Access, Communications, Equity

The Role of Data in Understanding the Current COVID-19 Crisis

The Role of Data in Understanding the Current COVID-19 Crisis

In this unprecedented time, we all have questions about how this interruption in student learning has and will continue to impact students and schools. Everyone supporting students needs data to answer their questions meaningfully and in ways that help chart a path forward. To better understand what types of data will be most helpful and informative, DQC turned to its own bench of education experts to explore the role of data in understanding the current crisis and responding in ways that ensure all students can succeed:

  • Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, president and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign and former Baltimore City Schools and New York City Public Schools administrator
  • Andrés Alonso, DQC Board Member and former CEO of Baltimore City Schools
  • Morgan Polikoff, DQC Board Member and associate professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education
  • Stephen Pruitt, DQC Board Member and president of the Southern Regional Education Board

Question #1: There are many urgent issues that education leaders are confronting right now. Why should data be prioritized?

To ensure equitable distribution of resources and supports

Polikoff: We don’t yet know what the impact of this crisis will be on students, but we have good reason to believe that it may be negative and also exacerbate existing opportunity gaps. Without having good data systems in place to be able to track effects and identify those students most in need we will be flying blind as to who is most in need of additional support when we have the opportunity to provide it.

To help leaders identify, prioritize, and answer their most pressing questions

Alonso: Because data should inform not only what those issues should be, and how they should be framed, but data should also inform what happens as we address those issues. I don’t see how we can understand those questions without understanding the reality behind them. There is a need to think of the kind of data that allows us to lead in real time and be better at it by responding to the results of our actions.

Bell-Ellwanger: Leaders need to start with their questions. Data by itself will not solve the challenges that leaders are facing right now. But, data will help them answer the critical questions they have about how this crisis is affecting every student right now, what the impact on learning may be in the future, and how schools can and should be preparing to operate in a new reality this fall.

To shine a light on the best path forward

Pruitt: Because hope is not a strategy. We can’t hope that kids are ok and we can’t hope that they come back in August ready to learn. We really have to take a look at the data and go “here’s all the data we have, what is it that we really need to know?” And once we look at it, what can we say about what the data is telling us? We need evidence of what to do because there is no standard or research to point to the path forward, this is so unprecedented. We have to create a new model.

Question #2: What data should school leaders and teachers look at right now?

Data about student engagement and learning

Alonso: We need to know which students have access to online learning and which students are present. We need to know the questions they have about the content they are learning. We need to capture their work product and try to code it and categorize it in ways that let us know what is actually happening in teaching and learning. We need to know what resources teachers need and which teachers need technical or adaptive support so that they can do what is basically a new job in new ways. We need to capture teachers’ questions. And then we need to think about what those things mean in terms of creating systems that capture those answers coherently, not just as a result of the crisis but as a way to develop coherent instructional systems.

Bell-Ellwanger: Schools closed three-quarters of the way into the school year, teachers and leaders aren’t completely in the dark in terms of knowing the progress their students have made and what they need to focus on for the remainder of the year. The data that was being used to drive decisions before the coronavirus (e.g. attendance, classroom grades, diagnostic and formative assessments) is likely still the right information and it just becomes more pronounced and important in the absence of standardized test scores.

Emergency indicators to help identify student and teacher needs more quickly

Bell-Ellwanger: There are certain indicators in particular that leaders should prioritize right now, in addition to indicators of student learning.

  • Student attendance: Chronic absence is not just important because of its obvious impact on student learning but also because it is likely a symptom of underlying challenges that students are facing, like food insecurity and physical safety. This information is especially important right now as students and families have been thrown into particularly uncertain and unpredictable situations.
  • Teacher health/well-being/attendance: This is key data that leaders need to be able to assess and make decisions about their systems each and every day, and to forecast issues that might be coming down the road.
  • Internet access and access to a device for online learning: If students can’t connect to the internet or access online learning tools, teachers’ ability to engage with their students and provide tailored instruction is significantly diminished. Students’ basic needs must be met so that they can focus on learning.
  • Disaggregated data: No matter what data teachers and leaders are looking at, it has to be disaggregated (available by different student groups). We know this crisis will effect groups of students differently and leaders can’t begin to meet their needs and support their learning if leaders don’t understand how their students are uniquely experiencing this emergency.

Question #3: Moving forward, what data should education leaders look at to better understand the impact of the school closures?

Indicators to understand students’ academic needs in the fall

Polikoff: States should think about whether and how they want to institute some kind of quick assessment of student progress when schools get back up and running. On the one hand, there will obviously be a desire to get teaching and learning started right away. On the other hand, starting instruction without seeing at what level students are returning to schools will set instruction up for failure and leave schools less able to identify and target specific students who may need more or less support next year.

Indicators to understand how school closures impacted students in the long term

Bell-Ellwanger: Postsecondary outcomes will be critical, both to understand the impact of these closures on students’ longer term outcomes but also to help inform early warning indicators that educators can use moving forward. It will also be important to look at postsecondary outcomes beyond college enrollment to understand if the related economic impact of the pandemic shifted students’ paths. Did career pathways shift? Do CTE programs now need to adjust?

If I were currently a system leader, I would be thinking about how to leverage partners in the research community to think about what questions we could work on together to help build out additional capacity to understand the short-term, mid-term, and long-term impacts of this interrupted learning.

Consistency matters

Pruitt: My biggest advice, let’s try at least within a district, to be looking at the same things. Don’t say, “teachers look at data to figure out what your kids need.” Teachers are experts in instruction but let’s get them some tools. Whether that’s a district developed diagnostic or something like a MAPP [Career Assessment Test]. It’s a place states need to step up and give some guidance. We know we already had massive gaps that have been exacerbated to a point that the diagnostics that kids need are going to have to be given with more thoughtfulness.

With schools closed around the country and so much uncertainty around the “right” path forward, everyone working to support students needs the right data to answer their questions. This crisis will affect every single student in the country in very different ways and it is essential that educators and leaders alike have the information they need to make the best decisions for their students and communities.

For more information on how educators and leaders can use data in service of student learning, check out these resources from DQC:


This blog post is also available as a story on Medium.