EdData Privacy Update: 5/22/2015

EdData Privacy Update: 5/22/2015

The current flurry of state and federal legislation reflects a national consensus: safeguarding student information is important. The uptick of attention paid to student privacy is understandable given the recent shift of education technology—and data use—from the fringes of classroom culture to the mainstream. Also a part of this national conversation is the need to protect teacher information. States, districts, and the service providers they work with collect data on teachers and while some information on teachers may be of public interest, other information is sensitive and must be safeguarded.

How can we think about teacher information?

Much like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) designates some student information (such as name, address, grade level, participation on sports teams, etc.) as directory information that can be disclosed in more situations than other parts of a student’s record, there are two ways to think about teacher data:

  • Employee information (name, address, information about teachers’ education, certifications, and experience, etc.)
  • Performance information including student growth data and classroom observations (e.g., data that’s often used for teacher evaluation)

Most of the headlines about teacher data focus on performance information, but employee information is a critical piece of the teacher privacy picture as well.

Questions around when and how states should disclose teacher performance data are leading states into largely uncharted territory. At the crux of the issue is the question: Do parents (or the community, or policymakers) have a right to know teacher evaluation scores? If yes, does the right to be informed outweigh a teacher’s right to privacy? The answers to these questions have very real implications for teachers, parents, and communities. For example, much debate was sparked back in 2010 when the Los Angeles Times published the value-added ratings and names of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was met with swift backlash from teachers and unions. More recently, Virginia has been in the spotlight after a parent sued state officials to force the release of teacher evaluation data under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

How do existing state laws protect teachers?

Most states have laws that govern access to employees’ personnel records. Some states’ open-records laws and court interpretations give the public a right to access employee evaluations. In other states, government officials can keep some information from employees’ personnel records strictly confidential. Many other states determine public access to employee records on a case-by-case basis.

Still, state employee privacy laws don’t always apply to teacher data. Where general employee privacy laws are not sufficient, states can implement policies specific to teacher data. For example, New York limits the disclosure of teacher evaluation information to parents or guardians of students in the teacher’s class. The public can still see evaluation data, but only with the names of teachers removed. Tennessee and Louisiana have strong teacher privacy laws. The Tennessee law specifically addresses the disclosure of teacher performance data to the press, whereas the Louisiana law offers a more comprehensive look at teacher evaluation, including the parameters for disclosure of teacher performance data.

What legislation have states considered around teacher privacy in 2015?

A few states have made efforts to protect teacher privacy in 2015 legislation—most by simply applying the state’s protections of student data to teacher data as well. Eight states have introduced 13 teacher privacy bills so far in 2015, all of which deal with protecting teachers’ employee information. In comparison, during the same time period, 45 states introduced 178 bills and passed 12 laws relating to student privacy.  Only few states this year have introduced bills to keep data on teacher performance private; for example, South Carolina introduced a bill to prevent through FOIA the disclosure of teacher evaluation records that could identify an individual with the goal “to promote candid feedback for continuous improvement of teaching and learning.”

Looking ahead, what should we be aware of?

As states continue to develop laws that both protect teacher privacy and provide critical data to schools and parents, they’ll need to address some important issues including:

  • How to ensure teachers have access to their own data and are empowered to use this information to reflect and improve on their practice.
  • How to protect privacy while avoiding any unintended consequences that might interfere with established education practices. For example, prohibiting videotaping in a classroom could have unintended consequences for professional development opportunities or teacher evaluations processes. Limiting when teacher data can be shared could prevent the state from providing feedback to teachers’ preparation programs on how their graduates do in the classroom.
  • How to protect teacher privacy when they use a third-party website/app.

States must work to ensure that all education data are used as a flashlight to illuminate best practices and successful pathways, not as a hammer to punish perceived failures. As states continue to create student and teacher data and privacy laws, they can find ways to protect privacy and turn on the light!