Like many well intentioned education policies and privacy laws we’ve seen enacted over the years, FERPA was enacted to protect the rights of the weak, in this case children, from the powerful and unscrupulous, such as school bullies and identity thieves. That was a laudable goal to be sure. However what the law has morphed into is a perversion of it’s former self that makes the former threats seem all but trivial in comparison.
FERPA has become a bureaucratic breastplate for departments of education, and their Reform branded buddies, to shield their Grinch sized hearts, and to hide their failed and flawed policies behind. It’s no coincidence that strict FERPA enforcement has come at the absolute worst time for external stakeholders; such as independent researchers and the parents and children themselves.
We could debate the relative merits of concealing the fact that there were 10 or fewer Asian American students in a school of a 1000 is a necessary or worthwhile goal, especially if it means you couldn’t reveal the total student population is1000 because you could then back into the number 10. However the real problem is that FERPA allows DOEs to claim anything they want about any of their programs without independent third parties being able to verify their claims. FERPA protects DOE’s way more than it could ever protect your children.
FERPA requires DOEs mask small numbers of anything, even the very good or the very very bad. One of those Asian’s might have either been expelled as a mass murderer or the school valedictorian. The reasoning goes, if you reveal that statistic, someone could figure out the identity of the mass murderer or valedictorian or at least narrow the choices down to 10 candidates. Even though everyone in the school and local community would already know this information from firsthand knowledge; the Federal government feels strongly that other than those few hundreds or thousands of people that witnesses a Columbine slaughter or graduation ceremony, no one else is entitled to that information.
I’m not even talking about names or SSN’s here folks, just a simple statistic! And because you’ve masked one number you are forced to mask most other information that could be derived from it! In theory, and lately in practice, if any subgroup had a small population (say 10 or less) then you couldn’t reveal the race of the mass murderer or valedictorian because if they weren’t Asian, or Hispanic, or a female American Indian 4th grader, then you would be revealing something about some individual or small subgroup [in this case the lack of something i.e. being a mass murderer or valedictorian] and thus infringed on their right to privacy; or so the theory goes.
The law has been carried to the extreme with the end result being State Departments of education can’t or won’t share de-identified, or even summarized data in many cases, to most researchers. This makes oversight and review of their data in regards to Special Education students, charter school performance, accountability systems, voucher student performance, disciplinary equity and disproportionality, Value Added, etc almost impossible for external groups to independently analyze and verify. We are left to rely on the DOE’s, politicians, and special interest groups running these departments to tell us that everything is going great, and all their reforms are wonderful!
That’s not to say DOE’s don’t collaborate with external groups! They can, and quite often do, simply choose to cooperate with friendly organizations, where they are assured of the outcome they are looking for up front to rubber-stamp their policies, and not to cooperate with ones they view as impartial or unfriendly, simply by making a FERPA assertion.
We’ve let the FERPA into the hen house. We let it in when we were told it would watch over and protect our children. All it is doing is eating them (and feeding them to its ravenous friends in Reform clothing) while we stand helplessly outside straining to hear even a cheep.