Lawmakers and Advocates Work to Plug Gaps in Student Privacy Law

Apps and online tools for kids with learning differences are popping up in schools everywhere. And they can help many struggling students learn. But how secure is the data collected on these tools? Many parents wonder.

A 1974 federal law called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) covers student privacy. It protects “personally identifiable” information in school records. That means names, addresses, phone numbers and anything else that could identify a child.

But FERPA is 40 years old, and experts say it has gaps. For example, many apps aren’t created by schools, but by companies. These companies aren’t covered under FERPA. There are also new kinds of information, like metadata, that may not fall within the law.

One advocate of change who has spoken out is the CEO of Common Sense Media, James P. Steyer. Common Sense Media is a founding partner of Understood.

“Current federal laws are insufficient to protect the privacy and security of students’ personal information in today’s connected classroom,” Steyer said in an interview on the Center for Digital Education website.

There have been several attempts to fill in the gaps in FERPA. So far, more than 30 states have passed or are considering laws on student data privacy.

Most of these laws focus on making sure student data is safe and secure. Some also bar companies from selling student data or using it for marketing. And a group of more than 100 companies has pledged to protect data they collect.

The U.S. Department of Education is working on the issue, too. It has sent several guidance messages to schools about how to manage student data.

The latest tells schools to take special care before agreeing to use apps or online technology in classrooms. Schools should make sure data isn’t used to market to students, says the department. And they should also be wary about how apps share data.

But collecting data is important, too, experts say. It helps schools figure out if children are learning. It also helps them evaluate whether new technology or new ways of teaching are working. And that can lead to improvements that help kids even more.

Recently, 31 education groups issued new Student Data Principles. The groups say data is critical to “improving students’ achievement in school.” They want to protect student data—while also making sure it can be used to help students.

Now members of Congress are trying to help, too. Two Congressmen have been working on a new bill meant to protect data and satisfy everyone—parents, schools and tech companies. It’s called the Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act.

The situation is still in flux. But the good news is that many groups are working to protect student data privacy. Unfortunately, the issue may not be resolved until there’s an update to FERPA.

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About the author

About the author

Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.