A Conversation with Rachel Anderson

State longitudinal data systems (SLDS’s) can be a powerful tool to support students and improve state education systems. However, they carry serious privacy implications that require smart policymaking in order to appropriately secure students’ data privacy. A new case study by Rachel Anderson, Director of Policy and Practice at the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), in collaboration with the Institute for Higher Education Policy, takes a closer look at Louisiana’s efforts to implement relevant legislation and integrate privacy protecting policies to this effect.  While well-intentioned, many of these policies caused unintended consequences. Through this case study, titled “The Emergence of Data Privacy Conversations and State Responses,” Rachel hopes to illuminate the need for policymaking that responds to the complexities of these useful data systems while still protecting student data privacy and to identify the common lessons that can be learned by other states going forward.

On June 21, the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) interviewed Rachel Anderson about this new resource.

FPF: Tell us about the Louisiana case study.

Rachel: The idea behind this case study was that many states around the country over the last five or six years have looked to address student data privacy through legislation. While Louisiana’s journey is unique and informed by the state’s own particular context, conversations, and events, there are many transferable lessons from Louisiana’s work. Louisiana had an especially complex and robust conversation that resulted in two pieces of legislation that had tremendous impact on the state. For that reason, it’s really an ideal state to study in order to better understand what happened, how the conversations evolved, and some of the lessons that other states can learn.

Specifically, the goal was to distill some of the themes that were most prominent in Louisiana and that are mirrored in conversations around the country. Another goal was to articulate specific recommendations based on the actions that Louisiana took, including some of the unintended consequences and some of the positive outcomes that ultimately resulted from the legislative work.

FPF: One prominent theme was the gap between the intentions of the legislation versus the unintended consequences and harms that came about. Would you say this gap was particular to the Louisiana case?

Rachel: I think Louisiana was unique in the extent to which the privacy laws they passed ended up being quite disruptive for local school functioning. Nevertheless, they were certainly not alone in that policymakers were grappling with new issues and ended up looking to solutions that did not always play out exactly as designed. Louisiana represents perhaps the more extreme version of what happened in many states, which makes it a great example.

Data needs to provide value to educators and families. It cannot just be a compliance tool for policymakers. For people to have a productive conversation about both privacy and the value of data in supporting students, data has to provide a service.

FPF: What are some of the main takeaways from this case study?

Rachel: There are four main takeaways. First is that data needs to provide value to educators and families. It cannot just be a compliance tool for policymakers. For people to have a productive conversation about both privacy and the value of data in supporting students, data has to provide a service. It has to help families understand how well their school is doing or how their child is growing. It has to help educators look at their own practice and make better policy and programming decisions. It has to be a useful tool.

The second thing is that privacy needs to be a component of good data use in education. It cannot be an add-on or an afterthought. Third, it’s incredibly important for policymakers to talk with practitioners when they’re looking to design a law or policy. In many cases, an educator or district leader could have anticipated unintended consequences. Policymakers need to make an effort to hear these voices.

The fourth lesson is that policymakers need to think ahead to implementation. Merely passing a privacy law does not mean that privacy is suddenly protected. Policymakers must be willing to invest in guidance, templates and training, and all of the support and resources that make a law successful.

FPF: Based on your expertise in this field, was there anything particularly surprising or counterintuitive about the way things played out?

Rachel: I think that after years of legislative fixes to the original pieces of legislation, the state ended up in a very positive place. They had incredibly productive conversations about important questions. For example, what data does the state department of education actually need to conduct its responsibilities, or what do people really need to know when their district is working with a service provider? They came to all these important conversations; however, they came to them through a very chaotic period of unintended consequences and disrupted services. So the trick is for states to arrive at that valuable end point without going through the mess in the middle. What was counterintuitive is that these conversations really were valuable; they just did not happen in a very productive way.

FPF: What do you think were some of the factors that caused this conversation to happen so chaotically? And could this be avoided in the future?

Rachel: There were a number of factors in 2014, including Louisiana’s participation in the inBloom data management initiative and public conversations more generally about the growing role of data in education. At this time, data privacy violations in many areas of life were coming to light, including at Target and financial institutions, for example. These factors created an environment where policymakers in many states, not just Louisiana, felt that they needed to take immediate action. Unfortunately, acting so quickly caused some important considerations to be missed.

Louisiana’s policymakers have spent the last couple of years addressing many of the unintended consequences. Ultimately, it created a much larger scope of work for the state. I think they’ve come to a positive place, certainly compared to where they started.

FPF: Can you tell us about the intended audience for this resource and how it should be used?

Rachel: The audience for our materials is always state policymakers but also other local policymakers, advocates, and education leaders who work with the state policymakers and have powerful influence over the policies that their states enact.

Although the privacy conversation has been going on in earnest for several years now, policymakers are still acting. At DQC, our hope is that our analyses can help give them some context about where the conversation is going and what might and might not work if they’re looking to introduce legislation of their own. In addition, these resources can inform other policy conversations that are not necessarily directly connected to legislation. For instance, the state boards of education are often responsible for enacting legally required policies. Hopefully, this resource can help them think through some of the important themes, approaches, and consequences as well.

FPF: How does this particular case study fit in more broadly with other resources you are working on? Will this be part of a series of case studies?

Rachel: For DQC this case study is unique. We wrote it in conjunction with the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which is looking at how different parts of the policy, legal, and technical conversations are impacting higher education. DQC tracks all of the state legislation that impacts education data. There is more to come, although it will not be identical to this. For example, we will be putting out our annual analysis in September. This analysis will look across the states to see where the privacy conversation has landed today. We will be sharing much more information on the evolution of the national conversation, examples of what states are thinking about, and the methods and mechanisms within legislation they are finding to be effective.

This interview was conducted by FPF student contractor Ahuva Goldstand on June 21, 2019. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.