Report shows need for schools to protect student privacy, data

As teachers and parents warm to the idea of online learning, K-12s districts and schools must be more transparent with stakeholders about how they're protecting children

There have been nearly 100 reported data breaches at K-12 schools in the past four years, according to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study. Potentially compromised in those cases were all types of student data, from academic records to assessment scores to social security numbers.

The GAO notes not all incidents were from nefarious third parties – sometimes students were the ones who hacked into systems looking to change test scores – and not all districts were immune. In fact, the more affluent the district, the more likely it was to have problems because it likely had more technology.

If that’s true, imagine the vulnerabilities that might exist now – during the COVID-19 pandemic – when technology is not only ruling those schools but the homes to which devices have been delivered.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, an organization dedicated to privacy practices, policy and education, on Thursday released results from a report it conducted on student privacy, the use of technology and digital equity.

The findings show remarkably strong support for technology from both teachers and parents. But they also highlight the need for districts and schools to give them the tools they need and assurances that maintaining privacy is a top priority.

“There really is a role for schools to play in making sure that they are the ones who are being transparent, that they are proactively communicating with parents about how they’re protecting their child’s data,” said Elizabeth Laird, senior fellow on student privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT). “What we found when we were engaging those groups is in that conversation around privacy, [students, parents and teachers] really have not been at the table. And if parents are getting that information from other places, there’s a real potential for their concerns to increase pretty dramatically.”

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In the case of teachers, the CDT cited the example of videoconferencing. K-12 educators who were polled said they overwhelmingly use platforms such as Zoom (65%), however, only 19% said they’ve received training on it.

“Teachers have a role to play [in protecting student privacy], but we have to set them up for success,” Laird said. “That includes training them, and especially on issues that are not just about legal compliance, but how do we use some of the new systems and tools that are happening as a result of the pandemic.”

What’s in the numbers

The CDT cited four main takeaways in its report titled “Protecting Students’ Privacy and Advancing Digital Equity”:

  1. That there is strong support for technology
  2. Different stakeholders have different experiences and needs
  3. A digital divide does exist, but schools are working to close gaps
  4. There are positive practices happening in schools with technology

One of the most surprising results to the CDT was the embrace of technology, even after all of the headaches of implementing it both in classrooms and remotely. In fact, 76% of teachers and parents still believe virtual learning in some form should be increased at home, while 86% of teachers say ed tech is “very important”.

“This is not something we expected to see; parents and teachers really do see value in online learning,” Laird said. “The task ahead is to figure out how to do it responsibly, how to protect students’ privacy, and make sure they’re not subjected to some of the security incidents that we’ve seen.”

Not all stakeholders are on the same page when it comes to concern over student privacy, however. According to the report, students generally are not concerned, but 1 in 3 parents and teachers are. And the stakes are raised for parents when information about security breaches is presented to them. Even though 72% of parents say they trust schools with data, only 43% say schools have actually talked to them about protecting it.

To increase awareness among students, Laird recommends schools find a way to help them “understand and develop how to protect their own privacy as a life skill.”

On the subject of the digital divide, there is a disparity among different income brackets in both devices and reliable internet. For example, 59% of those surveyed said students whose families make less than $50,000 each have their own devices, while 73% of those making $100,000 or more have them. Some 68% of families who make less than $50,000 have reliable internet, compared with 78% of those who make more than $100,000.

However, schools are efforting to level that. In the CDT report, teachers said schools “provided tablets, laptops or Chromebooks at twice the rate they did before the pandemic.” Yet, when it comes to internet subsidies, 81% of teachers are aware of them, while only 59% of parents say they are. Gaps also exist in knowledge around student privacy.

“We need to engage families in those conversations, make sure that they’re aware of these opportunities,” Laird said. “When you’re providing devices, when you’re collecting data about which families have access to the internet, all of those have privacy implications. Privacy should not be an afterthought when we are working to close that divide. So how are you making sure that you’re minimizing tracking? If you’re collecting data and sharing with Internet service providers about how to get families connected, are you making sure that they can’t use that for a non educational purpose?”

Now, for the positives …

Around 60% of teachers in the report said their schools had a technology plan. For those that did, 78% of those teachers said they were aware of student privacy policies and procedures. For those that didn’t, it dropped to 31%.

“If this teacher is at a school that has a technology plan that includes privacy and security, just having that plan in and of itself led to pretty big differences in terms of capacity for teachers on this issue,” Laird said.

One unique datapoint CDT shared was the strong impact special education teachers can have in any district when it comes to implementing and discussing student privacy and data issues. Nearly 70% are aware of privacy policies, compared with 55% of other instructors.

“Special educators, they just had sort of a different mindset,” Laird said. “They understood the importance of keeping an IEP private, and making sure that other teachers who aren’t teaching that student didn’t have access to it. We would also hear from some of their peers that if they weren’t sure about privacy, oftentimes they would go to special educators to get input and get some advice.”

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at [email protected]

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