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Student Privacy Bill Could Focus School-Research Partnerships

Student privacy protections are always a tightrope act for researchers looking to work with school districts. A new bill to overhaul federal education data rules could lend support to school research partnerships, while at the same time making their balance trickier.

The Student Privacy Protection Act, introduced Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives, would provide a long-overdue update to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA, first passed in the 1970s, has not kept pace with the flood of digital data now collected on students, nor the wide array of ways those data can be used for research, accountability, and commercial purposes.  

Unlike an earlier draft circulated in April, the bill would not allow parents to choose to remove their child from many education studies, a change welcomed by Michelle McLaughlin, the executive director of the Knowledge Alliance, which advocates for research groups. "In general, the bill is much improved," she said. "We appreciate that the 'opt out' language was eliminated, and that researchers are included in the exception."

The bill puts a stricter onus on school districts to ensure that outside groups, including researchers, use student data appropriately and protect it. Fines can reach $1.5 million for districts or other education agencies that don't properly protect student data, and outside data users can be barred from access to any personally identifiable information for five to 12 years.

"Stricter rules for privacy protection and tough penalties for violations will place a premium on trust in the relationships between researchers and school officials, and partnerships are a way to build and maintain trust," said Adam Gamoran, the president of the William T. Grant foundation, which supports research partnerships such as the Research Alliance for New York City Schools. "School districts have mountains of data they can't make sense of alone, so preserving ways for third-party researchers to access data is vital for school improvement."

Fine Print May Narrow Research Topics

In one critical section, the bill would allow schools to provide student data to researchers without parents giving permission beforehand, provided the study is conducted in a way that would not allow students or their parents to be individually identified. Researchers would have to agree to destroy any potentially identifiable data at the end of the study, and follow appropriate data security procedures. 

All par for the course. But there are some questions about this line: "... the purpose of the study is limited to improving the academic outcomes of students attending that educational agency or institution." If broadly interpreted, it's not much different from FERPA rules now—which also focus on studies to improve instruction—but focusing on "students attending that educational agency" may limit broader topics and longitudinal research.

Moreover, "Limiting research to academic outcomes is too narrow, unless it is interpreted broadly with the recognition all research on children's schooling outcomes ultimately gets back to academic outcomes,"  Gamoran said. "Many other important conditions may relate to academic outcomes, such as social and emotional learning."

This is only one of a few recent proposals to tweak or totally overhaul student privacy rules. For more on the FERPA debate, check out Ben Herold's coverage over at Digital Education.


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