Parents, You Won't Like Reading This

As an administrator, student rights to privacy were uppermost in my mind. I reiterated often to staff the importance of keeping kids' information confidential. Schools are public enough places. Just remember a time when you tripped in the hallway, lost your cool or were teased or humiliated at school. Soon everyone at school knew what had happened. We know that kids abuse other kids' privacy rights. But we expect better from the adults we entrust our children to.

Yet how many parents have any knowledge of how schools share very personal information about their children? Here's the scoop with a little background to put it in perspective.

The Olden Days

In the olden days (say 10 years ago), student records were hard copies kept in a confidential file in the school vault. Only a few individuals in the school had access to the information. The records were fairly sparse for the most part -- registration cards, grades and transcripts, testing data, IEPs if eligible and perhaps a court custody agreement if provided by a parent. A separate file held discipline referrals and letters. The information was wholly housed at your child's school until s/he was no longer enrolled, then sent to the new school or the district office archives. Records were purged regularly for space reasons if for no other reason.

Ten years ago, districts had to report regularly to the state department of education (ODE in Oregon) how many students they had, how many on IEPS in different disability categories, how many pregnant and parenting teens, how many ESL students and so on. This reporting was necessary to determine state funding for the school district. The reports required a good deal of data tracking but no individual students' names or ID numbers were included.

What is Collected

Enter the digital age and the push for data-driven education. A huge transformation in reporting and information tracking has taken place with parents left entirely out of the loop. As a parent, you need to be informed. For the most part, you are not.

Two significant developments have put your children's privacy at risk. The first is the widespread adoption of "Student Information Systems" by schools. This software is a single portal for all of the data about your student, cross-referenced and more widely available than you would hope.

Student Information Systems include:
  • An exclusive state ID number that follows the student throughout school (until grade 12 currently but in the future through grade 16 -- college)
  • Date of birth, school pictures, address, phone numbers and other student information
  • Medical information
  • Social Security numbers
  • Teacher gradebooks including individual scores on all assignments and tests
  • Teacher's notes about the student
  • Standardized test scores
  • Attendance data including notes
  • Parent and family information included on registration cards (provided by parents)
  • Ethnicity
  • Special Education files including IEPs, testing information, services provided, parent contacts and sometimes meeting notes
  • Discipline narratives, not only for perpetrators but also for victims, and more detailed discipline information, particularly for PBIS schools (Positive Behavior Intervention Supports, a popular behavior program)
  • Whether an English Language Learner (ELL), pregnant or parenting, homeless
  • Dropout information including the school's entry about reasons for leaving (pregnancy, GED, homelessness, behavior, failures...)
  • Other notes entered by individuals at the school
Districts have policies to limit access to this information and most SIS programs allow limited access based on need to know (teachers may not be able to see all of this). But there are several people at the district office with full access to all of it and school administrators usually have full access as well as some secretaries who do look-ups or data entry. What was once a very minimal record system about your child is now a sophisticated bank of information, all cross-referenced with very sensitive private information included.

We can hope that district officials value your child's privacy at least as much as you do. Unfortunately that has not been my experience. At any one time, there were at most two of us in the entire district who advocated for more safeguards. I suspect that is typical of other districts as well.

Now you know what information your child's school and district are collecting about him. And why? Two reasons: to meet state and national demands for detailed, individualized reporting and to enable extensive data analysis (little of which is actually done or used when it is done). Let's look at the sharing of that information.

State Reports and Other Eyes

Beginning in 2005, Oregon and most other states no longer accepted aggregated depersonalized data from school districts. Where once it was sufficient to know there were 4 ELL students in 3rd grade, now states demanded to know their names and other information about them. A wholesale transformation in school reporting took place without any attempt to bring parents in the loop.

The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) website includes memos and updates regarding their KIDS program (Pre-K through Grade 16 Integrated Data System). Most is technical planning documents with little useful for the lay parent or citizen. The best I could find was a FAQ at Curiously, they don't cover what information ODE collects and how it is used but there is contact information for further questions. After an hour, I was able to locate one document which listed the types of individualized (meaning attached to children's names and IDs) information being demanded from districts:

Data Topics for Extracts
Attendance History
Discipline Incidents
Enrollment History
Graduation Status
Limited English Proficiency
Program Participation
Special Education
Student Academic Summary
Test Administration
Test Scores
KIDS III Formal Project Plan Final June 9, 2009

So whose hands does this information pass through, where is it stored and for how long? The data entry is done at the individual school by secretaries, teachers, attendance clerks, special education staff and administrators. The information is then gleaned by district office staff who ensure its completeness and send the full database to a regional center, in our case Eugene School District. The database now includes every child in the district, including names, birthdates, ID numbers, often Social Security numbers and all of the information listed above. The regional center compiles the data from multiple school districts and submits it to the Oregon Department of Education (ODE). At every level, there are individual employees who must access the information to ensure it is complete and passed on in the required format.

The Department of Education converts the information into a Data Warehouse that excludes individual identities and makes that available to researchers. The full database including specific information about each child in the state sits where and for how long? I do not know. What I do know though is that the ambition is to include college in this database and to share this information with colleges. At what point and for what purpose? Hopefully not as part of the admissions process. U of O does not need to know that Mary got in trouble for cussing on the playground in 5th grade.

Why Care?

The first and most obvious reason is that information about us is our personal property. No one has a right to that property without our permission.

The second is that abuse of the information is more than possible; it is likely. While some of us are so cautious of family privacy that we refused to access the SIS to look up addresses for Christmas cards, others are much less careful. Adults in your community have seen this information about your child. And all of this information is now held and shared online through the Internet. There are extraordinary measures to protect the information from hackers but are we confident that it's truly safe? Look down the road and ask whether any of this will influence your child's college applications or future employment. If there were such a comprehensive database in existence regarding YOU from pre-kindergarten through senior year in college, what might worry you?

The third is that there is no justifiable reason for this compromise of child privacy. It exists because the technology made it possible. The old ways of reporting data to the state worked fine and were audited by the state likely at a lower cost than maintaining this ginormous digital monster. Ask the state what data analysis has taken place to date and how that has changed the education your child is receiving in the classroom. My guess is barely or not at all.

There are other consumers of personal information about your child as well, from military recruiters to Boy Scouts (both guaranteed access under NCLB), commercial photographers and graduation announcement contractors, parent organizations and others. You already have a right to limit access to any of these.

What to Do

Please don't pull your child out of public school in alarm. Public schools are still the right place for your children. Better we have an entire army of parents confronting schools, districts and ODE (or whichever department of education governs your state) with the following requests:

1. Demand a copy of ALL information about your child being held at each level, including digital information. Schools are used to providing copies of hard copy files not digital ones so be specific. Be patient though, school staffs are very busy!

2. Contact your district's superintendent and board members and ask how they are informing the public of student digitized information collection and sharing.

3. Contact ODE (substitute your state) and ask questions: where is last year's data? How is data protected? Why do you need my child's name and ID information? Can I refuse? How are you informing the public of information collection and sharing?