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While writing a recent column about teachers conducting educational studies in their own classrooms, I was curious about when they might need to inform their students’ parents about this research and obtain parental permission. As I dug into the rules governing informed consent in educational research, I was surprised to learn that parental consent often isn’t required by law. That’s the case not just in teacher-led studies but even when outside researchers are studying which teaching methods or materials work best in the classroom.

The main federal rule on protecting humans during experiments generally requires their consent or a parent’s consent when the human is under 18 but there is a major exception, written expressly for education. Parental consent isn’t needed when the researcher is studying “normal” educational practices in a classroom that are “not likely to adversely impact students’ opportunity to learn.”  That includes “most research on regular and special education instructional strategies,” from evaluating the effectiveness of one approach to comparing different approaches with each other.

Education researchers enjoy this extra freedom because, unlike medical researchers, they’re not injecting potentially harmful drugs into children and policymakers wanted to encourage teachers to try different things and improve their craft. 

“From the very, very first edition of rules around protecting the rights of research participants, they have always carved out this exception for educational practice,” said Kimberly Kendziora, an education researcher who chairs the Institutional Review Board at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research organization, “because everybody wants continuous improvement and exactly this kind of inquiry process to be happening. Nobody wants there to be barriers.”

Consent can be a barrier because it’s time-consuming and difficult to send permission slips home in children’s backpacks and make sure every parent signs them and returns them back to school. Imagine if teachers had to go through this consent process every time they wanted to test a new way to teach reading or try out a new approach for managing classroom behavior. Most teachers wouldn’t bother to try new things or check if they worked. 

Consent is required, however, when the research involves something that isn’t “normal” classroom practice. Deciding what’s “normal” involves the personal judgment of people like Kendziora, who serve on institutional review boards at research universities and organizations. Some large school systems, such as New York City’s, have their own institutional review boards and require any studies on their students be vetted by it first. Independent researchers can decide on their own if parental consent is needed but if they hope to publish in a peer-reviewed journal, their study needs to be reviewed by an outside board. 

Legally, the federal rule applies only to federally funded research but, as a matter of practice, review boards abide by federal rules even when no federal money is involved. New York City’s review board has a reputation for being more demanding and asking for parental consent when other review boards don’t. The decentralized process means that an identical experiment might seek parental consent in one school but not another. 

What frequently triggers the need for parental consent is not the classroom intervention itself but the tools used to evaluate its effectiveness. If those metrics are already happening in the classroom anyway — quizzes, homework assignments, course grades — then parental consent can be avoided, according to Kendziora. But parental consent is required if a researcher wants to introduce an extra test, give students a special survey or interview students, all things that wouldn’t normally be happening in a classroom. Video and audio recordings and photographs, often used to document what is going on in a classroom during a study, require parental consent.

Deciding what might “adversely impact” a child’s opportunity to learn is another vague clause in the federal rules. No one would study educational interventions that they believe would harm children. But some studies can take away precious instructional time from other subjects. A 2018 update to the federal rule on education experiments clarifies that parental consent is necessary if the experiment is particularly time consuming.

There are additional student privacy laws that can separately trigger the need for parental consent.  The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)  generally requires written permission from a parent to release information from a student’s records. However, researchers can often obtain student records such as test scores and grades without parental consent if student privacy can be protected, say, by attaching anonymized student numbers instead of names to them. The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA) requires parental consent for giving surveys to children.

When parental consent is required, the form it should take is a matter of frequent debate. Parent signatures are especially difficult to obtain in low-income and immigrant communities. But to exclude low-income children from classroom studies would mean that researchers would be unable to study the children that they may be trying to help. 

One common solution to this permission slip problem is to allow “passive consent” where a letter or an email is sent home to families explaining the study and notifying them how to opt out. That enables a researcher to include many more low-income students in a study but I doubt if all the parents read the letter, understand the study and consciously give their consent.  

How much information to tell parents about a study is fraught too. If you tell parents that you are studying homework, for example, that might prompt parents to help their kids and ruin the analysis. When students know their learning is being carefully monitored, they might put more effort into an assignment than they otherwise would. That extra student effort can make an intervention look more successful in research than it would be in the real world. 

Even when there isn’t a legal requirement to obtain parental consent, getting permission might feel like the right, ethical thing to do. Parents don’t want to be surprised about what’s going on in their children’s classrooms. And seeking consent first protects school systems against parent outrage and lawsuits.

Language can make a big difference.  In the social media age, parent anger over “experimenting” on children like “guinea pigs” travels fast.

“I think the word experiment is a trigger,” said Kendziora. “For some people, it conjures labs and white coats and bubbling beakers.” 

When it comes to seeking parental consent, researchers and educators are in the increasingly difficult position of having to balance competing values between honoring parents’ rights and generating more evidence for improving schools.  It may be hard to win parental support for education research and tempting to avoid seeking parental consent if it’s not absolutely necessary. But I think the way forward is to educate the public about why science is good and why trying new things in the classroom is necessary if we want our children to achieve more.

This story about parental consent was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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