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Student Privacy in Education Research: 'It's Time' to Update Federal Laws

The House education committee tried to restart the long-delayed updates of federal laws governing education research and student data privacy at a Wednesday morning hearing that showed the deep tension between districts' need for strong, fast research and parents' concerns about data security.

"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," said Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., the chairman of the subcommittee on early childhood, elementary, and secondary education.

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Recent attempts to update federal law on the issue have failed to make it through either the House or Senate. Rokita noted that the Education Sciences Reform Act has not been reauthorized since 2002, and the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act has never been reauthorized since its creation in 1974. "Frankly, most of our staff were not alive at that point, and even some of our colleagues were not alive at that point. It's time—it's more than time" to reauthorize federal privacy law, said Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa.

As states work to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, they need more support to develop and use high-quality research, according to Nathaniel Schwartz, the Tennessee education department's chief research and strategy officer. Schwartz said the state has used its longitudinal student databases and research grants from IES to build a Tennessee research-education partnership to examine policy and instructional questions. For example, the state used longitudinal student data linked to workforce data to find that high school dropouts in the state were averaging only $10,000 in annual income.  

Schwartz called for more federal support for research partnerships and other efforts to build state and local capacity to do research. He noted that as of 2015, only 29 state education agencies had offices devoted to data analysis, with even fewer having full-time, in-house researchers. 

Former IES director and Brookings Institution senior fellow Grover "Russ" Whitehurst agreed, and added that Congress should build more explicit support and authority for federal research and evaluations of education policies. "It would be easy for an administration that is displeased with certain products because they are off-message or simply because it has other priorities ... to cripple IES" with budget cuts," he said. 

Student Privacy Issues

Rachael Strickland, co-founder of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, told lawmakers that "parents are not opposed to using data for research and education," but she warned that education data, particularly those linked among several agencies, remains at risk of hacking by outside groups or future use for reasons not initially planned. For example, she noted that last year, 13 percent of higher education institutes and several K-12 school districts experienced a ransomware attack, in which hackers encripted school data and called for money to return it. 

Strickland also pointed to an audit by the Education Department's office of the inspector general that critiqued the Institute of Education Sciences earlier this year for not adequately screening its research contractors to make sure they protected student privacy in the data they used. 

Yet Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, the director of the Hamilton Project and a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, said researchers should help make parents and the public more aware of the security precautions that researchers already use. Schanzenbach, whose research often includes student data from the National Center for Education Statistics, noted that every research project she has worked on included detailed data protocols—up to "some data that I could only access on a standalone computer that was not connected to the internet and that was kept in a locked safe when I wasn't using it."

You can watch the full hearing below:

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