Schools cannot afford to squander another year because of tepid leadership and political squabbling; they owe students a chance to gain back the learning opportunities they were denied last year.
A missing link to help students emotionally and academically
Fifty-six percent of students say they are more stressed about school than before the pandemic. Eighty-three percent report a physical symptom of stress—like difficulty sleeping, headaches, and weight gain or loss. That’s all according to a survey of more than 10,000 high school students conducted last fall by Challenge Success, a nonprofit that supports student well-being and learning. Their report, Kids Under Pressure, underscores how unsettling the year has been for many youth.
An urgent question is what can teachers—who are also deeply stressed—do to help?
There’s no simple answer. But a good start would be more information and guidance from school districts: how their students are faring academically and emotionally and steps they can take to be most supportive. As a start, school districts should consider combining student data in new ways: linking together feedback on student academic performance and engagement with information on their well-being and emotional health.
The stakes are high. A large-scale student survey from YouthTruth recently concluded that “feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious” was the number one obstacle to remote learning last fall. Results from YouthTruth and Challenge Success help explain the shocking finding from the Centers for Disease Control that mental health hospitalization rates for 12 to 17 year olds increased 31 percent in 2020 from 2019.
Despite the issue's salience, our review of a nationally representative database found that most systems aren’t measuring student well-being districtwide. Indeed, we found only 7 percent of districts were measuring student well-being last fall. Without better data, educators will struggle to make smart choices about supporting students' social and emotional health.
The good news is that districts don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They can use YouthTruth surveys, Panorama, or other options to systematically track student well-being. And they could go a step further by combining such student survey data with other known information about students’ engagement and academic performance.
That engagement data could come from a variety of sources. For instance, New Visions, a network of schools in New York City, provides weekly data on students’ Google Classroom logins, the share of assignments they’ve completed, and their participation with peers and teachers in the last five days. Zearn Math, a digital program, gives teachers a real-time view of how many lessons students have completed, how long each lesson took, and how much time they spend each week on the platform.
CRPE recently convened a panel of experts to talk about how districts could leverage data they’re already collecting from their learning management platforms and learning software applications to better understand student engagement. The results suggest that a lot of potential in data is already available to districts through these digital tools. In particular, these tools hold data on who is engaging in learning, when, how, and to some extent, under what circumstances. To get the most out of these data, districts must combine them with other data on the learning environment and student well-being. Combining data in this way could be a missing piece of the much larger puzzle of knowing how to help students emotionally and academically.
Of course, data alone isn’t going to solve anything. Schools and districts shouldn’t grab onto data solutions without first having a clear vision around students’ social and emotional growth: What does it mean? How is it supported? How does it relate to academic learning? Making good use of data also requires routines and supports that are often lacking in schools. So shifting organizational culture is as important as identifying the right data.
When it comes to identifying the right data and building an integrated system, districts can’t do this work alone. It should be joint work between districts and technology firms to make sure the solution can capture, connect, and share real-time, relevant data with teachers when they need it. Technology leaders warn that one-off collaborations are unlikely to yield the industry-wide improvements that we’re seeking. Instead, multidistrict or regional collaborations will better capture the attention and investments of software and platform developers. State and federal investments in cross-sector collaborations could create the economies of scale for technology firms to develop new features and tools that facilitate data integration.
These are tall orders. But the alternative is too many teachers and district leaders shooting in the dark, and too many stressed out students struggling to engage and learn.
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