Schanzenbach Testifies on Student Privacy in Education Research

Schanzenbach Testifies on Student Privacy in Education Research

SchanzenbachResearchers should help make parents and the public more aware of the security precautions already used to protect student privacy, Northwestern University professor Diane Schanzenbach told a House education committee, Sarah D. Sparks wrote in Education Week.

“Schanzenbach, whose research often includes student data from the National Center for Education Statistics, noted that every research project she has worked on included detailed data protocols—up to ‘some data that I could only access on a standalone computer that was not connected to the internet and that was kept in a locked safe when I wasn't using it,” Sparks wrote.

Schanzenbach, director of the Hamilton Project and professor of education and social policy at the School of Education and Social Policy, conducts research on policies related to children, including education policy.

The twin goals of conducting high-quality research while protecting student and data privacy at the same time “can be achieved by helping states adopt best practices to protect confidentiality while still partnering with researchers,” Schanzenbach said.

Schanzenbach illustrated the benefits of research with several examples, including a Chicago study where researchers discovered early warning indicators that predict high school dropout.

The research yielded a simple “Freshman On-Track” indicator based on ninth grade credit completion and course failures, and it found that on-track students are almost four times as likely to go on to graduate from high school than off-track students, Schanzenbach said.

Armed with this new information, individual schools now monitor their own students’ progress on this measure and can intervene early to get specific ninth and tenth-graders at higher risk of dropping out back on track and improve their likelihood of graduating.

“School districts across the country, including New York City, Dallas, Albuquerque, Omaha, and Philadelphia have adopted this approach to improve their graduation rates as well,” she said.

Schanzenbach, who is both a researcher and parent who shares concerns about student privacy, detailed how she and her colleagues must handle data by law. She stressed that while data have information about individual students, the research itself is never about individual students.

“The point is never to hone in on one individual, but instead to use a large number of individuals’ data to understand broader trends,” she said.

Moreover, shared data do not contain identifying information such as names or addresses, and often times contain an anonymized student number. Researchers receive basic demographic information, enrollment information, test scores, attendance rates, and other administrative records.

“Investments in data systems that support cutting-edge research offer an impactful mechanism to leverage state, federal and philanthropic funding to improve our education system and quality of life for millions of American children and their families,” she said. “The key is to ensure that we mitigate any potential risk without foregoing the desperately needed progress and benefits that this research can have, not only on our children’s education but ultimately outside of the classroom.”

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 6/30/17