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It’s time for a calmer debate about student data privacy – oped by Bill Duncan in today’s Seacoast Sunday

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Here’s my oped from today’s Portsmouth Herald/Seacoast Sunday.

“Student data mining facts found on DOE Web site” screamed the headline on a letter to the Herald on Wednesday.

The letter itself claimed that someone is collecting “400 data points” saying, “The National Education Data Model is a comprehensive inventory of information that can be used by vendors and researchers.” And we hear more about how the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) has been re-written.

But Joey Cresta’s factual piece in the Herald on Sunday and Scott Marion’s authoritative letter last Tuesday had already addressed all this and found that there was no there there.

The first point to make is that, although you will hear about data privacy as part of the Common Core debate, there is no connection between the two. All the same laws apply now as applied before. Common Core supporters want student data privacy as much as opponents do. If someone finds a real hole — and we should all look — everyone will want to plug it.

But the fake risks, linked to the Common Core for no good reason but to aid opponents’ arguments, are merely this year’s version of “death panels,” playing on people’s fears.

Take the “400 data points” in the National Education Data Model, for instance. As the official Web site about it says, “NEDM is a conceptual data model and not a data collection. There are no data in NEDM or collected by NEDM.”

Actually, it’s a familiar concept from my own software business: if you and I want to exchange data, we need to agree on what data we will exchange and how we’ll name each piece of it so that when you send it to me, I will know what I’m getting. A committee thinks up every conceivable piece of data we might send each other and adds it to the data model, just in case someone might need to exchange it.

In our current heavy-breathing world, that becomes the basis for a national debate.

If there were a risk to a student’s private personal information, it would be when she takes the annual assessment, which used to be NECAP but will be a new test in 2015 called “Smarter Balanced.” Students taking the NECAP have not lost personal data over all these years and nothing changes in the Smarter Balanced test. We will not lose private student data there either. Here’s why.

The agreement with the group that administers the test (it’s a consortium of 24 states, all of whom are as concerned about student data privacy as we are) says that state law governs the data. Federal privacy laws are still in place and they are strict, regardless of what opponents say. But we as a state can put tighter limits on the data if we wish. And do we ever. Here’s what New Hampshire state law says about student data:

“Under no circumstances shall personally identifiable information or the unique pupil identifier be provided to any person or entity outside of New Hampshire.” That is definitive. There will be no data points that someone can tie back to a student’s name going out of New Hampshire.

The world of data management continually changes, though, and in this NSA snooping era, citizens are concerned and federal and state legislators will want to reassess the issue. We should all support that review.

But we should separate the real questions from letters full of ad hominem and fake umbrage in which everyone with a different view is an opponent of children.

The next legislative session will take up several bills about student data privacy. Look for the details. When someone says a child’s individually identifiable data will get to the federal government or a commercial company, ask what the path is. Where does that data sit now? How will it get from there to some outside database?

If, in response, bill sponsors can provide no more than conspiracy theories about empty data models and nefarious changes to FERPA, there will be no need for legislative action. But if there is a real hole, we should urge wide support for a bill to plug it.

You can go deeply into this subject at (here, for the posts about student data privacy). We will track every privacy bill as it works its way through the Legislature.

The writer is the founder of Advancing New Hampshire Public Education.


  1. bdub42 says:

    Is NH a RttT state? I don’t think it is, and therein lies part of the problem. Want to see why NY want’s the 400 points of data? Here’s the details of their RttT application, Q&A with the USDOE and more. The concern IS real especially here in NY. “New York’s Long Term Plans for Student Data-Mining: The P-20 Project” FERPA was clearly changed twice in recent years, by exec order, to permit more open data sharing. Are we still playing on people’s fears here in NY? Absolutely not. In order for NY to receives the over $700 million of federal RttT money they HAVE to collect this data, design new data warehouses, permit the data sharing so companies can develop new products that will solve our educational woes. That IS fact. Go ahead and prove me wrong. In the mean time, we work to opt our kids data out of this unproven mess.

    • Bill Duncan says:

      Yes, NH has waived NCLB, but was savvy in its negotiation with USDOE and got, essentially, our own NH education policy into the agreement. There’s lots about that on the site, if you’re interested. Search on “waiver.”

      But one of my recurring points is that education policy is a state matter, even in the context of RTTT and the rest. You may have a lot of bad policy in NY, and a bad CCSS implementation (I don’t know enough about NY to say) but that says nothing about NH policy, NH data policy, Common Core in NH or anything else.

      So I try to separate state policy from those issues.

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