Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Student Privacy at PCS - Conclusion (7 of 7 parts)

Time magazine ran an 8/12/13 story about privacy. The author wrote, "The skeptics no doubt have noticed that governments are made up of people and that people are prone to misuse of information when driven by greed or curiosity or a will to power." He goes on to write, "We have also learned to trade elements of our privacy for all sorts of supposed benefits." 

The PCSD, like so many other school districts in the last ten years, has made huge amounts of private student information available, via computer and accessible from school or home, to many employees. While certain classes of employees need some confidential student information in order to fulfill their job responsibilities, many are given access to much more information than they need. Why? The public is told that SchoolTool (an open source, web-based student information system) is not advanced enough to permit the needed information limitations.

When I discussed this topic with the PCS superintendent four years ago (as BOE president), he was concerned that placing additional limitations on employee access to confidential student information would result in employee disgruntlement (i.e. employees feeling they were not trusted). However, the argument should be about what is best for students and how to best comply with federal laws aimed at protecting confidential student information.

Board of Education members should have answers to questions like the following and the answers should be made readily available to the public.

1. How often is FERPA training of employees is going on at the PCSD? (PCSD officials have recently responded that there is "periodic training" - a non-answer answer that begs the question, what does periodic mean? Annual training should occur.)

2.  Why do no documents exist at the PCSD (either on paper or in electronic form - according to PCS officials) that pertain to FERPA training of employees? 

3. Why isn't FERPA training information included in employee manuals? (While the superintendent makes a cursory mention of FERPA at his opening speech each year [something I observed for six years], mentioning FERPA is not the same as providing training.)

4. Because of the potential for teacher bias against students that could easily be caused by giving teachers access to students' disciplinary records from other teachers' classes, such records should not be provided except in rare cases where there is an egregious problem that requires the collaboration of a group of teachers. Are the BOE and administration concerned about the creation of negative teacher expectation of students?  
In a July 24th, 2013 memo, the PCS superintendent wrote, "Teachers can... view the disciplinary records for students on their rosters or those in which they have created a record." In other words, teachers can see all disciplinary referrals on all their students. (Sometimes, as school officials well know, ineffective teachers can be the source of unnecessary disciplinary referrals. Administrators have said as much to certain parents and to BOE members.) In my opinion as a long-term high school teacher, teachers, for the most part, do not need to know how their students are behaving in other teachers' classes. 

5. According to school officials, PCS is not keeping an official record of FERPA violations -why not? Boards of Education should require this.

6. According to the TIME magazine reporter (and something we all know to be true), "...people are prone to misuse of information when driven by greed or curiosity or a will to power."
    A.  Given our inherent nature as humans to be curious, how will school officials effectively convey to employees that looking at confidential student information out of curiosity is a violation of federal law?

    B. Regarding "greed and power," think of Pearson Publishers and inBloom, Inc. Schools are collecting and NYSED is sharing extraordinary amounts of confidential student information. Pearson is a company that is making huge sums of money by having contracts with NYS (and other states) to create the 3-8 ELA and math tests. In addition, they create instructional materials for teachers to use to prepare students for these required tests. inBloom is another company that is receiving private student information and storing it in a cloud (security not guaranteed) without parental approval and all for a for-profit business. The amount of education dollars being funneled from schools to these companies demands serious discussion. As teachers lose their jobs in droves, some companies are making enormous profits. Are these companies really making education better? Are they (school districts and the SED) putting confidential student information at risk? 

7. What are the consequences for employees for FERPA violations? Unless administration takes a serious stand on these, FERPA will be a law with no teeth. 

8. The superintendent noted that "all building secretaries have access to grades, discipline, attendance, custody, orders of protection, etc." - a very significant amount of confidential student information. What specific and ongoing training is provided for these employees?

9. How much confidential student information, above and beyond what employees need to fulfill their job responsibilities, is now available to employees? Is there any way to alter the scope so employees get only the student information they need to fulfill their job responsibilities?

10. What can the superintendent do to make the protection of confidential student information a high priority?

When I was BOE president, I had lengthy discussions with Pat Brady regarding my concerns about student privacy. My position was that too much confidential student information was being made available to employees  who did not need it and this put student privacy at risk. Mr. Brady did not concur.

To paraphrase the Time magazine writer, elements of student privacy are certainly being traded for all sorts of supposed benefits and Bob Freeman, a decades-long NYS DOS Director of Open Government, has stated that there is "rampant ignorance" among school employees about the student privacy protection law known as FERPA. Bottom line...student privacy is at risk even if school officials do not want to discuss it or address it.

The six previous postings on Student Privacy can be accessed at:
1. Student Privacy at Risk
2. Student Privacy - Why Parents Should Care
3. Modern Technology as a Risk to Student Privacy
4. Teachers and Student Privacy
5. Confidential Student Information Revealed
6. FERPA: What Does Legitimate Educational Interest Mean?

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