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Maintaining Student Privacy while Driving Research Forward

The U.S. House of Representatives is holding important conversations on privacy, noting that the two governing privacy laws are out of date for the world we live in today.

Education and Workforce Committee
The United States House of Representatives Education and Workforce Committee brought privacy back into the spotlight Jan. 30 in a hearing specific to privacy under the umbrella of evidence-based policymaking in the education field.

“We need to know what works for students who need a high-quality education and for workers who are seeking the skills they need to succeed," said Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC). Importantly, "education research can be a powerful tool to help our students, but that information should not come at the cost of a student’s private and personal information.”

There are two laws that currently govern privacy at the federal level: the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA). According to the House Education and Workforce Committee, ESRA “is the main federal law governing and promoting high-quality education research. The law, enacted in 2002, expired at the end of fiscal year 2008. In 2002 ESRA established the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), a semi-independent research arm of the Department of Education to conduct research on early childhood, elementary, and secondary education, special education, and higher education. It replaced the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI)."

The last attempt at reauthorization of ESRA was the Strengthening Education through Research Act in 2015-2016, which proposed "to strengthen IES by:

  • Improving and streamlining the federal education research system
  • Increasing relevance of education research while maintaining rigor
  • Promoting accountability for federal education programs
  • Maintaining independence from politics and bias
  • Protecting student and individual privacy
  • Continuing NAEP to measure student achievement, and
  • Establishing responsible authorization levels.”
The hearing focused specifically on the point of protecting student and individual privacy. The esteemed panel of a state superintendent, professors and researchers discussed the benefits of data, as well as ideas to help protect sensitive information. The most encouraging moment of the hearing was when all experts agreed that if done correctly, we can have both useful information and protect privacy.

The panel also touched on the idea of informed consent, as there is a clear tension between parental consent and data researchers.

According to the University of California, Irvine Office of Research, informed consent means “subjects must be informed of the precautions that will be taken to protect the confidentiality of the data and be informed of the parties who will or may have access. ... This will allow subjects to decide about the adequacy of the protections and the acceptability of the possible release of private information to the interested parties." However, researchers argue that informed consent can limit results, while parents and parent advocates argue it is imperative in order to understand implications for student data.

The hearing also included discussions about how FERPA is long overdue for an update. Data is informing instruction every day, and the old “file cabinet” data only scratches the surface. The panel felt it is time the law reflects models in the classroom.