Education in the Age of Technology: A Call for Bipartisan Action on Student Data Privacy

By Reps. Jared Polis & Luke Messer

RCEd Commentary

Data can be a powerful tool to provide parents with meaningful information about their child's progress, connect students and families with personalized learning opportunities, and create high-quality materials and tools that can bring our education system into the 21st Century. But recently, concerns about the increasing collection and use of student data in schools have come to the forefront in local education debates. The fall of inBloom, a nonprofit education database that stored, organized, and aggregated student data, because of privacy concerns, is evidence of widespread consternation from the left and the right. Security and privacy are critical, yet manageable concerns. We should not dismiss the power of using data to improve classroom instruction; simply develop best practices to ensure that data is used responsibly.

inBloom's demise raised important concerns about the appropriate privacy and security precautions necessary to protect beneficial student data in an increasingly technological school environment. That's why we urge industry, parents and teachers to come together to address these concerns with a set of expectations and commitments on how to best protect and secure our children's data, while enjoying the benefits of more personalized learning.

When we are back home in Colorado and Indiana respectively, we hear from parents who are rightly concerned about data security, but optimistic about improving their children's educational opportunities. They worry about where their student data is stored, whether it is secure, and with whom it is shared. They worry about a pervasive "permanent record." They worry that advertising companies may inappropriately target their children and somehow profit on their decisions in what should be a safe and secure school environment. At the same time, they want for their children to succeed in an increasingly connected digital world. They want to know how their children are developing, and what they can do to help. And they want to be able to make informed choices about the best schooling options for their children.

Parents want what is best for their children, and deserve transparency about what is happening in their schools. Unfortunately, the intersection of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act, a growing number of state laws, district policies, vendor contracts, and privacy policies make it very difficult for them to be confident that their children's data is being used solely to advance education. Lately, these concerns have moved from hesitation to outright opposition to the collection and use of student data.

While opposition is mounting for valid reasons, we must recognize the promise of digital learning and the opportunities that collecting, analyzing, and utilizing student data, appropriately, presents to personalized education. One of us has experienced the power of digital learning as the former chair of the state board of education in Colorado and the other as a state legislator and author of legislation to increase high school graduation rates through early intervention in Indiana. We know that timely, relevant, and private information about student performance can be an important tool to ensure that our education system is able to identify student's strengths and challenges and intervene appropriately.

We are concerned that a purely political reaction to legitimate privacy concerns threatens to derail the potential of digital learning and years of progress in personalizing education. Federal legislation is an option, but may not be able to provide a nuanced solution in such a complex and emerging field.

That's why we are calling on industry leaders, parents and teachers to come together around a set of effective and appropriate expectations and commitments on data privacy in schools. These standards should be rigorous, but adaptable; comprehensive, yet easily comprehensible for parents to understand what is occurring in their schools. That is why last week, we were honored to convene a group of industry and educational leaders to discuss the topic, and are pleased with the group's progress during the first meeting. We are calling on these groups to develop a transparent set of expectations and commitments in time for back-to-school.

Ensuring the right balance between privacy and innovation in education is a critical, bipartisan issue that will pave the way for the next generation of students to thrive. We are looking forward to working with industry, parents and teachers to achieve this balance, and make a promise of which we can all be proud.

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) has served since 2009 and Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.) has served since 2013. They are both members of the House Education & Workforce Committee.

Reps. Jared Polis & Luke Messer
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