Technology certainly has come a long way since the days of the mimeograph and the overhead projector. And while technology promises enormous benefits in education, it’s also brought with it heightened awareness of the increasing collection and use of student data in schools, and questions about appropriate security precautions to protect student privacy. In Colorado, we have seen the effects of these concerns not being promptly and aggressively addressed by companies and policy makers. This was the case in Jefferson County, where control of the School Board was altered due largely to parents concerned about new uses of student data.  

The intersection of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act of 1998, a growing number of state laws, district policies, vendor contracts, and privacy policies create a situation in which it is hard to tell what protections and rights exist for children or for adults. To witness this trend is to worry that legitimate privacy concerns threaten to derail the potential of education technology to improve personalized learning.

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That’s why earlier this year, this op-ed's co-author Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.) called upon school service providers and education stakeholders to come together around a set of effective and appropriate expectations and commitments on data privacy in schools. The result after months of negotiations and focus groups with school stakeholders, the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) and the Software Information Industry Association (SIIA) – as well as many leading education technology companies including Microsoft –was a “student privacy pledge” for K-12 school service providers to safeguard student privacy.

The pledge details 12 strong commitments that its charter signatories have promised to abide by regarding the collection, maintenance, and use of student personal information.

The National Parent Teacher Association was among the first to show its appreciation for this effort. “While technology is a powerful tool for teaching and learning, it is imperative that students’ personal information is protected,” the organization’s president, Otha Thornton, said. “National PTA applauds K-12 school service providers that have pledged to safeguard student data and privacy and effectively communicate with parents about how student information is used and protected. We look forward to even more support going forward.”

While data is intended to support student learning, information about its use is often delivered in unclear terms, and parents’ rights are not always clearly delineated. As the pledge states, school service providers commit to disclose clearly in contracts or privacy policies what types of student personal information will be collected, and the purposes for which the information maintained is used or shared with third parties. Parents believe in technology, and want their children to have access to the best tools to support their learning. This kind of information is critical for ensuring that parents are able to trust school service providers to use information only for the intended purposes.

Microsoft is proud to be among the charter signatories to the pledge and shares their collective commitment to collect, use, share, and retain student personal information only for the purposes for which the companies are authorized. These standards are rigorous but adaptable, comprehensive, yet easily comprehensible for parents and education stakeholders. And the pledge is a demonstrable way that companies like Microsoft can show their promise to support and protect its customers, as well as to educators, families, and communities.

We are proud to come together as strong advocates for privacy and believers in the power of personalized learning to improve education. We invite other companies to join us and make a promise to parents to safeguard student data and communicate with education stakeholders. Together we can move education and education technology forward in a safe and effective way.

Polis has represented Colorado's 2nd Congressional District since 2009. He sits on the Education and the Workforce and the Rules committees. Smith is general counsel and executive vice president of Microsoft.