Education Data in a Fog, as Usual

by Jeff Camp | May 5, 2020 | 2 Comments
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Where Are Schools Headed?

In early 2020, leaders began to realize that Covid-19 would be a pandemic. Schools and districts closed down, one by one. There wasn't a lot of data to go on — closure decisions were made quickly, locally, and without much central coordination. Leaders in each school and district did their best to communicate with families and staff in their direct scope of responsibility, relying on their local contact lists and keeping their own notes.

In a few months this process may be repeated in reverse, including the lack of data.

Governor Newsom has suggested that K-12 schools in California might be nudged to resume operation as soon as July, presumably in consultation with county offices of education. Economic factors are central drivers of this decision — people need to earn money to pay rent, fill their tanks, and buy groceries. Groups of states are forming regional pacts to coordinate their plans and policies to loosen restrictions. Schools and child care facilities are an important part of that picture because they help enable parents to go to work.

Huge questions dangle unanswered. Here are just a few:

  • All over the world, governments closed schools because it is an effective strategy to keep people alive. If districts re-open to normal operation, what will prevent students from carrying the virus home to their more-vulnerable parents and grandparents?
  • Many teachers and school employees are in higher-risk categories. Will districts require them to return to work at school sites? If they don't feel safe returning to work, will they be fired?
  • Are half-measures possible? Will distance learning remain part of the solution? If so, what will that look like? Is California going to follow through on the work of providing each student with web connectivity and a computing device at home?
  • How will school food services provide nutrition to children who need it? Will school cafeterias reopen?
  • Will students advance to the next grade level, regardless of readiness? Will they return to their current teacher and class or will things change? What does "back to school" look like?

The Fog of Local Control

National and state leaders may make pronouncements, but the responsibility for answering these questions will be local. Each school district will set its own policies.

Ultimately, of course, families will make the decision for themselves: if they don't feel safe about returning their kids to school, some just won't do it. Homeschooling will probably flourish, emphasizing distance learning tools. In places where many families are uneasy about returning kids to classrooms, some school leaders will fight hard to press on with distance learning as their main mode of operation in order to keep flattening the curve.

The net outcome will probably be a lot more experimentation than usual in how schools operate in the next year. Some of it will be brilliant. Some of it will be ineffective.

When it ends, it may be hard to sort out what happened.

The Fog of Weak Data

Part of the problem is data. School districts are so independent that it is difficult to assemble timely information from them, even in normal times. Districts collect their own operational data pretty quickly — the issue is that each district is its own island, and the farther from each district's business office data travels, the more time it takes to arrive. California school systems use some shared definitions so that data files can be periodically submitted upward to a county, state, or federal agency. But the data systems don't automatically "talk" to one another. Even the most basic data like student enrollment, attendance and staffing can be "noisy," making it hard to combine. In California, the public's first meaningful, usable, searchable access to state-level data about school operations arrives many months after the close of a school year, through ed-data.org. (For example, data for the 2018-19 school year became available in March of 2020.)

In the future, California might have a coordinating body within the Department of Education to better prepare for coherent response in emergencies. A bill nicknamed SAFER is currently in consideration to create it. Better, faster data would certainly be required for such a body to be effective.

As education leaders throughout America wrestle with difficult choices, they will look to one another for ideas and insights. Which cuts will hurt least? What can we do less of? What works? What are others doing? Organizations like the Legislative Analyst's Office, PACE, the Education Commission of the States, NEA, the California Budget and Policy Center and EdWeek will do their best to provide answers based on data, but comparisons are hard even in the best of times.

California can fix this tower of Babel problem, but it will be challenging. Part of the difficulty is constitutional: voters in 1979 amended the state constitution to require that the state reimburse districts for the cost of complying with mandates — even for data collection. Governor Brown considered these data systems a low priority, so the solutions that exist are clunky and slow.

Fog Lights

For now, America must rely on journalism

In order to make policy decisions, leaders need timely information about what's happening, even if it's anecdotal. In California, the best resource for information about school closures has not been the California Department of Education — it has been EdSource.org, a free non-profit news organization that serves as the de facto news source of record for the education sector in this state. As schools reopen, EdSource will almost certainly play that role again.

Beyond California, the picture is similar. The best national source of education journalism has been EdWeek, a paid subscription-based news service that, like EdSource, is run by a non-profit organization. The US Department of Education does not have a national system to collect timely data from schools. In a message to readers on March 25, the Editor-in-Chief of EdWeek, Scott Montgomery, recounted that "no fewer than two federal agencies reached out looking for our help."

Time to Clear the Fog

In normal times, California school districts at this time of year would be in the thick of updating their three-year Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs), data-rich documents that districts use to explain how their strategy for learning connects with their planned use of money and time. This year, the LCAP requirement has been postponed to December. Perhaps by then districts will have the capacity to plan — for now, they are responding to events as they unfold and hoping that the money won't run out.

Delayed reports will be absurd. Time to move to a forecast approach.

As we wrote in a recent post, the effects of the pandemic recession will almost certainly be grim and lasting for public education budgets. Unless Federal support materializes to bolster school budgets, districts and teachers' unions will face gut-wrenching choices. With an eye on their contract, they will have to choose which staff and programs to protect, which to let go or furlough, and how to communicate the bad news. (For more info about just how bad it will probably get, listen to this short EdSource interview with Bob Blattner. )

Because education data systems are clunky and slow, we will be able to see the combined effect of these decisions only long after they have been made. Like a relay race with thousands of greased batons, data passes from one level to the next with a lot of confusion and error. Nationally and internationally comparable facts — even of annual summary data like the number of students and teachers in a state and the amount of money spent on their education — routinely take two to four years to be released by the National Center for Education Statistics. If this were a laughing matter, the punchline would be delivered with terrible timing: for years to come, as school districts are making painful cuts, many comparison reports of "the latest available national and international data" will show school budgets cheerfully rising like daisies in compost.

Perhaps the absurdity of these delayed reports will finally spur speedier expectations. Reporting agencies are cautious and slow because they don't want to be wrong in their counts. Leaders need encouragement and permission to flip this approach on its head. Federal and state agencies should be required to deliver timely official public forecasts that are then improved and iterated over time. It would certainly be better than continuing to speed through the fog.

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