Everyone Has a Role to Play in Safeguarding Student Data

How students’ personal information is used and protected should guide the use of digital teaching tools.

How students’ personal information is used and protected should guide the use of digital teaching tools.
By Taryn Hochleitner
Principal, March/April 2017

Principals and teachers use student data every day to inform decisions that support learning, and they have always had a responsibility to protect that data and use it ethically. Yet new, tech-based instructional tools allow educators to use data to create personalized learning opportunities and improve student outcomes in unprecedented ways. As a result, principals and teachers must now take on the critical role as stewards of students’ personal information. They must also clearly communicate to families how data is used and protected in the classroom.

As schools employ new tools—often from trusted third-party providers—to enhance school operations and transform traditional ways of delivering instruction, parents and communities have raised legitimate concerns and questions about how students’ personal information will be used, accessed, and shared. Policymakers and advocates have listened to these concerns and prioritized developing 21st century policies to safeguard student data.

Since 2013, nearly every state has considered new legislation to address student data privacy: More than 400 bills have been introduced in state legislatures, and 37 states and the District of Columbia have passed 76 new laws. Many of these laws issue new requirements surrounding the way states and school districts collect, share, store, and use data, and some place restrictions on the activities of service providers that have access to student data.

While many of these new laws address education technology service providers and statewide data governance and procurement practices, student data privacy is not solely under the purview of IT professionals and state-level policymakers; everyone has a role to play. Beyond updated policies and practices, safeguarding student data requires establishing trust with families that students’ information will only be used in ways that open new doors of opportunity and never to harm them. It also requires ensuring that those with access to student data have the knowledge and skills to use it effectively and ethically. As those closest to students and families, principals and teachers are uniquely positioned to build this trust, and develop and support related transparency, communication, and training practices.

Principles to Abide

By Where to start? Principals and teachers should begin with affi rming their values for how student data should be used and protected. According to The Educator’s Guide to Student Privacy, in addition to such information as student name, address, grades, and disciplinary record, student data also comprises information “created or generated by the student or teacher in the use of technology— email accounts, online bulletin boards, work performed with an educational program or app, anything that is by or about the individual student in the educational setting.”

NAESP, along with 40 other national education organizations representing a diverse range of voices, is a supporter of the Student Data Principles, which are 10 foundational principles for using and safeguarding students’ personal information. NAESP and its partners believe passionately in the power of data to support student learning and believe that any policies and practices that involve students’ personal information should adhere to and build on these foundational principles in addition to existing federal, state, and local laws.


  • The Student Data Principles are the 10 fundamental values for safeguarding students’ personal information. studentdataprinciples.org
  • The U.S. Department of Education’s Privacy and Technical Assistance Center provides concrete guidance on best practices related to data privacy, security, and confidentiality. ptac.ed.gov/toolkit

The Student Data Principles affirm first and foremost that student information should only be used to support student learning. Student information should foster continuous improvement in both teaching and learning; inform, engage, and empower students, families, and educators; inform the professional judgment of educators; and be shared only for authorized school purposes.

Anyone with access to student information should follow clear rules that are publicly available, only have access to the minimum data they need to support student success, and be trained to ethically and effectively use student data.

Finally, the Student Data Principles state that schools and other institutions that collect and maintain student information should designate a group or staff member responsible for making decisions about student data. They should also notify the public in the event of misuse or a breach, develop security that follows industry best practices, and ensure families and students can easily have their questions answered.

5 Steps to Take

Schools can build on these foundational principles.

1. Display the Student Data Principles as a sign of the school’s values. Post the principles in offices and classrooms as a reminder of your school’s commitment to maintain the privacy and security of student data.

2. Demonstrate that data are used to further and support student learning. Give families (and students) access to their own child’s data that helps answer their questions about their child’s progress.

3. Proactively communicate with parents and the community about how data are used and protected. Anticipate questions parents might ask and be sure you can answer them. Families and students should also understand where they can go to learn about their privacy rights and find answers to their questions about student data collection, use, and security.

4. Establish processes that govern data collection and use, including with educational service providers. Make sure you understand existing state and district policies and what they mean for your school and your role in good data governance.

5. Ensure everyone who has access to student data knows his or her role and has the training to effectively and ethically use, protect, and secure it. Build your own understanding of your role, support your colleagues, and ask for additional training and guidance you might need.


Student data is collected from many sources and in many formats, although the type of data, and who can access it, varies.

Age, race, gender, economic status

Growth, courses, grades

Quizzes, interim Assessments

Attendance, behavior, program participation

Leaders seeking guidance for putting these principles into practice can look to several new resources and examples in the field. School systems across the country are establishing new practices to safeguard data, such as Maryland’s Howard County Public Schools, which created the position of data-privacy coordinator to oversee the district’s data activities. The district also holds privacy as a primary consideration when contemplating the use of any new digital tools. As another example, the Houston Independent School District developed and published the “Safety, Privacy and Security Rubric” to assess web applications for compliance with federal student privacy and security laws and to provide guidance for safe use in the classroom.

National supporters of the Student Data Principles have also developed resources and forums to help schools and districts ensure they are exercising these values. The Consortium for School Networking, in partnership with three national organizations and 28 school system leaders, identified a set of practices that ensure the privacy of student data, and an accompanying seal awarded to school systems that have implemented these practices. In 2016, seven school districts became the inaugural recipients of this “Trusted Learning Environment” seal. In addition, more than 3,000 school district leaders have signed the U.S. Department of Education’s “Future Ready Schools” pledge, which includes a commitment to protecting student data privacy. As part of a Future Ready coalition overseen by the Alliance for Excellent Education, these leaders have access to regional trainings and online tools— including a self-assessment—to support their ability to fulfill this commitment and develop practices to safeguard student data.

Even as education leaders increasingly look to innovative technologies and new educational models to improve student learning, the relationships and trust that teachers and school leaders build with their students and families remain at the heart of every school. Teachers and principals now have an incredible opportunity to both ensure that they are using data ethically and effectively to support their students, and to work with families to make sure they too get value from this powerful tool.

Taryn Hochleitner is a senior associate of policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign.

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