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Pressure Mounts On Chicago To Release Remote Learning Participation Data. The Details Will Matter.

Chicago is facing mounting pressure to release information about what portion of its roughly 300,000 students are participating in remote instruction.

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EDGEWATER — In the early weeks of remote learning at Chicago’s Senn High School, only counselors saw the weekly color-coded tally that tracked participation: students who completed assignments in green, those who kept in touch with teachers in yellow, and those who had not engaged at all in red. 

But Principal Mary Beck recently heeded calls from teachers to share the data with them as well. That sparked productive conversations: Educators who were striking out with some students consulted colleagues who had successfully engaged them.

Chicago is facing mounting pressure to release information about what portion of its roughly 300,000 students are participating in remote instruction. The district says it hasn’t done so yet because it is working on ensuring that data from its schools, which have tracked participation in disparate ways, is consistent and accurate. 

Chicago has lagged behind other large urban districts in disclosing such data. But some researchers say numbers from cities such as New York have shed limited light. They often reveal only whether students log on to digital portals or whether school staff connected with families — not whether children actively participate in learning.

Muddying the waters are the digital divide and the pandemic’s economic squeeze, which can prevent students from keeping up even when schools do their best to reach them. Still, detailed data, such as Senn High’s, which gets at which students are actually completing assignments, is key to help guide schools’ outreach and instruction.

“In these circumstances, it’s particularly important to keep monitoring who’s getting work done,” said Elaine Allensworth at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research. 

Chicago schools report to the district data on their interaction with students weekly, some using a district tool and others their own systems for tracking it. The district also recently started sharing with schools Google Classroom log-in metrics on students and teachers, along with averages for each of the district’s regional school networks. 

During the April meeting of the district’s governing board and in a call with reporters last week, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey questioned why the district hasn’t shared any data on participation in remote learning, which he said is likely to be “sobering.” He said the union has gotten anecdotal reports that suggest student engagement varies widely among campuses. In some schools, students reportedly participate at high rates, he said. 

“In other parts of the city, I’ve actually heard of teachers saying they’ve gotten on a given day no one on their lessons at all, which was very demoralizing and frustrating,” he said. “But really, it runs the gamut.”

The district is working to streamline the information it has and will report it to the public “as soon as we are confident in the fidelity and accuracy of the data,” said district spokeswoman Emily Bolton in a statement.

“Creating a new streamlined data reporting system that captures all of the digital tools and unique ways students are being engaged through remote learning is extremely complex,” she said. 

At Senn High, Beck, the principal, said the school’s approach of tracking student engagement has evolved since the coronavirus outbreak shuttered schools in mid-March. Earlier on, Senn focused on keeping track of which students the school was able to reach, even if that was just a phone call to check on their well-being. On any given week, the school was in touch with about 80% of students. Every Friday, counselors would try to connect with the remaining 20%. 

Once remote learning began in earnest in mid-April, the school started keeping more detailed data, and teachers wanted to see it. 

“Teachers were saying, ‘We are at 80%, but I only have 30% of students in my class,’” Beck said.

The school started distinguishing between students who were connecting with teachers or logging on to the school’s online platform — and those who actually completed school work. 

Beck said the school has seen a marked boost in completed assignments since the district unveiled a new grading policy earlier this month, which spelled out that students who do not turn in school work will have to make it up over the summer or next fall. 

Andrew Johnson, a social science teacher at Westinghouse College Prep, who also serves as a college counselor, said educators at the school track their engagement with students in their classes each week. They account separately for academic engagement — turning in assignments, watching pre-recorded video lectures, joining live video classes — and non-academic check-ins. 

Educators are reaching out repeatedly to students who are not tuning in. Some students say they dislike the new format and feel unmotivated. But many others are saying they have been unable to keep up because they are picking up extra shifts at their job after a parent got laid off or taking care of younger siblings. 

“Those are not problems addressed by teachers changing the way they do remote learning,” Johnson said.

“That might be part of the district’s reluctance to share data,” he added. “We don’t have any idea what the appropriate measuring stick is.” 

Districts across the country have been forced to quickly rethink how to track attendance and participation. So far, the measures are imperfect. Districts such as those in Los Angeles and Miami have monitored the portion of students who log on to their online learning portals. Back in April, a representative for Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second largest school system, told Chalkbeat about three in four high school students were doing so on an average day. 

Each week, New York City releases data showing a daily attendance tally by grade level. The data counts students who complete an assignment, take part in an online discussion, respond to a teacher’s email — or even have a parent vouch for their engagement in a phone call with school staff. 

The latest data from early May shows attendance ranging from 82% for high school students to 92% for those in grade 3 to 5.

Allensworth at the Consortium said existing research into online learning has shown that simply logging on to an online portal or even tuning in to a video lecture are not reliable metrics of student engagement. Completing assignments is the gold standard. 

Clearly, she said, some students are not engaged because they face family crises or lack the technology they need to log on. But the data can also help reveal that some assignments are not clear enough or are too challenging — and steer help to both students and teachers who need it. 

“It’s easy to assume students are overwhelmed or unable to engage,” Allensworth said. 

In Illinois, the state education board has left it up to districts to design their own ways of tracking attendance, which will make it tough to draw conclusions about student engagement across district lines. Districts are required to continue submitting student-level attendance numbers to the state.

In Cicero, a 11,000-student suburban district west of Chicago with a largely Latino student population, Superintendent Rudy Hernandez said the district has continued to track student data through an online portal. In addition, teachers are entering more detailed information about interactions with their students in a weekly log. 

He said about two-thirds of students districtwide were logging on to the digital platform regularly in the weeks after the schools closed. Now that number is at 90%. Hernandez acknowledged that data doesn’t capture students who actually completed assignments in the portal. But he said he believes it tracks closely how many get work done because of the district’s intensive outreach to students who log on but lag in submitting school work.  

“It’s not about just collecting the data,” he said. “It’s about collecting the data with the purpose of improving student learning.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Sign up for its newsletter here.