Let’s Not Go Back to Normal, Let’s Create a Better One: Using Interoperable Data in Mitigating Learning Loss, Improving Student Outcomes, and Giving Teachers Their Sundays Back

Sean Casey

By Sean Casey, manager of strategic partnerships, The Ed-Fi Alliance.

How can we possibly even begin to show our gratitude for what our educators have endured and achieved this past year? Will flowers and a donut really do the trick? This year let’s give them something bigger – a promise to do better by them and not leave them alone in the road ahead to make up this ‘lost’ school year.

Today, more than a year into the pandemic, the conversation and concern surrounding how to address learning loss has reached critical mass. Interoperability, or the lack thereof, is playing a huge role in this emerging crisis. To explain:

Overnight, we moved from one educational and instructional modality — in-person learning — to five: remote, in-person, and hybrid learning, as well as synchronous and asynchronous sessions. Adapting to this shift meant adapting more software, more tools, and more variety in how we teach and learn. This surfaced some difficult questions.

Without interoperable data between systems — meaning, the ability for computer systems or software to share and exchange information to provide valuable and actionable insight — how can teachers effectively and efficiently guide learners? Ensure equitable education across modalities? How would district leaders truly get the full picture of each student’s academic situation to ensure learners weren’t falling behind? The answer: They can’t. At least, not if data continues to live in silos.

This might be the most significant disruption in education in generations. Without the granular insight that interoperable data affords district leaders, not only will learners continue to fall behind, but may do so at higher rates than pre-pandemic, and be at increased risk of chronic absenteeism — all of which create potential long-term impacts for students, schools, and communities.

Change Starts Here

As educators, student success is priority #1. And unfortunately, without the ability to easily and effectively connect data across systems, administrators are left using anecdotal evidence, or worse – guessing, when making crucial decisions about when and how to intervene, provide individual support, and help every student succeed. Below we’ll discuss three ways in which connected data enables district leaders to focus on what’s most important — supporting teachers; supporting students; achieving learning goals.

Support Teachers: Empowering Instruction Through Data

When I was a middle school educator, I had about 175 students on my roster. That’s a lot of kids to teach. Beyond teaching, being an instructor meant I was entrusted with truly getting to know my students, figuring out how each of them learned best, and understanding how to provide specific guidance and differentiated instruction when and where it mattered most. It was a lot to manage as an educator — even when school was still in the classroom and operating within a singular modality.

An Unsustainable Workload Outside of the Classroom

For today’s teachers, these challenges have been placed in a pressure cooker. Student rosters are just as big as they used to be, or bigger. And instructors still have to teach, guide, and support the same large rosters of students as before — now across multiple learning modalities. The result: More ambiguity, and more work, than ever.

Teachers are being asked to juggle all of these variables on top of their already-heavy workloads, while also trying to provide a level of consistency and quality instruction across all modalities. If there isn’t a seamless flow of student attendance and participation or engagement data across systems within a district, this leaves teachers with the short end of the stick. They have to spend their after-school hours — and Sundays in preparation for the week ahead — manually connecting data across disparate systems to figure out which learners are participating, succeeding, struggling, and how to intervene early to prevent learning loss. The good news? There’s a better way.

Overcoming Education Hurdles Through Interoperable Data

Changing this unsustainable dynamic has to start from the top. These are challenges district leaders should be solving with technology, not thrusting upon overburdened educators. By investing in interoperable software, districts are helping to automate the process of gathering and organizing data. No longer would teachers have to spend hours after school and on weekends manually crunching student data — not if we put technology and data to work for us. By enabling data to flow automatically and in real-time across our systems, districts can give teachers their Sundays back and empower them to do what they do best: provide quality education and attention to every learner.

Support Students: Creating a Better Normal

Here’s a radical idea: Let’s not go back to the way things were pre-pandemic.

Going “back to normal” might sound nice, but education had cracks in its foundation before the pandemic. Districts have long had to piecemeal their IT architecture together to be able to leverage data interoperability before then transforming the infrastructure into a more agile system that can handle any situation — like a pandemic. As a result, districts are left trying to support teachers and students alike using multiple point solutions and manual data collection and analysis methods. A practice that’s much less flexible than a seamless, cohesive group of interoperable software systems.

In short, even before the pandemic ushered in new complexities for educators, fragmented systems were creating disconnected silos. Left unchecked, the resulting lack of insight can lead to immediate challenges (e.g., not realizing a student missed a 3rd-grade reading milestone due to chronic absence) and eventual long-term effects of learning loss (e.g., increased risk of dropping out, decreased family engagement, not graduating college or career ready, widening life-long gaps in achievement).

District leaders must make a conscious choice to take advantage of some of the lessons the pandemic experience has afforded us, and move forward in reshaping and improving the education space.

Learning from the Past. Informing Our Future.

Without access to clear, interoperable, and comprehensive data, you don’t know what you don’t know. Meaning, without it, how can district leaders truly know which students are falling behind, and as early as possible?

Let’s use attendance modality as an example. Pre-pandemic, all a student had to do was physically show up to class to be marked “present.” It didn’t matter if they were actually participating, engaging in instruction, or putting forth the effort to progress their education. All “present” meant was — the student showed up to class that day.

However, this changed when the pandemic hit. Educators were forced to shift from traditional, in-person instruction to complete virtual learning. This came with a new and novel set of hurdles: If teachers weren’t able to engage with students in the classroom, how would they know when a student was present, participating, engaged? If a student dialed into Zoom just for roll call and then left during the lesson, how would the teacher gather and record this data and what short- or long-term implications would this behavior have on the student? There was no framework for how to capture this information.

The pandemic emphasized the need to look at student participation and engagement holistically and across all modalities as a way to assess if kids are learning, making progress, and hitting their educational milestones. We may never work within a singular modality again, and the sooner data interoperability is adapted, the sooner and more successfully educators can differentiate, guide, and support learners.

Let’s take what we’ve learned from this experience and marry it with what we can accomplish with data to not just create a new normal, but a better normal — one that truly supports every learner.

Achieving Learning Goals: The Road Ahead

We constantly tell kids that knowledge is power. Maybe it’s what district leaders should be telling themselves, too. After all, without data-driven knowledge, we’re in the dark about how to best solve the issues that stem from learning loss, including strengthening family engagement, providing more individualized student support, reducing chronic absenteeism, and improving education outcomes.

Educators have always, and will always, be problem-solvers who will do whatever it takes to help their students succeed. Over the past year, they’ve faced hurdle after hurdle in their pursuit to continue teaching and supporting their kids, and they may understandably feel burnt out. It’s time for districts to take action and ask more from their technology systems and data — not their teachers.

In an education environment that’s full of incredible technology, let’s make that technology work for us and do what it’s meant to do: make our lives easier. Technology helps to put much-needed time back into our days, freeing educators up for higher-order thinking and shaping today and tomorrow’s young minds. District leaders can (and should) feel emboldened to blaze a trail in the new, better normal by harnessing interoperable data in real time across multiple data measures. This is how we achieve the ideal educational outcome: Support every learner while simultaneously providing educators with clear insight throughout their journey to improve and achieve learning goals.

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