From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of December 21

From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of December 21

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 been a year. We can’t believe it’s been nearly 10 months since the pandemic disrupted all of our lives—and that this is the 31st “kitchen table” post we’ve written to share what we’re seeing about education data issues during the COVID-19 crisis. Like everyone else, we are living in the paradox of pandemic time, feeling at once like the year has flown by and like it has dragged on forever. Looking back on these posts, we have a similar “Groundhog Day” feeling: the issues we’ve seen continue to pop up in new ways across the country, but they have been remarkably consistent since day one.

As we look toward 2021 with hope that the vaccine will start to bring a return to normalcy for students, teachers, and families, we know also that the challenges created (or exacerbated) by COVID-19 will require attention for years to come. The very first heading of our first kitchen table blog post back in May was “Data is critical to recovery efforts,” and that will continue to be true as recovery moves into new phases next year. With that lens, we’re using our last post of 2020 to round up the major issues we saw this year. For all the challenges, data will be crucial to identifying solutions—and opportunities—as we move on from this moment into better times for all of our students.

Finding “lost” students will continue to be a major theme. Ever since schools began to close their brick-and-mortar doors to students, education officials have been sounding the alarm on “lost” students—students who neither report to online learning with their current school nor inform the district of plans to homeschool or pursue a different education path. Students have been missing school for all kinds of reasons during the pandemic—from frequent moving to lack of access to high-speed internet to taking on day jobs—and although the numbers have been staggering, we are looking to those leaders who are using information to take action to locate students and get them back on track. That’s something we saw in New Mexico, where officials are working to both locate students and connect them with a statewide program that provides academic coaching around returning to classes, overcoming barriers like technology, and even offering social-emotional support. More of this, please. We’ve also seen positive steps in places like DC, which has been sending “We Miss You” postcards to chronically absent students and calling parents, other relatives, and emergency contacts to track them down. (And we loved watching this inspiring 60 Minutes piece following a social worker in Tampa using data to track down and offer support to lost students all over the city.) Engagement matters, and leaders should use whatever information they can to locate students absent from school and ensure they get the right support.

Remote learning is here to stay—and data privacy practices need to catch up. State leaders across the country have been grappling with protecting student privacy during the dramatic increase in online learning that’s attended the pandemic. We’ve seen that priority reflected in legislation, and we’ve unfortunately seen it in operating in defense mode as states and districts have coped with cybersecurity breaches. State leaders need to step up with technical assistance and infrastructure funding to address security flaws and prevent attacks, and they also need to ensure their policies aren’t so restrictive that critical services are derailed in the name of data privacy. We don’t know what “returning to normal” will look like in the coming years, but it’s clear that increased remote learning is likely to be a permanent feature of our education system, and state leaders need to intentionally and continually update their data privacy practices to match that reality.

Tracking COVID-19 cases in schools is an ongoing job for leaders. Although the vaccine has slowly started flowing into the US, our population isn’t close to having the herd immunity we need to protect the most vulnerable among us—and who knows when that moment will arrive? Until then, the tracking of COVID-19 cases in schools will continue to be a crucial safety and transparency issue. We’ve seen some highlights this year, including a COVID-19 School Response Dashboard compiling information about cases in schools, learning models, and mitigation strategies. And we’ve also seen some lowlights of privacy being used as an excuse to withhold data and state leaders suppressing data for various reasons, all of which create mistrust between communities and state leaders. States have a role and a responsibility to share transparent case transmission information, and we applaud states like New Hampshire and South Carolina that have created resources to share information about cases in schools with their communities.

Time to act on longstanding education inequities. There has been much reporting on existing education inequities—largely based on race—being exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic. We are looking to those educators and advocates thinking innovatively about the role data can play in combating those inequities, from using social-emotional learning (SEL) data to holistic agendas for local school systems that recognize the important role that both education and data play in ensuring better outcomes for all students, and students of color in particular. In one example, DQC Board member Dr. Cassandra Herring wrote about how the pandemic creates an opening to address longstanding teacher diversity issues. A diverse teacher pipeline benefits all students, and leaders should look at the demographics of their workforce to identify how they can ensure their teaching staff is diverse. Another area for leaders to examine is the information they are providing students about pathways from K–12 into postsecondary and the workforce. The pandemic has seen dropping college enrollment rates, especially among low-income students and students of color, and it’s crucial that they have access to accurate, useful information along their pathways to success. It’s crucial that states prioritize getting information like that to the students who need it to make decisions for their future. As DQC wrote in our statement for Black lives in June, “There is nothing more concrete than evidence—but using evidence to simply admire the problem is not enough; it must prompt intentional action.”

Assessment data is data for recovery. We’ve been tracking the conversation about statewide annual assessment closely, and there has been a huge range of reactions to the idea of testing this year. We have been heartened to see examples of people sticking up for this crucial information while taking sensible measures to account for the strangeness of the year. (For example, separating the idea of consequences from test results.) In the coming months and years, we’ll need all the information we can get about exactly how all of our students are doing, and that information should be used to power innovative and tailored supports to get students where they need to be. Without this information, students, teachers, and families are making decisions in the dark. Everyone deserves transparency about how students are learning, even if we expect performance levels to drop next year.

We’ll be pausing the kitchen table posts to celebrate the holidays and will be back with our next edition on January 11. Thank you for reading along with us this year, and we wish you a very happy holiday season and New Year!