Personal Privacy in an Information Society. Elementary and Secondary Educational Institutions


The ways in which record keeping about students in elementary and secondary education differs from record keeping about students in higher education can be understood by examining six features of the record-keeping relationship in the two systems: (1) the role of records in decision making; (2) institutional decision-making responsibilities and authorities; (3) variations in organizational settings; (4) the ways in which records are created and used; (5) record-keeping responsibilities and authorities; and (6) disclosure practices.


Elementary and secondary educational institutions share responsibility for the intellectual, social, and ethical development of a student with the student's parents and with others who deal with youth, such as child welfare and juvenile justice agencies. In pursuing this broad mission of child development, schools provide instructional services, regulate behavior, report to parents on academic performance and social conduct, diagnose student needs, and conduct special programs for students. The visible decisions they make concern matters such as class placement and promotion, eligibility for special educational programs (such as for handicapped or gifted children), eligibility for public assistance and social services programs (school breakfast and lunch programs, for example), and major disciplinary decisions, such as suspension or expulsion. Much less visible are the series of small decisions they make which subtly shape a student's educational career: decisions about the speed with which a child's development should be fostered in specific areas of academic course work or personal conduct, for example, or about the sanctions and rewards that should be used to discipline or encourage a child.

The main characteristic of decision making about students in elementary and secondary education is that it is contextual. Regardless of the philosophy of education a school espouses, elementary and secondary school professionals generally believe that decisions must be made on the basis of the "whole child"; that is, that intellectual and social development are intimately related. This encourages schools to assemble so much information about students that it becomes difficult to determine which information is or was the basis for a particular decision. Both in routine decision making, such as when class placement or promotion is at issue, and in decision making based on fairly specific criteria, such as when public assistance or social services eligibility must be decided or suspension or expulsion proceedings concluded, the practice is to look at such a multiplicity of factors that the relationship between specific items of information and the ultimate decision becomes increasingly unclear.


Public schools are given broad authority to make decisions about students. Public elementary and secondary institutions must deal with all children. Admission is not selective, nor can public schools set performance standards that would eliminate certain students from the student body or narrow the variety of programs that will be offered. Thus, while they strive to cooperate with parents, the degree to which public schools share authority with parents has been largely left to schools to decide.

Most public educational institutions are special-purpose local governments created by State law, accountable to the people of the school district through locally elected and appointed school boards and school officials. State education laws place limits on the authority of schools, and prescribe due process procedures that order decision making and reinforce parental control. Nevertheless, a State code cannot regulate all placement and treatment decisions, and many such decisions are not visible enough to parents to induce their involvement. Parents of private and parochial school students have the option of withdrawing their children from the school if they dislike the manner in which the school exercises its authority, but beyond that, parents have little ability to control decisions made by elementary and secondary schools about their children, even in the private school setting.


Elementary and secondary education occurs in a diversity of organizational settings. Despite a strong trend toward consolidation, there are still more than 15,000 school districts in this country. Within and among districts there is also great variation in size, organizational complexity, types of special services offered, and intensity of involvement in economic and social issues, such as racial balance, drug use, juvenile crime, and cultural disadvantage. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, serves over 600,000 students. It has more employees providing administrative and special educational services than classroom teachers, different organizational structures for its instructional services than for its special ones, and its own police force to cope with juvenile crime problems. It also receives massive Federal funding.4 In contrast, some small consolidated rural school districts serve fewer than 10,000 students, maintain a high teacher-to-suppport staff ratio, offer only a few special services, have few delinquency problems, and receive minimum Federal support.

Despite these differences in organizational setting, however, all schools today have some common characteristics that affect the way they collect, maintain, use, and disclose information about students.

  • Schools are tending to rely more on records than on personal contact in arriving at decisions.
  • As maintaining order and sharing decision making with parents become more difficult, school officials feel a greater need for autonomy and for confidentiality in communicating with other school officials.
  • Policy-making functions have been increasingly centralized as a consequence of growth and consolidation of school districts, but administrative decisions and policy implementation remain decentralized and generally free of monitoring by a central authority.
  • Children are assigned and treated according to special categories established on the basis of various characteristics and performance indicators.
  • Educational personnel have become increasingly professionalized, and thus more attentive to the standards of their particular professional specialties than to those of the institution that employs them.
  • Any school or school district is a microcosm of the community in which it exists and hence, to the degree that juvenile crime, racial conflict, drug and child abuse, and other social problems exist in communities, schools have to deal with them both alone and in cooperation with other community institutions.
  • Because most school districts are over committed, driven by contradictory demands to deliver more services and cope with social problems while reducing costs or holding them constant, record-keeping problems cannot successfully compete with other demands for their time, attention, and resources.


The content of school records is to some extent required by State education laws and local school boards. Information such as the child's name and birthdate, immunizations, and a certain amount of descriptive information about family background at the time of enrollment are usually required. Thereafter, grades and credits are added to a student's record, along with health information, test scores, actions authorized by the school, parental authorizations or prohibitions, and family financial data. In addition, a student record now almost always includes information about the behavior and personality of the student, his social life; and the status, attitudes, and behavior of his family. For example, one school district's guidelines5 allow the accumulation of information about

  • family life-attitudes of parents toward the school, stability of the home, the social and economic status of the family;
  • personal characteristics-aggressiveness, amount of attention demanded, reaction to sexual development; and
  • social life-crushes, boy-girl relationships, kinds, numbers, and age of friends, and membership in churches, lodges, or fraternal organizations.

Much of the information about a student is kept at the school in a cumulative record, but some information-such as psychological test data, records of family visits by school social workers, eligibility for special programsis maintained separately.

Methods of collecting information vary. Much of it is provided to the school directly by the student or his parents, while other information comes from test scores and teacher or administrative evaluations. So-called "anecdotal information" is created by the institution on its own initiative from observation of the student; from analysis, interpretation, and synopsis of information already on record; and from interpretations made by the person creating the record when information provided by the student or parent is insufficient.

Anecdotal information tends to be negative. Elementary and secondary institutions normally have resources available to them for the detection and treatment of special student problems. Thus, the task of detecting problems early and providing special treatment to remedy them creates a diagnostic bias toward negative information. This bias may grow when there are institutional or fiscal incentives to over-identify problems. It also can grow when the methods of diagnosing a problem leave room for interpretation, or when the person making the entry is not professionally qualified to report a diagnosis (e.g., the diagnosis of unruly children as hyperkinetic by people who are not medical professionals).

There are few limits on a school's internal use of education records in making administrative and instructional decisions about students. School authorities do not hesitate to seek and use whatever information about the student's background and personality might seem to bear on his academic performance. Even those special programs to which a child is assigned on the basis of some specific characteristic tend to use a broad base of information in making decisions about him once he is in the program. Individualized instruction, "mainstreaming" (i.e., incorporating educationally handicapped children and programs designed especially for them into the normal classroom situation) and team teaching-all popular innovations in elementary and secondary education today-are likely to intensify rather than diminish this reliance on a large number of factors in evaluating a student.

Standards regarding the content and use of records often exist on paper but are rarely put into practice. The best information management practices are found in academic grading. Grades are systematically created by processes generally known to parents and students and are documented and regularly reported to them. For other types of records, however, there are few generally accepted standards of relevance or propriety. Administrative control of record keeping is minimal. While most institutions define what they consider to be basic information, individual educators generate a wealth of other records. For example, many individualized instruction programs require a diagnostic profile of each child to be used in making day-to-day instructional decisions about him. Without systematic quality control, however, the information in records of this type is bound to reflect the varying competencies of the professionals who create them.

Some elementary and secondary school districts have guidelines specifying the kinds of information members of the school staff may enter in a student's cumulative record. For example, a guideline might specify that entries include only firsthand observations, noting the time and place of the observation and the identity of the observer. To make such guidelines effective, however, the staff must be trained to follow them and student records must be systematically reviewed for compliance.

Given the multiple functions and broad responsibilities of elementary and secondary schools, the differences among them, and the emphasis on the whole child, there is understandable disagreement about what standards for record keeping should be. Even if standards for relevance, propriety, and reliability of information were firmly established, it would be difficult to monitor their application because record keeping in most school systems is so decentralized.


The authority of educational institutions to collect, use, and disclose information about students is even broader than their authority to make administrative and instructional decisions. State laws usually do not restrict the collection of information, nor do they surround the information that forms the basis of educational decisions with due process protections.

Local boards of education seldom involve themselves in developing record-keeping policies, leaving it to professional educators, whose primary concern is school management, to establish such policies. Educators, in turn, have given the matter little attention and have seldom consulted parents and students about what information is collected or how it is used. As records come to substitute for personal interaction, educators understandably come to view records as their own and view the involvement of parents and students in decisions about record keeping as a threat to their autonomy and an implied insult to their integrity.


Most elementary and secondary institutions have a tradition of treating records about students as "within the family," that is, as entrusted to the school for use by the school. The tradition is being challenged by both internal and external pressures. Increased specialization has divided responsibility within the school among teachers, psychologists, social workers, security personnel, and professional school administrators. Each type of school employee tends to have different relations to outside agencies and professionals. Thus, a school social worker, for example, relates as much to a colleague in a child welfare or corrections agency as he does to his. school principal. Moreover, he often needs the assistance of professionals in those agencies who turn to him for assistance as well.

Some believe that schools exceed the limits of justifiable sharing of information about students or their families. For example, in school districts troubled by gang violence or drug abuse, school disciplinarians may informally share information about student behavior with local law enforcement agencies. In Maryland, for example, a county government began collecting information about students' families ostensibly to establish the students' eligibility to attend county schools, but the information was routinely shared with motor vehicle and taxing authorities for purposes having little or nothing to do with the educational mission of the school district.6

A school district may also transfer individually identifiable information from student records to other State agencies in order to establish the district's eligibility for categorical funds. In addition, school districts also share individually identifiable records with State and Federal agencies or their contractors for audit, program evaluation, research, and statistical purposes. Decisions to use student records for research purposes are usually made at the level of the individual school, whether or not policies regarding such use exist at the district level.

The Commission's findings indicate that practices with respect to research use of student records in elementary and secondary school districts vary widely.7 In some districts the outside researcher is considered a nuisance. In others, it appears that close relationships exist between school personnel and university-based researchers who share a common interest in the use of student records for research purposes. In most cases, however, research has little or nothing to do with the immediate education of the child whose records are used, nor does it directly benefit the child or the school. While some schools seek parental consent before disclosing records for research purposes, or parental participation if the project entails the collection of new information, practices at the elementary and secondary level seem to present few barriers to the use of student records for research purposes.

Education records, like hospital records, public assistance and social services records, and other administrative records are becoming a valuable commodity for large-scale studies. Schools are finding it more difficult to resist research demands on their records or to control the conditions of use and redisclosure, especially if the research is sponsored by an agency that supplies them with funds.


While any generalizations about a world as large and diverse as elementary and secondary education must have numerous exceptions, the Commission's inquiry led it to the following general conclusions with respect to the records elementary and secondary educational institutions generate about students.

  • School record-keeping practices are often anachronistic and institutional interests tend to overshadow the interests of students and parents in the collection, use, and dissemination of education records.
  • Given the demand for curriculum reform, improvement of service delivery, and cost reduction, there is little incentive to devote the time, energy, or money to update or substantially modify record-keeping practices.
  • The character of educational record-keeping systems (e.g., the range of information they include, its subjectivity, and the lack of criteria for relevance or propriety) create privacy problems for an individual whose ability to protect himself is weak.
  • The authority of the institution, the uncertain relationship between decisions and information, and the institution's weak accountability to its students and their parents further diminish the individual's ability to cope.
  • As educational records become more important, educational institutions tend to see control over them less as a stewardship on behalf of students than as a prerogative that cannot be shared with students and parents.
  • The pressures for more collection and dissemination of information will continue, and there is little to counter them