From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of June 22

From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of June 22

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.

Gaps are widening. When schools were forced to close earlier this year and shift quickly to remote learning, it was clear that student learning would be affected – a phenomenon referred to as the “COVID slide.” New research by NWEA used results from the organization’s MAP assessment to predict how large gaps might be when students start school in the fall. Researchers noted that, in the past, “a single classroom could have students working at up to seven grade levels,” and found that “teachers are likely to see an even broader array of achievement gaps when schools reopen.” Now is a time for states to step up; delivering robust indicators and timely data directly to teachers should be a priority. Teachers are asking for this data, too. Our 2020 national poll of teachers* (conducted by The Harris Poll and to be released later this week) found that 89 percent of teachers want data about which of their students are furthest behind so that they can provide targeted interventions to get their students back on track for success.

Georgia’s “tunnel” is an exemplar of this kind of work, linking data from a single state system directly to district-level student information systems and allows district administrators, principals, teachers, and parents to access state education data through their district’s existing program. Like Georgia, states are best positioned to do this at scale rather than asking budget-strapped districts to do this on their own. 

We know that high unemployment rates and the country’s economic distress have affected communities of color at much higher rates during the pandemic. Inside Higher Ed reports that initial data shows that “lower-income students and those from minority groups may leave higher education, perhaps permanently.” We’ve already seen evidence of this, with falling FAFSA completion rates this year. As our country recovers from the current pandemic and economic crisis, transparent data is necessary for individuals to understand their options. When individuals have more information about potential pathways and aggregate data on outcomes for people like them, the better equipped individuals are to make the right decisions for themselves and their families. States like Kentucky, Pennsylvania and South Carolina are well positioned to lead the way on this as they already produce dashboards, report cards and indicators to inform pathways.

More indicators for school leaders to consider. It seems like we discuss indicators in some form each week – but that should underscore the importance for states to continue to collect as much information as they can during this uncertain time and use it to understand how to help students move forward successfully. America’s Promise surveyed 3,300 young people, aged 13-19, about their experiences during schools closures. While nearly all high school students said they participated in online learning, the survey found that 30 percent of young people say “they have more often been feeling unhappy or depressed,” and 29 percent do not feel connected at all to school adults. Students are facing challenges during the pandemic – everything from everyday needs and physical and mental wellbeing, not to mention doing school remotely. As school leaders evaluate how to help students, nonacademic measures of social-emotional learning will be critical for schools and districts to understand and address.

While coronavirus has complicated how states and schools are collecting information to measure many of their usual indicators, a new study this week prompts thinking about information schools already have. Research using data from Texas found that “Black and female assistant principals are less likely than their white and male counterparts to be promoted to principal.” And when Black and female assistant principals are promoted, it takes longer. This study is a good example of how policymakers can use a variety of data to better understand the experiences, challenges, and motivations of the teachers and school leaders in their state. Texas’s data illustrates the complex issues facing educators and state leaders can use this information to better support their educator workforce and improve local leaders’ ability to recruit and retain diverse, high-quality teachers, especially as concerns about returning to schools during COVID-19 could lead to some unanticipated retirements.

How are schools spending CARES Act funds? They’re not totally sure, according to research from the National Association of Federal Education Program Administrators and Whiteboard Advisors. But of the districts that did share their plans, the focus was on technology (internet hardware, online devices and software), cleaning, backfilling state budget cuts and teacher professional development. Data on student access to technology during remote learning will help schools understand how to best target their resources, ensuring that students who were without access during the spring are able to gain access and continue learning. Training for teachers to continue remote learning or some hybrid will also be critical as schools think about the 2020-2021 school year and how to best equip teachers with the skills they need to help students catch up and move forward academically.

At the state level, CARES Act funding can be used for a very wide range of initiatives, which includes using funds to support data priorities such as rapid data collection, data system integration, and increased data system transparency. States can and should consider using some of this federal funding to increase the capacity of their data infrastructure.

*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.