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.
Fiscal transparency, including per-pupil expenditure data, shines a light on how states and districts are allocating money to the highest-need students—that’s why we look closely at how states are sharing this data on school report cards each year. A recent piece from the fiscal experts at Edunomics, where they reviewed spending patterns for 14 California districts, found that “five of the 14 districts actually spent less per student on their highest-needs schools on average than on the rest of their schools.” Leaders—from state and local policymakers to principals and community advocates—can and should use school-level spending data in their roles to better support students. Providing this data alongside student outcomes data, and with appropriate context, empowers leaders to better understand how resources are being allocated, answer important questions about the students being served by schools, and make more targeted education investments. As states approach COVID-19 recovery, it will be especially important to understand how leaders are allocating much-needed funds and understand how those funds are used to support the students who need them most.
Starting to solve for chronic absenteeism. According to The 74, 11 California districts are seeing a surge in chronic absenteeism among elementary school students. We can’t say we’re surprised—or that we expect the numbers to be much different elsewhere. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the number of students who are missing school for any number of reasons, but especially due to students not having access to high-speed internet or a device. Despite those very upsetting numbers, it’s important to focus on ensuring that schools and districts are collecting this data regularly and ensuring that leaders are taking action.
DQC Senior Associate Allie Ball wrote last week about the work states are doing to leverage new and different sources of data to shed light on the barriers keeping students from accessing online instruction this year. For example, leaders in Wisconsin are working with districts to collect this information from families and integrate it into their student information systems. And, here in DC, schools will not only be contacting parents to learn why their student is missing school, but also reaching out to other family members, when necessary. As Allie notes, understanding what families need through direct conversations is a type of data collection and widening the circle helps to build connections between their students’ home and school lives, and ensure they are supported no matter where they are. Understanding which students aren’t participating in school right now and why are the first steps toward ensuring that these students have the supports they need to not only return to school, but to continue learning through recovery.
It’s important, however, not to overstate what all of this data can tell us. Districts must dig in to understand what data reflects actual absence, what data reflects a lack of internet, and what data might be inaccurate because the systems and processes for taking attendance are new to everyone and mistakes will happen. Analyzing the data with these points in mind will ensure that district leaders understand the data and the context, enabling them to make better decisions for students.
Calculating and combatting learning losses. The pandemic has not only altered how students are doing school, but also what happens at home, with many families affected by the pandemic in one of myriad ways. Alongside the shift to online and hybrid learning, it was inevitable that there would be learning losses. According to Dallas Independent School District’s beginning-of-year assessments, “Half of all Dallas ISD students experienced learning loss in math during disruptions caused by COVID-19, and nearly a third slipped in reading.” Assessments are integral to understanding how students are faring in these uncertain times. And because Dallas ISD assessed students on the Measure of Academic Progress assessment in the spring and fall, the data they’re reporting is actual loss. Regular and comparable assessments provide leaders with real information on how students are performing academically. Without assessments, leaders cannot begin to understand how their efforts are impacting student learning and what they can do to support students. While assessment results may not tell us good news in the near future, assessment data is an important part of showing the leaders the way to recovery.
Reporting COVID-19 cases in schools. It wasn’t too long ago that we reported that Maryland officials were refusing to release COVID-19 case data for schools. So we’re happy to share that, after pressure from advocates, Maryland will now release COVID-19 case data for individual schools. Superintendents and health officials met to discuss a common definition for outbreaks, as well as what data should be made publicly available before the state reporting site went live. And while this is a step in the right direction, some, including Maryland State Education Association president Cheryl Bost, think the site doesn’t yet include enough relevant data to impact decisions about the health and safety of educators and students. Families and communities need information on COVID-19 cases in their schools to make the best decisions for their children—and that means making decisions to keep them safe and healthy. We’re encouraged that states like Maryland are working to fulfill their responsibility to the public and demonstrate their commitment to transparency by communicating directly with the communities they serve.
This blog post is also available as a story on Medium.