Thursday, July 11, 2013

Teachers and Student Privacy (4)

Confidential student information should be shared with teachers ONLY if they have a legitimate need to see it.   Why? It's the law and it protects students.

Research about teacher perception of students has shown, over and over again, that what teachers expect of students impacts how they treat students and how teachers treat students (due to these expectations) impacts how well students do at school.  Thus, if a teacher can access students' grades (past grades and grades in other subjects) and disciplinary records, this information can and will bias the teacher's opinion of students.

In the book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, the authors wrote about an August 8, 1967 New York Times front page story - "Study Indicates Pupils Do Well When Teacher is Told They Will" by John Leo. An experiment was conducted in which teachers were told that students in certain classes were very intelligent and creative. In point of fact, the classes were filled with regular, heterogeneously grouped students - no different from the makeup of the other classes. The teachers were told to expect dramatic gains in these "high-performing" classes. What happened? The gains expected by the teacher actually occurred - unlike the performance of students in the other regular classes who did not achieve similar gains and whose teachers had not been told they were high-achievers.

The authors of the book, Postman and Weingartner, wrote: "The teachers 'perceived' these children as intelligent because they were expecting to see 'intelligent behavior.' The teachers...made the reality that was there." Basically, conclude the authors, the teachers treated the students in a certain way (because they expected them to be very intelligent) and the students (once treated that way) responded with better performance. Negative teacher response to students was minimized by positive teacher expectation of those students. Conversely, negative teacher response to students would be maximized by negative teacher expectations of students. And negative expectations are exactly what are likely to result from providing teachers with student information they do not need. A teacher who refers many students to the office may have problem students or s/he may have weak classroom management skills. Thus, the disciplinary record might be misleading.

A few conclusions:
  • Students have a right to have their confidential information shared only with those school employees who NEED to have it. (FERPA)
  • Students have a right to begin all new courses with a positive (or neutral) teacher perception of them. This can only occur if teachers formulate their own opinions of students via students' performance and behavior not by reviewing other teachers' grades and disciplinary comments on students. 
  • Students and parents have a right to know how much confidential student information is available to school employees (esp. teachers) via computers. What boundaries or walls, within computer programs, have administrators erected so student privacy is protected? 
  • Boards of Education have an obligation to ensure that they have policies and procedures to protect student privacy and comply with the law. In addition, they have an obligation to ensure that the superintendent oversees full compliance with such policies and procedures.
  • Administrators must ensure that in this computer age, teachers (and non-professional employees) are only permitted to access the confidential student information they need.

By way of just one of many anecdotes, I had a conversation, outside the school setting, with a PCS secretary while I was on the BOE and she told me she had looked in her computer records to see how a particular student was "doing." I spoke to the superintendent about this because the employee clearly had no idea she was violating student privacy. Her conduct was part human curiosity and part "rampant ignorance" about FERPA. The fault, I felt, was on backs of school officials who had not adequately trained employees about their legal and ethical obligations to protect student privacy - just like a doctor, and his/her employees, must protect patient information.

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