Striking a Balance on Privacy That Doesn't Hogtie Education Research

Striking a Balance on Privacy That Doesn't Hogtie Education Research
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In this Feb. 1, 2012 file photo, a student works with a computer and a calculator at Reynoldsburg High School in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete, File)

RCEd Commentary

Is a Supreme Court confirmation more likely than balancing student privacy with data needs to improve education?

Listening to the discussion at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing last week, you'd be forgiven for thinking so.

But striking a balance between strong privacy protections with the need for robust education research is not only possible, it is wholly doable. Congress must consider the good work that several states are already doing to ensure privacy is protected while allowing for important education research.

Education research is vital to evidence-based decisions about education. A just-released report from the Future of Privacy Forum showcases the many ways that student data-based research can help policymakers make better decisions. The Center for Civil Rights Remedies, for one, showed that schools with high suspension rates did not improve school outcomes or deter future misbehavior, and this research inspired policymakers at the state and district level to find alternatives to “zero tolerance” school discipline policies. 

States like Georgia and West Virginia have been setting up processes by which researchers can gain access to student-level information that is simultaneously kept private. The West Virginia Department of Education created a data management guide, which includes guidance on when and how data can be released to researchers. It requires that researchers fill out a data request form and then, if the department accepts it, a proposal that describes how researchers will protect the data. Researchers must also agree to protective measures. They, for example, cannot share individual records with unauthorized individuals or publish reports where an individual could be identified based on the data presented.

With the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, Congress requires that states adopt only programs and interventions that are “evidence based.” Such “evidence” only comes via education research.

While the primacy of research may not be news to Congress, the existence of education research cannot be taken for granted. Yet the Student Privacy Protection Act, a bill introduced last July, would rewrite the Family Education Records and Privacy Act and make it much harder to conduct research. The legislation lets schools and districts release student information only if the released data will directly benefit the students whose information the researchers have collected. Such a provision would make it impossible to use two stalwart features of much good research: control groups and longitudinal studies.

Understandably, a parent may hesitate to release student information if the resulting research does not directly benefit their child in the short run. But good research and program design is not possible without data from all students. Just as the polio vaccine was tested and refined over 20 years before it was widely distributed, improvements in education may need to be tested and refined before broad adoption of reforms. Data withheld now may stymie the educational opportunities of current students’ children or grandchildren.

Certainly, protecting sensitive student information is of the utmost importance: Any shared student data should be protected through security measures, policies, and training. The National Association of State Boards of Education and 40 other prominent education organizations, including the National Parent Teacher Association, signed on to a set of student data principles in 2014 that enumerated these protections.

Student information used in research is already often protected at the highest levels: Researchers generally must pass muster with Institutional Review Boards at their universities and organizations, as well as through state or district processes, where they must show clearly how they will keep the information safe.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA), ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, expressed confidence that the Student Privacy Protection Act would pass. Hopefully, the committee will take a page from the witnesses at the March 21 hearing, as well as learn from the states already doing a great balancing act, and revise its bill to allow great education research and robust privacy protections to coexist.

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