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Witnesses: Must Find Balance Between Education Research and Student Privacy

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce, chaired by Rep. John Kline (R-MN), held a hearing today to examine federal policies affecting education research and student privacy. Members and witnesses discussed how education research is used, how states can protect student privacy while conducting education research, and what improvements can be made to update and strengthen federal policies in these areas. 
“Education research has long played an important role in our nation’s classrooms. States and school districts use research to identify teaching and learning strategies that improve classroom instruction and those that don’t,” Chairman Kline said. “New technology has made it easier to analyze student information and develop new ways to improve learning, but it has also left parents and students more vulnerable to the misuse of student information.”
Witnesses explained the positive role education research plays in providing states and local districts with critical information they can use to raise the bar on student achievement. They also underscored the importance of respecting student privacy and keeping student information safe and secure.

Rachael Stickland, a parent advocate for student privacy, testified that while parents agree student information can and should be used to help advance their children’s education, many are concerned about what will happen if information is compromised.
“Parents continue to seek answers to exactly what information pertaining to their children is being collected, who has access to the information and for what purpose, and when that information will be destroyed,” she said.
Neil Campbell, policy director for Next Generation Reforms at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, also acknowledged these concerns and emphasized the need for state and local leaders to strike a balance. “Effective privacy policies require a delicate balance,” Campbell said, “finding an intersection that respects parents’ desire to protect information about their children, acknowledges the capacity of state and local education agencies, and allows for innovative practices in schools.”
Robert Swiggum, deputy superintendent for the Georgia Department of Education, discussed how his state does just that—working closely with local districts to enable teachers and parents to easily access the information needed to improve education outcomes while still ensuring student privacy is protected.
“We provide access to data with the understanding that student-level information must be respected and protected while also acknowledging that student information is a vital resource for students, parents, and teachers in their educational planning,” Swiggum said. He added, “We continue to partner with our local districts today to make this system as meaningful as possible and to maintain its privacy and security.”
Jane Hannaway, a professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, agreed that the balance between education research and student privacy is achievable, saying, “With appropriate safeguards, I see no necessarily inherent conflict between research … and protection of student privacy. Indeed, I would argue that appropriate safeguards foster a healthy environment for research productivity.”
As technology in the classroom continues to advance, Congress will continue to seek out opportunities to strengthen federal privacy laws in a way that will protect both students and legitimate education research.
“Improving education remains a leading priority for our committee,” Chairman Kline concluded, “and it’s my hope we can take additional steps to improve education by enhancing education research and strengthening student privacy protections.”

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