Viewpoint

Making the Commitment to Student Data Privacy

The 21st century, technology-enabled classroom offers many opportunities and a variety of challenges, including ensuring the privacy and security of student data. The days of storing student information on paper files have shifted to data management on the network, in the cloud and on devices. With that, community stakeholders have raised concerns and questions have risen about where the data goes, who has access to it, how it may be used, and how it can be protected from prying eyes.

These questions have led to the drafting of over 500 student data privacy bills across the states in the last three years. However, regulatory action alone will not move the needle on the special relationship between schools and their communities.

Now, more than ever, every school system must be poised to adequately address these questions to build a lasting trust with the parents.

The work starts with a deep understanding of the legal requirements, the responsibilities that come with collecting, storing and handling student data, and the complexities that arise when the work is done through connected technologies. That knowledge needs to be translated into enforceable, actionable policies and practices that guide all school system employees through their work, laying out the expectations for bringing technology into a school system and the behavior around student data. These policies and practices must reflect not just the federal and state regulatory requirements, but also the expectations of the district expectations and community norms.

Of course, policies need to be implemented with adequate and effective training that not only explains the rules, but also why they are in place. When employees understand the concepts behind the policies, they are able to apply the rules more effectively on a daily basis. In addition, school systems need to foster open dialogue with community members about technology, the benefits of the student data they collect, how that has or has not changed with the modern classroom, and the ways in which the school system protects and maintains control over the data. There is a good deal of fear — some real and some imagined — that needs to be addressed in the open, in order to build the confidence of the community.

To support these efforts, CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) developed the Trusted Learning Environment (TLE) Seal Program for school systems. Developed with 28 school system leaders, along with lead partners, the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO), the School Superintendents Association (AASA) and Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), the program helps school systems understand the maturity level of their privacy and security programs and identify the gaps for growth. The program also recommends resources to help address those gaps.

School systems with a robust privacy and security model are eligible to earn the TLE Seal, demonstrating to their communities that they have taken tangible, measurable steps to properly manage the privacy and security of student data. To date, 12 school systems, reflecting a diverse cross section of small, large, urban and rural school districts, have earned the seal.

It is not an easy task, and the TLE Program reflects the rigors of the work that school systems need to undertake today. This is also a task that is never done, as any such program runs on a constant cycle of implementation, auditing, accountability and improvement. However, engagement around these issues is a critical part of the responsibility inherent in leveraging technology in a school system, and putting the right practices in place serves as the foundation for easing fears and building community trust.

For more information on the TLE program, visit trustedlearning.org, and for more information on CoSN’s privacy resources, visit cosn.org/privacy.

About the Author

Linnette Attai is project director for the CoSN Protecting Privacy in Connected Learning Initiative and the Trusted Learning Environment Seal Program. She is also president of PlayWell, LLC compliance consulting.

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