Access, Communications, Transparency

From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of August 24

From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of August 24

As we all try to understand our rapidly evolving education environment during the COVID-19 crisis and the uncertainty that surrounds it, the Data Quality Campaign is working to elevate what’s happening – whether it’s concrete examples of what’s working in states and districts, ideas and proposals from the field, or things our organization and others are exploring. To accomplish this, we’re bringing you our thoughts on the most salient conversations happening in the last week on navigating education during the pandemic and future recovery efforts.

We’re writing this column together to combine our perspectives: Jenn brings years of experience in the classroom and in education leadership at the district and federal levels, while Paige’s expertise comes from more than a decade working on state and federal education data policy and issues. Check back weekly for our roundup of noteworthy thinking on education data and policy.

Paige is taking some time for rest and relaxation, so Jenn’s sharing her thoughts today.

Recently, the Florida Department of Education confirmed in a memo that statewide assessments would be part of their 2020-2021 school calendar. Florida is the latest state—joining Arkansas, New Hampshire and New Mexico—to signal its commitment to assessments this school year.

Assessments shine a light on how students are progressing and help leaders identify necessary supports and direct them to the groups of students that need those supports. Bellwether Education Partners’ Chad Aldeman recently wrote in The 74 about how Thailand dealt with testing following the country’s devastating floods in 2011. While the comparison isn’t perfect, Aldeman tells the story of students in Thailand—for whom the stakes of these assessments are incredibly high—and how they fared on assessments just two months after the catastrophe. In the US, there was healthy debate about assessments before the pandemic, and our country now faces challenges in how leaders should administer assessments in 2021 that are potentially remote while many students still do not have access to high-speed internet or devices to attend school online. The Thailand example demonstrates that not all students experience disruptions in the same way, and leaders need the data from tests to understand the differential impacts. One thing is undeniable: we cannot measure what we cannot see.

Understanding challenges from a local perspective. A Los Angeles Times survey of 45 Southern California school districts found huge differences in online learning among children attending school districts in high- and low-poverty communities. Students from high-poverty communities, most of which are majority Latino, did not have access to online learning immediately after schools shut down and it took a month or more for many students to resume learning online. This survey data should remind us of the toll that the digital divide is taking on our most vulnerable students during the pandemic. Without access to internet and a device, students are falling even further behind. It should be a priority for districts and states to collect data on which students are able to connect and which students cannot. With this data available, leaders can make decisions to benefit all students—and ensure that they are able to attend online instruction.

Understanding and capturing attendance and student engagement during online learning hasn’t been easy – and local leaders have taken different approaches to measuring this information. This article discusses how, in New York, “schools are responsible for developing a specific mechanism to take attendance and track ‘teacher/student engagement’ regardless of school setting.” Students cannot learn without access—and too many students were not able to connect during online learning in the spring. Commitments like these make it a priority for schools and educators to get to the bottom of why students are not attending school online, which will be crucial in ensuring academic progress this school year.

Two leaders in Philadelphia underscore the need for data to make decisions and to communicate with families. The authors write, “The instability caused by COVID-19 raises new questions about what is most important to measure, how to collect accurate information, and the best ways to support people to use that information. But many of the fundamental challenges of effectively using and clearly communicating data are unchanged.” They encourage leaders to make a research agenda, and clearly communicate that agenda and the results so that communities can use them. Data is crucial for recovery and the more data families and communities have access to, the more they will understand about the steps education leaders are taking to keep their students safe and ensure that they succeed academically.

Data for recovery. As leaders continue to highlight the value of education data by taking steps to use it for recovery, we might as well make this a weekly standing section! Last week, Georgetown University’s Beeck Center released a new roadmap for states to leverage data for economic recovery. The guide recognizes that Chief Data Officers are important leaders in how states use data to inform decisions – and is meant to be a “guide to rebuild the system to be better than it was before.” We’ve written week after week that data is key to recovery—and this new roadmap underscores that point. Education leaders at all levels must use the data they have to make decisions for recovery.

The Advisory Committee on Data for Evidence Building will hold its first meeting to “improve how federal agencies access, link and protect data” in the coming weeks. While the committee, which was formed by the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, had to postpone its first meeting due to the pandemic, it’s clear that their work could benefit COVID-19 recovery. The ability of federal agencies to use linked data has the potential to dramatically impact recovery. Securely sharing data between agencies will allow leaders to see the fuller data picture and make evidence-based decisions.

Leaky pipeline of transitions to higher ed. COVID-19 is changing the postsecondary landscape, as fewer students fill out FAFSA applications and many potential postsecondary students are questioning whether higher education is the right move in such economically uncertain times. Education Strategy Group is out with a new report, which provides “a framework for a new set of postsecondary transition metrics for states and communities to prioritize in order to help more students successfully move to and through higher education.” The key to these successful transitions is data transparency. When students have data about potential pathways and information on how students like them have fared in those pathways, they are better prepared to successful navigate their higher education and workforce options. Students and families should have access to this linked data to make the right decisions for them. For more, read this piece from Education Strategy Group’s Ryan Reyna and DQC’s Paige Kowalski.

Three higher education leaders took to The Hill to discuss the issue of the “leaky pipeline of transfers” to higher education. Their arguments also suggested a need for more transparency in higher education. They said, “Monitoring and publishing institutional student outcomes data disaggregated by race and income will help students, institutional leaders and state policymakers better understand where the leaks persist in the transfer pipeline.” When education leaders have more information, they can make decisions to ensure that students find success in higher education. And when students and families have this information, they can set themselves up for success by making the right decisions for their futures.

Building trust and ensuring success amid concerns about in-person learning and learning loss. A recent Washington Post/Prolific poll found that most Americans strongly oppose school reopenings, are concerned about learning losses from school closures, and want schools to take precautions to protect students and limit the spread of the virus. It’s always critical that leaders and schools build trust with those they’re serving, but this is even more important as concerns about in-person learning and student safety continue. Leaders must communicate with parents and communities about what data they’re collecting and why, and how they’re going to use that data.

Teachers are also nervous about teaching in person during the pandemic. An NPR/Ipsos poll found that the vast majority of teachers are concerned about teaching in person this fall and risking their health when they return to the classroom. As districts continue to decide how to reopen, they must also consider how to equip educators with the skills necessary for online instruction. In our 2020 national teacher poll, 46 percent of teachers said they did not receive trainings or resources about how to assess student learning and progress during school closures, and only 31 percent strongly agreed that they had access to the student data they needed to provide relevant virtual instruction.* Data literacy training and other tools are imperative if teachers are going to effectively use data to help students succeed, whether instruction happens in person, online, or a hybrid.

*Source: Online survey conducted within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of the Data Quality Campaign: April 27–May 8, 2020, among 750 full-time teachers in the United States, all of whom were currently employed teaching grades K–12.