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Expert Insight

Q&A: Data Tardiness in Schools Hinders Responsiveness

There is insufficient data on how the pandemic has affected students, and even when those data are available, they often are released too late to help policymakers. The key to improving equity for all students is having real-time, interconnected data streams available to educators and administrators at all levels.

Joshua E. Porterfield, PhD
December 17, 2021

Public schools and students faced many hurdles related to equal access to education before the pandemic started, which the COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated. Dr. Annette C. Anderson has been on the forefront of using data to address the significant challenges faced by K-12 schools. She has been instrumental in the eSchool+ initiative, which collects data on equity issues surrounding U.S. school reopenings during the pandemic, and the COVID-19 Global Education Recovery Tracker, which aggregates data on school reopening policies and the loss of education around the world. Dr. Anderson believes there is a heightened need for multiple data streams to corroborate what is happening in education today.

What have been some challenges with collecting data on schools?

There are many ways to slice the data, but there's no way to get around addressing the multiple needs of our schools if we don't have accurate and real-time data and if we aren't able to look at that data in enough ways to inform our perspective about the resources that we need. One of the challenges, for example, as we look at the reopening of schools is that the CARES Act funding got pushed out to the states from the federal government quickly, but then it got into a bottleneck. There are so many school districts with diverse needs. Districts were waiting to hear from the state governments about how to access that money and then send it out to individual schools. There wasn't a lot of data used to drive the dissemination from the federal government to the states, but then the states were trying to parse that data to get it out to the schools.

“The data is important, but timeliness is critical to be responsive to the needs of the schools on the ground in real time.”

What data from schools do you wish existed?

For one, we need more timely data around staffing. There are school districts across the country that don't have enough bus drivers. We don't have a national picture of what the bus driver shortage looks like, but it is having a tremendous impact on our ability to run our schools. The same holds for issues in schools like substitutes and teacher absences. Schools don't want to report how often their teachers are absent even though it’s highly problematic. There also isn’t enough data available on student performance. In Maryland, the KIDS COUNT data from Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that 86% of African American 8th graders are not proficient in math. The data shows us historically that 8th grade math course selection portends whether a student goes to college.

Those data are important, but so is when they become available. When we don't have this data quickly enough to intervene, what can principals be expected to do? When a principal gets information that most of her students are not performing or getting access to advanced studies and resources, she’s trying to figure out how she can catch them up. She can’t do that if the data are a year old. Data must be real-time to intervene, make a difference for students, and become more equity focused. Data can be as seemingly innocuous as bus drivers or as big as proficiency but getting that data in time to make interventions is where we can disrupt many issues regarding student achievement, particularly for students of color.

Do schools have access to longitudinal data on students?

We've always had good data on kindergarten readiness in most states. That information is also tied to early childhood data. There's a whole pipeline of school assessment data. The problem with assessing it is that it hasn't made instruction, curriculum, or outcomes for our most vulnerable students any better. The issue is that we need to get information from early elementary to middle to high school very early, and then we need to be able to collectively look at it. Oftentimes what happens is the information is sent out in isolation. Educators’ ability to impact that in a silo is less powerful than it is when you can connect it to some of these other broader pieces. That is why we need to keep telling the data story about what's happening in our schools.

“How we see the depth of the challenges we are trying to remedy is by looking at the data trends, and by trying to understand what's happening geographically, temporally, and demographically.”

What is the role of schools in public health data collection and sharing?

Part of the challenge is that we have looked at public health as separate from our schools. Less than half of American schools have a full-time nurse. We need to have the people who would represent public health best in the building to bring a consistent message. We need to think about how the funding streams could better allow us to have nurses to represent public health perspectives. Without nurses, principals are now also responsible for public health. We want school principals to take on the issues of public health on top of everything else that we have asked them to do, and they are not necessarily the best equipped. We need champions of public health in the building who can adequately speak to needs and use the data to highlight the importance using the correct messaging.

How do we make these data actionable?

Every year on Sept. 30, schools must report their enrollment count. But here we are in December still trying to assess how far our enrollments have dropped across the country. Getting to this information more quickly would make it more actionable. If it takes this long to get that information back at a city level, imagine how long it takes to coordinate that at a state or a federal level. If you think that you're going to capture the yearlong learning of a student in a three-month period, good luck. When people talk about breaking the cycle and improving academics and instruction, that's why it's so hard. The information does not get reported out quickly enough to make it actionable. This is preventing us from moving the needle for our most vulnerable students. We can’t push for equity without real-time data.

For more with Dr. Anderson, please watch the recording of the Pandemic Data Initiative Expert Forum: Back to School, where she shares detailed information on the eSchool+ and Global Education Recovery Tracker initiatives.

Joshua E. Porterfield, PhD

Dr. Joshua E. Porterfield, Pandemic Data Initiative content lead, is a writer with the Centers for Civic Impact. He is using his PhD in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering to give an informed perspective on public health data issues.