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Discussions over the privacy of student data have recently hit the headlines in the case of the son of Faida Geidi, thanks to a battle between Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy and journalist John Merrow over a piece aired on PBS NewsHour over the charter school operator’s use of out-of-school suspensions and other traditional school discipline practices. Thanks to the adults involved in this issue – from Geidi’s mother to Merrow to Moskowitz herself – the young man’s school discipline record is now public fodder. Thanks to this disclosure by Moskowitz, this public fight could eventually end up in courts.

geniuslogoAs an admitted admirer of Moskowitz, I have my own opinion about whether Moskowitz did the right and necessary thing. The esteemed editor of this outlet, on the other hand, has his own thoughts. We’ll leave it at that. Numerically, however, the fight over Geidi’s son’s discipline records is a drop of water in the ocean of private information in America. From tax forms and hospital visits, to credit cards and mobile phones, we broadcast enormous amounts of private information to the world. We expect government to protect us from having that information stolen or misused. Indeed, we want our information used wisely to make us safer and more prosperous. This is especially true for data generated in American public education, to which we entrust 50 million students and $600 billion very year.

Currently the rules governing school data are shaped by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which was co-authored by James Buckley, the brother of the legendary founder of National Review. From there, a patchwork of state laws further govern the use of student data. As the linchpin in school data governance, FERPA gives families control over the release of children’s data, and to access and therefore potentially correct errors.

But now, as data collection and analysis has become more important than ever in improving student achievement, the reasonable and sensible safeguards over data provided under FERPA are under attack. As with so many debates over education policy, this battle over the future of school privacy mirrors the broader privacy debate in this country by featuring three types of argument: Authoritarianism, Luddite extremism, and a cautious common-sense middle ground.

The first type of data extremism is authoritarianism. Dick Cheney is the archetype of this type of overconfidence, having been proven spectacularly wrong on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, while also authorizing domestic phone dragnets and acts of torture. Outside of government officials, Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise gives numerous examples of leaders who gather and act on data with insufficient awareness of the risks. In education, this kind of authoritarianism would use student data to segregate and marginalize disadvantaged student populations.

The data Luddites arise in extremist response to the possibility of authoritarianism. These folks require individual, person-by-person approval before government allows any third-party analysis of data. In education, the poster child for data luddites is David Vitter, the U.S. Senator now running to succeed Bobby Jindal as Louisiana governor. Driven by his own searing personal experience with breakdown in data piracy – Hustler’s 2007 report that the erstwhile advocate for family values had his phone number on the client list of a prostitute – Vitter Vitter has proposed legislation that would, according to University of Michigan Professor Sue Dynarski, “effectively end the analysis of student data by outside social scientists,” including “recent prominent research documenting the benefits of smaller classes, the value of excellent teachers and the varied performance of charter schools.”

But for those who support proposals such as that from Vitter, the goals have less to do with securing privacy than with ending standards-and-accountability regimes that have helped improve education for children. If the luddites prevail, Americans can say goodbye to population health research, especially in genetics, as well as most of the “smart cities” policies that have been making progress in cities from Boston to Los Angeles.

The smart center rejects both of these extremes and gives the power of data to citizens. As Barack Obama’s White House articulated last year, big data privacy can bolster “the potential of government power to accrue unchecked” and, at the same time, contain “solutions that can enhance accountability, privacy, and the rights of citizens.”

The key to this approach is that citizens own their own data, with government holding it only as a fiduciary. In the context of criminal justice, for example, this principle would require police officers to wear working body cameras while on duty, while controlling the storage and release of the resulting data to protect citizen and officer privacy except in specific cases such as civilian deaths. The private sector would be encouraged to provide additional solutions to protect individual privacy, such as Microsoft’s work on random noise generation to protect identifiable individual data.

In education, the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign articulated this middle ground with ten Student Data Principles. [For those focused on the Moskowitz-Merrow battle, the key question with this as with other proposed rules is whether the First Amendment means that the parent effectively gave consent to share with by releasing partial data to the press.] The Obama Administration has already taken some steps on this front four years ago as part of administrative rule-making involving the ability of state education agencies to allow third-parties to have access to student data.

While the details are hard, the right direction for school data is absurdly easy. The risks of data authoritarianism are real, but so are the threats from data luddites. Collection and analysis of data is at the core of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. We can use data to innovate in educational methods, track what works, and tailor solutions for children of all backgrounds. Data is critical to families in helping their children get the education they deserve, and necessary in aiding teachers in their work nurturing young minds. Walking away from that means consigning students to mediocrity in public education, which means a life sentence of limited outcomes for those students who do not have wealthy parents.

As Congress works to update and amend FERPA, and where appropriate to coordinate diverse state laws, they should put student learning and opportunity at the forefront of their agenda.

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