Curmudgucation: Toolkit for Teacher and Student Privacy

Data is the new oil, and we are confronted almost daily with stories of folks trying to drill the next high-producing well. Retailers trade loyalty card perks for customer data. Social media trade connectivity for personal data-- tons of it. And schools provide a rich opportunity to trade educational programs and assistance for a rich deposit of data in students (and teachers) who may not even be aware that Big Data is gathering data points by the bushel from their simplest activities. Industry leading Summit Learning, a charter school group that has placed their software and materials in over 300 public schools, has admitted that they share the data they gather with 18 "partners." The practice is not new; generations of test takers filled out the personal information pages with the PSAT; in 2013, the College Board and ACT were sued over the practice of selling student information. The process has just been accelerated by technology. Whatever you're doing, if you're doing it on a computer, you're leaving a data trail.
 

More erosions of privacy occur daily. One of the items that sent West Virginia teachers out on strike last year was a rule that all teachers would carry a device that monitored their movement and activity. Last year saw incidents of a hacker group holding school district data hostage, and backing up their demands by sending threatening emails to parents.

Not everyone fully grasps what's happening, and even then, many are unsure what to do about it. To fill those gaps, the Badass Teachers Association and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy have issued the Educator Toolkit for Teacher and Student Privacy. (Disclosure: I did a small bit of advisory work on the project.)

The toolkit explains, in frightening detail, why teacher and student data is vulnerable, including, in both cases, the fact that ownership of the data is not always clear. There is a full chapter laying out the pertinent privacy laws as they currently stand (if you think you know FERPA, you may be unaware of the loopholes that have been added over the past decade). Is that data wall in your child's classroom legal? Probably not. If the teacher wants to use a free app to monitor student behavior and communicate with families, is that okay? The answer turns out to be complicated. And what are the rules for that survey that the school just handed out to all students? The laws have become complex, and most parents and teachers did not go to law school. The toolkit provides some simple guidance.

Educators are being pitched all manner of educational technology these days. Some are meant to help educate students. Some are meant to mine students for data. Some are meant to do both. Schools need to be doing their homework before adopting, and the toolkit lays out the questions that should be asked. In particular, schools need to be wary of black box algorithms, programs that use super-secret proprietary software to make educational decisions. If a human walked into your classroom and said, "Those three students should be in the advanced group, but I won't tell you how I decided that," you would show that human the door. Software is no different. And if any vendor answers teacher requests for transparency with some version of, "My ability to make money is more important than your ability to do your job," the teacher has learned some valuable information about that vendor.

The toolkit offers ten teacher rules for using social media (or not). The kit also provides practical tips for protecting privacy, and for advocating for better protections for all. And as an extra treat, an appendix shows the results of a survey given to teachers about technology in their schools. Almost half of those responding said their school uses an online app or program to track student behavior. And well over half reported that their school requires them to use certain computer based programs and materials. That "requires" can become aggressive, as witnessed by a Florida teacher whose set of favorite textbooks was taken from her room by her principal in order to force her to use the district's new digitized textbook.

We're just beginning to see where all this data mining can lead, particularly when the various sources are combined. Students can have their careers picked for them by graduation. Employers can order up very specific employees ("I want a person who never argued with authority in school, is good at algebra, has no family history of major illness, and whose social media shows them to be stable and quiet"). The data itself, and the people who generate it, can even become a commodity that investors can bet on and make money by manipulating.

The toolkit certainly doesn't have all the answers, but if you are a teacher or a parent, particularly one who's just starting to realize there's something to worry about in our new data era, this is a good place to start. The toolkit was supported by grants from the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment, the American Federation of Teachers, and the NEA Foundation, and you can access a copy right here on line.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation.