Current debates over student privacy should remind us that infrastructure leaves legacies for decades, including policy and technological infrastructure.1 This weekend, the New York Times published a column by Sue Dynarski about one proposal to change student privacy laws, a proposal that would make it almost impossible to use administrative records for educational research. Dynarski identifies this problem proposal as S. 1341, a bill sponsored by Louisiana Senator David Vitter. Vitter’s bill is one of several in Congress addressing student privacy issues and currently has no co-sponsors–in other words, at the moment it is highly unlikely to become law.2 The provision that worries Dynarski is the requirement for active parental consent for the transfer of any educational records to a third party, and a separate consent process for each such transfer.3
At its core, Dynarski’s argument is that educational research on the effectiveness of programs is too important to wipe away with concerns about privacy. On some issues she is wrong. Dynarski wrote that she knows of no “Target-like” breaches of educational data. She works at the University of Michigan. I am guessing that its servers are under regular attack by hackers as are the servers of many other colleges and universities; there were several publicly-known breaches last year.4 I could also quibble with her claims about the “original purpose” of student data records.5 However, both issues are tangential to the central question of whether it is possible to protect student privacy today and still allow all of the types of educational research Dynarski and I value.
- That is also a theme of a recent Backstory Radio podcast. [↩]
- It is not entirely clear who worked with Vitter to draft the bill–from the few websites mentioning the bill and some of the content, possibly the Home School Legal Defense Association and conservative activist Susan Effrem. [↩]
- This is the proposed LIMITATIONS ON THIRD PARTY USE section. There is another section that prohibits the use of federal funds for any data matching. That would not prohibit data matching with non-federal funds, but I think it would kill large dataset projects funded by federal grants except where each program is explicitly authorized by language specific to that program. [↩]
- Hat tip: Barmak Nassirian. [↩]
- The Progressive Era reformers who first collected and published reams of educational data in city school systems thought they were promoting improvement; one could argue they were doing a better job of promoting inequality by class, gender, and race, using data for those ends. [↩]