Privacy Matters

Jeffco schools to help set national standards for student privacy

Students at Edgewater Elementary School in Jefferson County work on iPads during class.

A new partnership between Jeffco Public Schools and 26 other districts nationwide could lead to more rigid security measures for student data.

For the next six months 27 school districts, working with The Consortium for School Networking, will work toward establishing a nationwide set of standards around student privacy. The end result will be known as the Trusted Learning Environment Seal that public schools can adopt to assure the community that their student’s data is protected.

The consortium is a professional association for district technology leaders.

“Our families and staff need to be able to trust the institutions, including ours, that have access to their data,” said Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee in a statement. “In the context of student and staff information, it is especially important to ensure the protection of personally identifiable information.”

Student’s personal data being shared with agencies outside the districts, for profit, has been a concern of parents and advocacy groups. Earlier this year, a bill that would have regulated more tightly how student data can be shared was killed at the General Assembly.

Jeffco’s participation in the consortium is a reaction to the public outcry prompted from a previous endeavor.

Student’s personal data being shared with agencies outside the districts, for profit, has been a concern of parents and advocacy groups. Earlier this year a bill that would have regulated more tightly how student data can be shared was killed.

Jeffco’s participation in the consortium is in part a reaction to the public outcry prompted from a previous endeavor.

In 2013, the suburban school district was a member of the student data pilot program known as InBloom, which was backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

InBloom was a cloud-based service that tracked a variety of student data, kept them on a central dashboard, and could be accessed by teachers. Some critics of the program said it was too invasive. The district, facing public outcry, eventually opted out of the program. And InBloom was shuttered quickly thereafter nationwide.

Jeremy Felker, director of instructional data reporting, said Jeffco was asked to participate in the consortium because of data security measures the district developed after leaving the InBloom program. The TLE Seal is not a cloud option for districts to securely store their data, but rather, a stamp of approval for taking precautions to protect student data.

Currently, Jeffco officials spend up to four weeks screening any software, free or paid for, for language that allows teachers and officials to share student information. The district has created a list of approved programs and cloud services.

“The TLE Seal is one more step in our process to ensure that Jeffco Public Schools is implementing best practices for protecting student and staff data,” said McMinimee.

At the end of the six months schools will be able to implement the TLE Seal to ensure the protection of their students’ data.

[Disclosure: Chalkbeat is a grantee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.]

 

discipline paradox

Do charter schools suspend students more? It depends on how you look at the data.

PHOTO: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
A student reads on a dotted carpet where students often sit for class at Harlem Success Academy.

A few weeks ago, a government watchdog agency released an extensive report on discipline in U.S. schools. It drew headlines for underscoring how black students, boys, and students with disabilities are much more likely to be suspended.

But there was one question that the report helped answer that didn’t get much attention: are charter schools more or less likely to suspend their students?

It’s a fraught topic, particularly as so-called “no-excuses” charter schools across the country have been criticized for what some see as overly harsh discipline. And the answer turns out to be complicated.

Here’s the latest national snapshot, which comes from 2013-14 data. Overall, charter schools have a somewhat higher out-of-school suspension rate — meaning the percent of students who were suspended at least once — than traditional public schools. But when you break down suspensions by students’ race, charters actually post slightly lower rates in each major group.

Source: GAO analysis of Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection Graphic: Sam Park

How can that be? It happens because charters and traditional public schools don’t have the same share of students in each student group. Charters serve a greater share of black students, for one, and those students are much more likely to be suspended than other groups in both sectors. (Statistics teachers, you can use this as a real-world example of what’s known as Simpson’s paradox.)

These findings highlight how complicated it is to fairly compare suspension rates across schools, and suggest that charter schools may have have similar — even lower — suspension rates than traditional schools, depending on how the data is sliced.

At the same time, some of the most-praised charters, particularly those in the “no-excuses” camp, really have been shown to post high suspension rates, even accounting for differences in student populations.

A 2013 study showed that attending a Boston charter school, often lauded for high test scores, substantially increased the amount of time students were suspended.

And to be clear, the GAO data show that black students at charter schools — and all kinds of schools in the report — still get suspended at a far higher rate than other charter students. Moreover, the report shows that charter schools are more likely to suspend students with disabilities than traditional public schools (12.9 percent vs. 11.6 percent).

Charters reported lower overall rates of in-school suspensions, referrals to law enforcement, expulsions, corporal punishment, and school-related arrests than traditional public schools.

All of this data describes what is happening, but it doesn’t explain why. And the report doesn’t look at other characteristics — like students’ motivation or academic performance — that may be related to their likelihood of being suspended.

Keep in mind that although the data that GAO relies on, the 2013–14 Civil Rights Data Collection out of the U.S. Department of Education, is widely cited, it has important limitations. In particular, some have found evidence in past data collections that schools, including charters, misreported discipline rates.

(The author of the GAO report noted in an email that the department had made efforts to catch data problems by flagging large districts that report zero suspensions. But since charters are usually relatively small, these checks may be less likely to catch errors among charter schools.)

Charter schools are also more likely to deliver instruction entirely through virtual programs, and those cyber charters may be unlikely to suspend students. A more appropriate comparison might be be between brick-and-mortar charters and brick-and-mortar traditional schools, but the data isn’t broken down that way.

This data is notable, in other words, but should be interpreted with caution.

Homework

The Detroit district’s first homework policy is in the works. See how much homework it recommends your child do every night.

Detroit students who are drowning in homework — or unable to complete it because of challenges at home — could soon find relief in a new policy.

The Detroit district on Tuesday proposed putting a cap on the amount of time students in different grade levels spend on homework. Kindergartners would be limited to 10 minutes of homework, while high school juniors and seniors would see their homework load capped at three hours total, across all subjects.

The proposed policy, which a school board subcommittee is now considering, would also prohibit schools from penalizing students who can’t do homework assignments in the allotted time. It would also prohibit teachers from assigning grades on homework assignments and limit how much they can count whether students completed homework to just 10 percent of their final grades.

The policy, which is the new district’s first attempt at a formal homework policy, may address educators’ concerns that a student’s ability to complete homework reflects how much or how little support she receives at home, not her academic abilities. Indeed, some research has suggested that homework can widen performance gaps between students from affluent and low-income families. Research has also found little benefit to homework for young students and diminishing returns for older students after a certain amount of time.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he expects the policy to be welcomed by local families and educators.

“This will be a shift,” he said. “I think for parents this will be well received and for teachers it will be well received.”

But questions are already emerging about how the policy would be implemented — and whether it should be.

“I think that it’s awesome,” board member and former teacher, principal, and superintendent Deborah Hunter-Harvill said. “But is it realistic? I doubt it.”

Because a maximum number of minutes of homework time per night is for all subjects, board member Misha Stallworth questioned whether teachers would need to use more time to coordinate assignments with their colleagues, taking away from their own lesson planning.

District officials are still trying to figure out how to implement and enforce the new time limits, Vitti said.

They might discover that involved parents could be an obstacle. Dana Dacres, a parent of five children attending Burton International Academy, said she spends close to half an hour on homework every night with her kindergartner alone — time that she said is valuable.

“I can see the idea — they don’t want the kids coming home after spending six, seven, or eight hours in the classroom and then having to ‘take your work home with you,’” she said, “but the reality is that some kids need a little bit extra.”

Dacres said she does like that the policy might force students to work more efficiently.

“The idea is to get the work done within the allotted amount of time,” she said. “I like the idea of students becoming good time managers.”

The policies are heard first at the public subcommittee meeting where members can suggest changes. They are then read at a public school board meeting before being voted upon by the full board.

Find the maximum number of minutes of homework per grade below.