Ask Arne: Procuring Privacy

When I think of privacy a few images pop into my head:  a “do not disturb” sign, the settings on my social media accounts, or me locking the bathroom door so that my kids can’t come barging in after me.

But the term “privacy” has taken on new meaning in the digital age, and is now accompanied by terms like big data, devices, and the cloud.

As I lead from the classroom, I struggle with one question, “How do I create and innovate while protecting my students’ privacy?”

And I am not the only one asking this question.

Throughout the past few months, I have had the privilege of attending several educational technology events in my capacity as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education and I have heard this question on repeat, along with a few others. What data is collected from students? Who has access to it? How is it used? I recently sat down with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to ask him about student data privacy. Watch the video below:

Personally, I love technology and I love data. I use data every day in my classroom as a method of measuring my effectiveness and my students’ progress. On a typical day, within the first seven minutes of my class, students will enter my room, grab their iPads, sign into our class website, and take a diagnostic survey or poll that builds upon prior knowledge, as well as introduces new concepts for that day’s lesson. These types of formative checks occur roughly five times within one block period and provide real-time data, real-time feedback, and allow me to personalize lessons based on students’ individual needs.  Consequently, the data collected from one class period serves as the foundation for the next class period.

According to the Fordham Institute, 95 percent of districts rely on cloud services for several purposes, such as monitoring student performance, supporting instruction, student guidance, as well as special services such as cafeteria payments and transportation.  While cloud storage is a common practice of school districts, the present concern is that districts are taking appropriate measures for safeguarding this data.

Currently, three keystone federal laws protect student privacy: The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.  More recently, the Department of Education announced the Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) to help educators interpret laws and gain access to best practices around student data and privacy. Furthermore, groups like Common Sense Media launched the School Privacy Zone Campaign in an attempt to support connected classrooms that protect and safeguard student privacy.

Today, I feel an even greater pressure to utilize data in rigorous ways that ensure my students are college-and-career-ready. The one way that I know how to meet the diverse needs of every student is to use technology. While I believe in the power of technology and its ability to transform learning, I also know that my students’ safety comes first. My hope is that schools, districts, states, and the federal government will continue working to create the right policies to support the needs of educators so that they may create and innovate in their classrooms, and protect their students.

Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.


  1. As a parent, if my student were asked to take a poll or survey five times in a class period I would wonder if the teacher ever actually talked with him to see what he may be struggling with or excited about. Does she/he even know who he is, what he likes and dislikes, Our local school implemented Common Core this year and jumped on the data/technology bandwagon. Our small, once student oriented school district has forgotten our kids in the rush to embrace these “reforms” and grab federal dollars. As a result, they’ll be lose more than they gain due to a mass exodus to private and home schooling. Put your iPads away and teach.

  2. One of the negative outcomes of monitoring with a single, narrowed focus is indeed a breech of the most valuable aspect of education: passion. Rather than seeking to light the fires of curiosity and inquiry in our students, we seek instead to fill them with data that is often formulaic. This data is then volleyed in return to the facilitating evaluator. No professional denies the value of data – as long as the collection of said data is used to enhance the learning process, rather than to foster evaluative distillation of the learning process itself and those who inspire it.

    Finland, for example, is one of the highest scoring countries in terms of standardized test scores. The country’s schools use the scores primarily for diagnostic rather than evaluative purposes. Germany has implemented project-based learning to connect curricula with real-world, 21st century skills. Learning is not a cluster of widgets nor is it a chart of scope and sequence. Rather, it is insight, practicality, point of view, discovery, and the ability to convert possibility into reality.

    As Aristotle stated, “Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.”

  3. Thank you for speaking about this and doing the work towards improving our shared concerns. As a Teacher of many years and a Substitute in the last several, I know my name is out there with the many students, families, and educators I have worked with. As a Substitute I have found my numerical number of connections have grown just by traveling from school to school and working in sometimes 3 different school districts. Privacy has been a concern for me when personal details of teachers are pulled up through apps and data bases by students and their families. I have talked about this with the technology people in the districts hoping there can be some simple solutions. Student information tends to be more protected than teachers, and as a Substitute, often districts have not considered the complications from the traveling Substitute perspective. As technology changes, privacy must be up dated to match the more modern needs, for students, teachers, and for Substitutes. Thank you for speaking about healthy limitations.
    Respectfully, Carol Godshall

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