • demographic information
  • parent contact information
  • student enrollment
  • program participation
  • dates of absences
  • out-of-school suspensions
  • course outcomes
  • state assessment scores
  • disability data

It also expressly states that data can not be used for reasons other than what is outlined in the contract.  In other words, data cannot be sold and it cannot be used to create for-profit educational tools.  It does, however, leave the door open to the possibility of using inBloom “for tools for tracking other types of educational records, such as formative assessment and classroom project and assignment results.”  One comforting piece of information from the NYCDOE is the following: “all data must be deleted and destroyed once they are no longer needed to provide contracted services.”

There are so many implications here for students, parents, and teachers.  I’ve done my best to outline the main points, but do read for yourself and share your thoughts.

Questions I’m left with:

  • How different is this from what’s already being used?
  • Is it inevitable that all of our information will be stored in databases, and it’s not such a big deal?
  • Who’s enforcing the destruction of student data?  Can companies get away with keeping it?
  • Should parents be able to opt out of having their child’s information shared with inBloom?
  • How paranoid do we need to be here???  (Getting off the internet now…)
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