When I began researching the issue of data privacy as a SCORE Graduate Fellow, the extent of my knowledge involved the acronym FERPA (which stands for Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). I was informed of my FERPA rights to a confidential student record upon entering my freshman year of college. Little did I know then that FERPA—and the protection of student privacy—contained several decades worth of rules and regulation as technology and instructional practices have changed.

My research on the issue resulted in SCORE’s most recent policy memo, Understanding Student Data Practices: Usage and Privacy.

In reflecting on the contents of this memo overall, I see three main takeaways within the issue:

  1. CaptureKnowing what you’re working with is the best first step. When I was a teacher in Mississippi and received a new group of students on the first day of class, having a roster to identify my students and establish procedures would have been a great tool to start with. Even more helpful would have been the knowledge of each student’s academic progress. Armed with this data, I would be able to tailor lessons and instructional strategies to best meet my students’ needs. Current assessment methods allow us to gather that information for Tennessee teachers and move beyond hit or miss pre-tests. We know that using data to improve instruction is a key factor in improving student success, and we should strive to protect this practice along with student privacy.
  1. This issue can be really confusing—and scary. As the old adage says, it is easy to fear the unknown. And the massive amount of complex information involved in understanding this issue made it really easy to fear! However, the more I learned about the legal protections in place and importance of using data to improve instruction, the more I realized the importance of this issue. After all, the word “data,” simply translates to “facts.” These can be as basic as students’ names on my roster to as complex as test results and growth in a subject area. As I learned quickly as a teacher, data can be your friend. But that does not mean we should be lax in protecting this information from inappropriate use. We should work to simplify the importance of both using and protecting student data in every state.
  1. We have to take “smart” action. Tennessee has come a long way in its improvement of education over the last years. An integral part of this change has been a focus on great teaching, strong leadership, and higher standards—all of which rely on the use of data to reveal what is working, and what isn’t. Our state and local districts must protect the usage of data for educators, yet prevent improper usage of student data. It is important that the right data is collected for the right reasons and for the right purpose. We need to increase and enforce the consequences for improper or neglectful data usage. And we need to assist our local districts with managing these complex regulations in an era of increased technology usage. Each state’s laws on this matter are a little different, and there is a lot that Tennessee can learn from the best practices available. For a full list of legislative highlights and recommendations, see the memo: [Link to come].

The issue of data privacy is a “hot topic.” And it is an important one. With the right practices, Tennessee has the opportunity to both protect student privacy and advance tools that can dramatically improve the educational experience of all Tennessee students.

Read the policy memo.