From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of September 28

From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of September 28

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.

COVID-19 cases in schools. The public is having a hard time finding data on how many cases of COVID-19 have appeared in schools since they reopened. Why? Schools, districts, states and higher education institutions are all following different rules when it comes to reporting. As the New York Times notes, “While some districts regularly disclose their active cases, others have cited privacy concerns to withhold information, a move that has frustrated parents, educators and public health experts trying to assess the risk of exposure in schools and the potential impact on the larger community. Eleven states do not publish information on school cases, leaving many of the nation’s students and parents in the dark.” It’s troubling that schools aren’t regularly and transparently reporting their COVID-19 case numbers. Reporting cases gives parents and families the information they need to make decisions about what’s right for them and their children. Without this information, rumors and incomplete information can cause panic and mistrust in communities. And without a standard definition of what to report, when and how, schools are left to make up their own system—which may not provide communities with the information they need.

Additionally, as schools cite privacy concerns, we want to be crystal clear: making public COVID-19 case data by school is allowable under the nation’s student privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). It is permissible for schools and states to say “X number of people in a school have tested positive for COVID-19” without violating student privacy especially because FERPA includes an allowance when releasing information serves a public health or safety purpose. Hiding behind excuses about FERPA or creating arbitrary thresholds for reporting (n-sizes) further serves to create mistrust between communities and state leaders.

The Collaborative for Student Success and Center for Reinventing Public Education are out with topline findings from their peer review of district reopening plans. The expert review panel identified promising practices from districts across the country that they hope other districts will replicate. Schools and districts should always look to best practices as they are building plans to move forward, especially during a pandemic. The findings highlight several districts using data for reopening, including Maryland’s Prince George’s County Public Schools which “intends to provide student performance data to assist staff in identifying student learning needs for the upcoming school year.” More on the findings here.

Finding “lost” students. Data shows that far fewer students than expected are attending online learning in schools across the country. Unfortunately, this isn’t a surprising revelation considering all we know about students who lack access to high-speed internet or a device, and how many families have been hit hard economically by the pandemic. And while it’s imperative that districts not only work to ensure students have the means to log in for school, it’s just as important to understand why students aren’t showing up in the first place. Schools and districts can and should be using attendance and engagement data to bring students back into school, and fortunately some districts are. For example, the New York Times reports that DC Public Schools “will send ‘We Miss You’ postcards to students who skip virtual class and call not just parents but other relatives and emergency contacts to track them down.” In a time when school is happening online, schools can no longer simply check a box for whether a student showed up. Engagement matters—and finding ways to understand how engaged students are in school (and why they might not be) is crucial to ensuring they get the right support.

Growth data from GreatSchools. Growth remains the most comprehensive and equitable way to measure student progress and school quality. Families need this richer picture of how students are progressing academically so they can better understand how their students are doing and what supports they need. That’s why we were glad to see the announcement that GreatSchools is now including student academic growth data in its calculation of school ratings, emphasizing this measure over measures of proficiency. Growth data provides families and communities with a better understanding of how their students are progressing academically. As communities recover, this reflects how students did or did not progress during the spring shutdown and online learning this fall, and provides educators and school leaders with information about how to move forward. We saw lots of kudos about the GreatSchools announcement on social media and can’t help but note that, in order to continue to measure growth next year, states must administer 2021 assessments.

Interrupting education research. The long list of things that the pandemic has disrupted now includes education research. Researchers have lost access to schools, classrooms, and data sets, potentially jeopardizing years of work. While education researchers may lose valuable information that affects current projects, there are ways that these researchers can pivot to help with recovery. Research can help leaders identify best practices and move forward with tried-and-tested solutions. As Paige and Results for America’s Sara Kerr wrote in Education Week earlier this year, education researchers should turn their focus to helping state leaders find answers to their most pressing questions about supporting the needs of students, teachers, and local school leaders during this crisis.