Access, Communications, Transparency

From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of August 31

From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of August 31

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.

It’s no secret that inequities that existed before COVID-19 have only been exacerbated—especially in education where access to high-speed internet and a device means being able to attend school. To address issues in their state, Nebraska leaders triangulated data to provide better supports to students and communities. Using the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index (which measures “resilience of communities when confronted by external stresses on human health”), school performance data, and data on the number of COVID-19 cases reported, leaders can see where challenges might be exacerbated due to the pandemic. Using all of the data available to find solutions for students in their state is what all leaders should be working toward right now. By starting with their questions, leaders can identify what they need to know and map out the best way to use data to get there.

Data transparency will save us all. In a news update we wish we didn’t have to address, schools and districts are taking very different approaches to sharing information about positive COVID-19 cases. A recent New York Times article noted that while some districts are being transparent about the number and location of COVID-19 cases, others are decidedly not. And states like Arkansas have decided to use a minimum case threshold of five for reporting cases, so if a district doesn’t have more than five cases, they aren’t reported (but are included in the cumulative total). In the New York Times, Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, stated, “If schools don’t notify, it actually can make disease control more difficult. And it’s not like no one will know. Word will get out through a rumor mill. You don’t scare people by telling them what’s going on. You scare them by hiding information.” As Dr. Jha notes, data transparency helps communities avoid the rumor mill. It focuses a conversation on facts and not speculation or fear. As states and districts reopen some schools in person, COVID-19 cases in schools will undoubtedly spike and not tracking or sharing this information is harmful to not just students and teachers, but entire communities. Leaders should understand the importance of sharing this data and make it a priority to be transparent about all of the information that affects students right now.

In better data transparency news, the Colorado Sun analyzed attendance data from local districts and found that districts are approaching measures of attendance and engagement differently during the pandemic. While all of this work has been messy and hard, especially as schools were forced to shut down unexpectedly in March, one thing is certain: data transparency should be paramount. Leaders can’t measure what they can’t see, and making data public and transparent will allow leaders and communities to better understand what’s happening and where they can focus support.

Everyone needs data. While some (mostly elite) colleges encourage students to take a gap year before enrolling, they’re noticing that more students are choosing that option this year. While this deferral could mean a lot of things, including that students are taking the year to try to work given the uncertain economy, it brings up questions that data can shed light on. How do youth figure out what to do if they are taking a gap year? What are the skills needed/jobs available to them? How are leaders tracking these decisions and then using that to help better inform pathway discussions? Information on potential pathways and data on the outcomes of those pathways for real students allows leaders to ensure that they are supporting the right programs/opportunities and in the right ways. And when data systems are linked across sectors and agencies, leaders can understand the full range of possibilities while ensuring that students have access to the right resources.

Teacher diversity and COVID-19. DQC Board Member and President and CEO of the Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity Dr. Cassandra Herring wrote in The 74 this week about how COVID-19 creates an opening to address longstanding teacher diversity issues. Herring notes, “We do not have to wait to develop a powerful new solution or revolutionary strategy to strengthen and sustainably diversify our teacher workforce. We already know what we need to do.” A diverse teacher pipeline benefits all students, yet students can complete their entire K–12 career without being taught by a single teacher of color. Leaders have the data they need to understand the demographics of their staff and should examine it closely to identify how they can ensure their teaching staff is diverse.

We’ll be taking a break next week for Labor Day, but look forward to sharing our thoughts with you again on September 14.