Last week, President Biden signed an executive order on education as part of his administration’s COVID-19 response plan. With this executive order, the Biden administration is doubling down on the value of data to uncover what’s working, where and for whom—prioritizing data that shines a light on inequities and disparities in services and outcomes. This is a significant development for all of us who know the potential and power of data to inform education policy and practice decisions, serve families, and redress systemic inequities.
The executive order states:
(a) The Secretary of Education shall, consistent with applicable law: …
(vi) direct the Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights to deliver a report as soon as practicable on the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on students in elementary, secondary, and higher education, including those attending historically black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions;
(vii) coordinate with the Director of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to facilitate, consistent with applicable law, the collection of data necessary to fully understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and educators, including data on the status of in-person learning. These data shall be disaggregated by student demographics, including race, ethnicity, disability, English-language-learner status, and free or reduced lunch status or other appropriate indicators of family income.
While everyone is talking about the possibilities of new programs and resources, this executive order cuts right to the chase and makes clear that the US can’t recover from the pandemic without first understanding what’s happening in schools. Leaders at all levels must be able to answer critical questions about where students are and how to support them now and throughout a long recovery—and that starts with action at the federal level to collect this data and support its use for decisionmaking.
The challenge is steep.
While the executive order is welcome news, there is much to do. Over the past year, 13,000 school districts had to construct their own COVID-19 response plans on their own with little to no state or federal guidance—which means that the federal government’s job now is more than just asking states to share their data. Every district has been left to define their data differently, creating a challenge for federal leaders as they collect data. Federal leaders will have to work with states and their respective districts to clearly define critical data elements such as how to define what it means to “attend” school during the pandemic, because districts have defined ”attendance” in different ways. And states and districts may have a sense of the percentage of students attending school in a hybrid situation, but in order to collect data, IES will need to define “hybrid.” These definitions will mean that the way in which states or districts have been currently collecting and reporting data may have to be changed or adjusted.
Developing, administering, analyzing, and publishing a new federal data collection is no quick and easy feat. There will be necessary tradeoffs between the timeliness of the data, the quality of the data, and how comparable and consistent it is across states and districts. As we have seen, new data collections take time to get right. It can take multiple cycles with dedicated resources to get a new data collection right as states become familiar with new definitions and put their own data collection practices in place. IES should begin by identifying the most critical questions to answer and check in with states to see what information they already have before trying to get data directly from districts. This data will not be perfect, but there are some existing data sets that the Department of Education can leverage to begin to tell the story of what happened.
Despite these challenges, leaders cannot let perfect get in the way of the good. And taking action now must set up states and districts with longer term solutions. Doing anything different would mean leaders at all levels remain in the dark, unable to use data to meaningfully help their students.
The opportunity is clear.
Thanks to massive federal investment and state leadership, all 50 states have fairly robust data systems with a lot of potential to serve national, state, and local leaders right now in this crisis. But these systems were not designed to answer the questions we are all asking now. The public needs to understand not just what’s happening inside the classroom, but also how the pandemic impacts people’s lives. To fully understand the impact of COVID-19 on schools and students, the federal government must seize this opportunity to invest once again in state and local data systems and the human capacity necessary to turn data into information. To do so, Congress and the Biden administration must invest in states to do the following:
- Modernize their data systems with strong linkages between early childhood, K–12, postsecondary, and workforce data to help leaders understand the pandemic’s impact on transition points along the P–20W pipeline—especially between high school and college or career. State and district leaders must understand where they are losing people along the way in order to provide necessary support, enabling leaders to provide resources for students moving from K–12 to their next step as well as adults looking to reskill in our uncertain economy.
- Build out tools and analytics so that people at all levels can access the services and pathways that will help them recover.
- Support research capacity at all levels to help answer the questions critical to recovery. Research can help leaders identify and learn more about best practices in places where strategies are working.
The effects of COVID-19 will be felt for decades. And while there is an immediate need to learn what’s happening, it would be negligent not to invest in longer term solutions. This executive order is the first step toward providing leaders at all levels with the information they need to help communities recover, and answering these questions should not be a one-off activity. Federal leaders must ensure that they are taking steps to build the capacity necessary to support state and local leaders in the years to come.