Panel 3 Summary – Striking a Balance: Protecting Student Records and Facilitating Useful Research
Kathleen Styles, Chief Privacy Officer, US Department of Education
Working with FERPA: Consent, Compliance, and Transparency
Kathleen Styles is the Department of Education’s (ED) first chief privacy officer, overseeing all ED policies and programs related to privacy, confidentiality, and data security. While she hastens to acknowledge the challenges of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records, Styles appreciates the great value of both administrative and commercial data.
The combination of new technologies and new uses of data create today’s cutting-edge privacy issues, including concerns about “big data” and data sharing in general, the use of analytics, cloud computing, behavioral advertising, and school use of web engagement tools.
While there are abundant legitimate concerns about privacy, much of the recent increase in public discussion about student privacy has been fueled by misinformation and lack of transparency about what schools are (and are not) doing with student data. To help education agencies and institutions better protect student privacy, Styles’ office has developed a number of guidance and best practice resources and has established the Privacy Technical Assistance Center, a one-stop source for information about data privacy, confidentiality, and security practices in education.
While these resources address a number of important topics relating to student privacy, their overall message can be reduced to two major points. The first and most obvious is the importance of legal compliance, not just with FERPA, but with all relevant statutes (Federal, state, and local). The general rule is simple: no sharing of student information from education records without consent, unless one of FERPA’s limited exceptions applies, and those exceptions have strict requirements that must be met for the disclosure to be permissible. A lot of great work can be done under FERPA’s “Studies” and “Audit and Evaluation” exceptions, for example, but there are strict criteria that have to be met to use them, and sometimes great research may only be permissible by obtaining written consent. But compliance with the law is only the beginning. Beyond that, Styles urges those using student data to be “open about what you’re doing. Post the information on your website, so people understand what you’re looking for, what you’re going to do with it, and how you’re going to protect it. You can’t get data without trust.”
Erin Dalton, Deputy Director, Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Office of Data Analysis, Research, and Evaluation
AISP NETWORK EXEMPLAR: Getting to the MOU in Allegheny County
For years, the Allegheny County (PA) Department of Human Services (DHS) has been building an integrated data system to integrate client services and evaluate and improve decision-making. The system is rich in data from internal sources – child welfare, behavioral health, homeless, intellectual disability, aging and others s – as well as sources external to DHS, including the housing authority, county jail, department of public welfare, Pittsburgh Public Schools, and others.
Putting an IDS to work in improving educational and wellbeing outcomes requires technical, financial, legal, and political support in order to attain develop an agreed-upon Memoranda of Understanding (MOU), Dalton explains. MOUs detail the legal foundation of the data-sharing partnership. The process of arriving at an MOU between DHS and the Pittsburgh Public Schools involved “all the phases people go through in deciding they don’t want to share data with you.”
It took twelve years to get the data, during which time Dalton and her team learned not to describe themselves as researchers but rather as partners in identifying needs and strategies that address those needs. “When folks understood that we were partners in helping kids, they were more supportive.”
In Pittsburgh, more than half of public school students have some involvement with DHS – child welfare, behavioral health, support services, intellectual disability, juvenile justice – and 36 percent have that involvement within the past year. Sharing agreements put the data where they are needed most, in the hands of social workers trying to help a child with chronic absence, for example, and policymakers who need to know what works.
A study of more than 218,000 student records has produced a telling pattern of predictive factors for ninth grade attendance and Grade Point Averages. For example, 77 percent of ninth grade students tagged for poverty and juvenile justice involvement exhibited chronic absenteeism. These and other findings have inspired a number of interventions; for example, the United Way of Allegheny County launched “Be There,” a program designed to make school attendance a priority.
Another study, using more than 60,000 student records, revealed that school moves changes resulting from out-of-home placement are a risk factor of absenteeism. Based on these data, DHS developed an interactive “Best Interest Placement Tool” to help the child welfare office and provider agencies improve child welfare and educational outcomes and reduce school disruptions.
John Easton, Director, Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education
Trust Key to Multifaceted Perspective
John Easton, Director of Institution Education Sciences (IES), aims to get people to understand the sheer usefulness of big data from multiple sources. Most people assume that borrowing money for college pays off in the long run, for example, but to properly test this notion, researchers would need more than two decades of data about early education, family background, neighborhood influences, and college majors, plus post-graduation data about jobs, income, mobility and more.
That kind of research is still a long way off, but Easton knows that integrating data on foster care and delinquency with student education records yields a fuller, more nuanced, and more actionable perspective. “No single agency can see the whole child.”
The Department of Education has invested $500 million in statewide longitudinal grants in the last decade, and Easton wants those systems to get used and not become “data mausoleums.” His challenge is to incentivize educators and researchers to work together to make big data systems useful. “Trust is very important,” says Easton, noting that fear is a common source of resistance. He maintains that the drivers of progress exist in understanding the value of administrative data in reducing the cost of research and evaluation, and in appreciating the power and relevance of bringing all that data together.
Ann Terrell, Office of Innovation, Milwaukee Public Schools
The Use of IDS to Improve Public Education: A School District’s Superintendent’s Perspective
Speaking for Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton, Ann Terrell is looking forward to the impact of Integrated Data Evaluation and Action System (IDEAS) on the district’s large, at-risk youth community.
Milwaukee is the fourth poorest U.S. city of its size, with a hyper segregated, historically underperforming school district serving 78,000 students, more than half of whom are African American, 24 percent Hispanic, and 83 percent qualify for free and reduced meals. Multiple indicators of poor health corresponds with low rates of school readiness, academic achievement, and high mobility.
The district recognizes the need for a single, child-centered longitudinal database to support effective cross-agency communication, sharing, and policymaking. IDEAS is an IDS that focuses on health, social, and educational needs and outcomes. The ultimate goal is to help foster meaningful change for Milwaukee’s children. IDEAS is modeled after similar city- and county-wide initiatives in Baltimore, Los Angeles County, and particularly, Kids Integrated Data System (KIDS) in Philadelphia. Designed to leverage existing data and data management capacity, IDEAS is unique in being led by a school district.
The development process is complicated, says Terrell. “We’re still stuck on the MOUs.” Despite great personal connections with executive leaders – including the city and state superintendents, city mayor, county executives, and head of the Department of Children and Families – cooperation with staff holding conservative views on data sharing is still hard to attain. The IDEAS team is bringing partners together so they can appreciate the opportunities to inform policy, and learn to trust each other.