Educators and school administrators nationwide are still reacting and responding to the release of the “Nation’s Report Card,” issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in late 2022. What came to few observers’ surprise was that achievement scores for both mathematics and reading declined significantly during and following the pandemic. Educators are now working hard to reverse those trends and get student outcomes back to pre-pandemic levels.
The good news is that there is concerted effort to counter the learning losses by teachers, administrators, superintendents, assessment professionals and curriculum directors alike. There truly is a “we’re all in this together” spirit that’s noticeable and admirable.
This unified front faces significant obstacles that have also emerged in this same timeframe: a national teacher shortage crisis and an overwhelming amount of work, compliance obligations, reporting duties, and even an avalanche of data to sift through.
Districts are now beginning to discover that less truly can be more — that simplifying and consolidating resources and technology can actually reveal clearer pathways to better educational outcomes, without adding more to our overworked partners in student performance.
The Big Picture, the Micro-Lens, and Everything in Between
There is a unique challenge when it comes to addressing the causes of learning loss for the stakeholders looking to reverse the recent trends identified in the Nation’s Report Card and other assessment reports. Superintendents are charged with overseeing and managing achievement — as well as budgeting, personnel, and a whole host of administrative responsibilities. But ask superintendents what motivates their day-to-day career objectives and they will tell you about the students they see in each and every building within their district. They know them by name. They can probably tell you who their teachers are. They are sources of both pride and legitimate concern. They are, after all, real people…not merely data points on a spreadsheet.
So while laudable statewide initiatives that look to “Move the Needle” — as the one currently being pursued in New Mexico — are important and critical endeavors, what’s truly going to be deemed a success or failure is what happens in each of the individual classrooms, as felt and expressed by each parent family of each individual learner.
All of this underscores the importance of that united front. What’s required now is a truly collaborative and cooperative effort to stop learning loss in its tracks, reverse declining assessment scores in reading, mathematics and other subjects, and get student achievement back to pre-pandemic levels and beyond.
This collaboration will require a focus on combining resources, integrating systems and solutions so there are no silos, and simplifying systems and processes so that no amount of limited resources are wasted — or go untapped!
Addressing Learning Loss at the District Level
From a “macro level,” district leadership and administrators are the “great overseers” of student achievement. They touch nearly every function of the district’s performance, from achievement to finance, from personnel to process…and everything in between. At this level, it becomes critical for leadership to see the big picture — clearly and completely — so that they are able to connect dots, spot patterns, and achieve success throughout the entire district.
What this means logistically is that, in a world with ever-increasing access to information and data, administrators must “braid” all of their incoming sources of information, so that nothing gets omitted, everything is considered, and a truly holistic plan of action can be developed and implemented.
For example, a school district may consider braiding transparency data with its fiscal data and with student achievement data. Or it may wish to braid academic performance data with fiscal data and economic data. Overall, a community — upon adopting and achieving interoperability and a Common Data Language — can collaboratively “braid” all of their various data feeds.
Where are the connections? Which is the driver of outcomes, and what data demonstrates the effects of those drivers? The key to this working is to have the ability to combine data sources, then intuitively visualize how various data sets are interdependent and codependent. Achievement may have many influences and drivers — some visible, others invisible to the naked eye.
Perhaps behavior is downstream of economics. Perhaps achievement is tied to equity of access…which is perhaps driven by both demographics and geographics. The only way to spot those patterns and draw data-informed conclusions is to braid all of the data and make it accessible in one system, with one-log-in, with one big-picture dashboard that is accessible and intuitive for all stakeholders.
Addressing Learning Loss at the School Level
The closer you get to the student, the more focused the objectives become. At the school level, student achievement is all about children, classrooms and educators, and less about “student populations.” It is equally important at this level to have all data sources integrating and speaking with each other, as reporting of student outcomes will most certainly be under the microscope. If reporting is not clear, complete, and accurate, we might be mis- or under-reporting the true drivers of student performance. We find that student achievement is so often intrinsically linked to financial allocations — but not always directly correlated.
For example, analysis of data studied in the state of Wisconsin, reveals that schools and districts with the highest levels of achievement gain were not necessarily those with the greatest access to financial resources. Similarly, the opposite was also true. When comparing learning loss or student achievement relative to instructional dollars spent or invested, buildings with the highest level of assessed learning loss were not necessarily those spending the least amount of money on instruction.
So where’s the missing causation? That’s something that can only be revealed by having access to — and overlaying — academic outcome reporting with district- and building-level budget allocation data. It’s critical to understand not just the bottom line, when it comes to school funding, public financing and school expenditures, but to analyze that data through the prism of gains or losses in student achievement per dollar spent.
That can only be achieved if achievement data and finance data can be overlaid simultaneously and seamlessly.
Addressing Learning Loss at the Student Level
As educators, of course, our chief and primary concern is the individual student sitting and learning in a very real, very specific classroom somewhere in the district. Ask a parent about their concerns related to student achievement and they will almost certainly be thinking about their own children — not nebulous, somewhat anonymous, district-wide trend data — but what’s happening to his or her own child.
The student child is an individual, not just a singular point in a larger data set. To truly understand the individual impact educators, counselors and principals are having on the individual lives they influence day to day, more and more schools and districts are implementing individual “student dashboards” — instantly accessible and visually intuitive systems that easily monitor and tell the “whole story” behind a given child’s performance.
There is a growing appreciation for, and understanding of, the myriad contributing factors that can impact a child’s ability to learn and the desire to thrive in a school environment. Years ago, the only way we were to be informed of a student struggling in school was a record of past events: the report card, the assessment exam results, the phone call home from the school.
But today, educators and administrators have access to much more information and such greater insights. We have the ability to see things happening in real time, to look at historical trend data, and to consider many more data inputs — social emotional learning, demographics, geographics, economics, discipline and behavior, attendance and truancy…the list goes on and on.
Until recently, all of these streams of information were disconnected and disparate…what we call “siloed.” As a result, in order for an educator, administrator or counselor to gain insights into each every one of the potentially contributing factors, he or she would have to log into multiple systems, only virtually “overlay” the findings (not literally), and spot patterns, connect dots, and identify early indicators of risk on their own. And for a multitude of students. Using one’s own intuition.
Unfortunately, learners in our classrooms don’t come with a “Check Student” early warning light, as we might hope. But a student dashboard can provide that same level of early detection and early indicators of the drivers of learning loss, so that they can be remedied and reversed before they become bigger problems, more difficult to address. Not manually…automatically.
Doing More with Less
Superintendents, school administrators, curriculum directors, assessment professionals, counselors, principals and educators all have one thing in common: they have plenty to do to fulfill their primary career obligations; it would be impossible to expect them to check all of these data sets and early indicator systems manually and continuously for all of the students they serve in their districts and classrooms each and every day.
We now live in a data-rich world, but without simplifying and integrating all oncoming inputs into one singular, universally accessible, naturally intuitive, system that considers every driver of student success or struggle, we remain knowledge-poor.
If it’s true that “We’re all in this together,” which certainly seems to be the spirit of those in charge of optimizing learning in our districts, schools and classrooms, then the first step most certainly is getting everything and everyone working together and on the same page.
Mike Geers is Client Partnership Manager with Munetrix, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.