In the face of a public health crisis, Ohioans have risen to the occasion. While images of heroic deeds by health care workers and grocery store employees come immediately to mind, there’s no shortage of positive stories from the education community as well. Many are the heart-warming tales of creative efforts to provide meals to students who might otherwise go hungry, complicated logistical plans to distribute computers and learning materials, and public and private action to increase high-speed internet access. Truly, there is much to be proud of.
Yet, if we look closely, there are also worrying signs.
All around the state, high-poverty schools have faced a daunting challenge trying to get both digital devices and internet access into students’ homes. In a story on Cleveland.com, district CEO Eric Gordon estimated that 25,000 of Cleveland’s 38,000 students lack devices. The situation is similar in Toledo and Columbus, where thousands of students lack internet access. Districts were forced to dip into their own coffers to buy internet hot spots, boost their schools’ Wi-Fi signals, and send Wi-Fi-equipped buses into neighborhoods. Despite these stopgap efforts, a stark digital divide remains.
Whether students are connected electronically or not, engagement is a critical component of effective education. In Cincinnati, after a few weeks of distance learning, the district still hasn’t connected at all with 5,000 of its 36,000 students. Nearby, Mt. Healthy faced similar challenges, with one elementary school reporting that only 25 percent of students had completed any work, while another of its schools reported a better but still troubling 45 percent.
Even where students have internet access and are signing in regularly, significant changes in district policies are likely having an impact on student learning. Examples include districts declaring that remote learning can help your grade but not hurt it, moving to a pass/fail grading framework for the fourth quarter, and making official that students aren’t expected to “complete all of the curriculum.” These efforts seem to be affecting some students’ motivation. As one junior at Walnut Hills High School put it, “I think a lot of people quit school, basically.” She indicated that at least some of her peers have lost the motivation to complete assignments because they aren’t being graded.
These anecdotes paint a worrisome picture of learning during the pandemic. But unfortunately, little data exist about what is and isn’t happening in Ohio schools. State policymakers could change that by requiring districts and charter schools to provide more information to the public about their efforts and how they are going. Reporting information on remote learning will help us move beyond anecdotes, identify education gaps, improve equity, provide an incentive for schools and districts to continue to improve services, and give everyone an opportunity to learn from the experiences of others.
A good place to start might be to borrow from Delaware. It’s requiring each district to submit a simple remote learning plan to its department of education—so simple that most components can be answered via yes-or-no questions. The plans are public, and DelawareCAN has compiled them for easy review and comparison. This is something Ohio can and should do immediately.
Remote learning plans are a good start, but they only reflect what schools intend to do. Ohio should also ask for information about how things are actually going. Here are some examples—a few borrowed from my colleague Checker Finn—of questions that the state should consider asking of districts and charter schools to help gain a better understanding as to how distance learning is working.
Let’s start with the key information that must be gathered to understand what’s actually happening in this time of remote learning. What percentage of students have been in contact with teachers? What percentage of students have direct communication with teachers at least weekly? What percentage of students have devices with internet access? These are core questions as we figure out the impact that distance learning is having on student achievement. The access question is especially important as policymakers discuss future priorities around the technology needs of K–12 schools and statewide broadband availability.
Given that the state could be forced to offer remote learning opportunities again this fall, there are additional questions, a little harder to answer, worth considering. What percentage of students are engaging in class work on a daily basis? What percentage of classes are being taught in real time? For classes that aren’t taught live, what percentage of classes have recorded lessons available? Being able to identify the districts that have successfully been able to adopt these types of distance-learning strategies creates learning opportunities for other districts.
Finally, if we really want to benefit from our forced statewide distance learning experiment, we’d be smart to survey parents and teachers. Miamisburg has already done something similar, partnering with Panorama Education to administer a community survey. This might be the hardest data to gather (especially parent responses), but if we don’t listen to this epidemic’s front-line educators (parents and teachers) on what worked and what didn’t, then we’ll have missed a tremendous opportunity. Their feedback can give us important information if we’re thrown into distance learning again and give us ideas on how to improve education generally.
One thing we do know right now: 2019–20 is not a normal school year. As such, Ohio has smartly paused traditional accountability via state assessments and report cards this year. But as Brian Gill, senior fellow at Mathematica and director of REL Mid-Atlantic, wrote in Education Next, “High-stakes testing is not the only tool in the accountability toolbox.” He argues compellingly that transparency “even without consequences” can play an important role in improving teaching and learning.
We’re all hopeful that, as our state gradually reopens for business and returns to some semblance of normalcy, we don’t encounter any setbacks. But we know it’s a possibility. If we fail as a state to get a handle on what distance learning has meant for our students, then we’ll have truly failed to learn our lessons. And it’s our students who will bear that cost.