The struggle to protect students’ privacy while making use of the data collected on them in school has for years been focused on the role of outside companies.
But while that debate has raged in Congress and statehouses across the country, K-12 school systems in more than a dozen cities and counties have quietly begun linking children’s educational records with data from other government agencies, covering everything from children’s mental-health status to their history of child-welfare placements and their involvement in the juvenile-justice system.
Proponents say that such intergovernmental “integrated data systems” can yield powerful insights that promote a more holistic understanding of children’s experiences. They point to an emerging track record of the information being used to improve policy, service delivery, and program evaluation.
Take, for example, Allegheny County, in southwestern Pennsylvania. After learning that 14,450 Pittsburgh public school students—more than half the district—had been involved in county human-services programs, officials there have worked to analyze the experiences of homeless students and children in foster care. They’ve initiated a new cross-sector effort to combat chronic absenteeism. Child-welfare caseworkers will soon receive weekly email alerts when children in their caseloads get suspended or miss multiple days of school. And district officials or school counselors and social workers could get similar notices when one of their students shows up in a homeless shelter, runs afoul of the law, or is moved from his or her child-welfare placement.
“It’s been transformational in understanding how a community, school districts, and other child-serving government agencies can come together to support kids,” said Erin Dalton, the deputy director of the county’s human-services department’s data-analysis, research, and evaluation office.
The administration of President Barack Obama and the U.S. Department of Education are both part of a growing national push for those kinds of data-sharing arrangements. But clearing the legal and technical hurdles to create such systems is difficult.
Turning the resulting data into better policies and fresh practices is even harder.
And the privacy concerns associated with integrated data systems—including potential breaches, the creation of inaccurate or misleading profiles, and possible stigmatization of children—are immense.
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