When I was a senior in high school, I thought the coolest job would be to serve as a member of Congress.
I was lucky to be part of an amazing course (in a public school, might I add!) called Government and Law-Related Experiences, affectionately known as GALRE.
Our teacher, Doug Martin, a hero of mine, is a Vietnam veteran who continued to serve his country by educating thousands of students about their civic rights and duties, in honor of his friend who didn't make it home from the war.
He taught us to be good citizens, but more importantly, he modeled for us how to be good people and to enjoy life in the process.
We had frequent guest speakers in the course -- GALRE alumni, community leaders, and elected officials on all levels -- who would come talk to us and answer our questions.
We also had to complete "outside experiences," where we immersed ourselves in the local community and political scene. I was canvassing and registering voters before I was old enough to vote myself.
The class culminated in a three-day, whirlwind trip to Washington, DC, where we got to see the federal government operate in real life.
GALRE inspired me to pursue a degree in Political Science and spend my career in service of others and the common good.
As I watched the horrific news of the insurgence of white supremacist domestic terrorists on the nation's Capitol yesterday, I found myself thinking back to our trip to DC, sitting on the steps of the Capitol building with my classmates, imagining working there one day.
More importantly, I keep thinking how safe I felt being with a teacher like Mr. Martin during times of national (9-11 occurred when I was a sophomore) and even personal times of crisis.
That level of security -- that my teachers could help me process what was happening and reassure me that, by learning from history, we would pull through any challenge -- is something I wish for all students.
Mr. Martin was a huge inspiration for me when I became a Social Studies teacher in Baltimore.
I brought in guest speakers, helped my students participate in a civics education competition, and took them on field trips to see where history happened in their local communities. Following the guidance of a veteran teacher at my school, I tried my best to teach my students the "real" version of early U.S. history and impart the lessons I learned from Mr. Martin.
As I watched yesterday's events unfold, I kept thinking about today's generation of students and all the challenges they have faced over the past year.
I worry about the quality of social studies education they are receiving.
Are they receiving the white-washed, textbook version of history that will only perpetuate the bigoted culture that we're seeing on display?
Or are they learning about the suffering and triumph of people from all racial and ethnic groups, the truth about how government has perpetuated inequity, and how they can play a role in making things better?
Worse, are they learning about history at all?
Most of all, I find myself wondering if they have a Mr. Martin in their lives to help them feel safe and make sense of what's tearing our country apart during this scary time.
I may not be a social studies teacher anymore, but the lessons I learned in G.A.L.R.E. and my time in the classroom have informed my work today.
I truly believe that we can all begin chipping away at the ills of our society through our own actions: how we support others, how we engage and empower children and families, and how we ensure that everyone gets what they need to thrive.
To all the social studies (or other!) teachers having difficult conversations with their students today and making them feel safe in an increasingly unstable world, thank you. You are making a difference.
You should know by now that I'm a bit of a data nerd.
I love spreadsheets. I love organizing data and using it to illuminate patterns. I love the "ah-ha" moments when clients realize how much their own data can tell them about the kids and families they're serving.
So it may surprise you that I'm here to say that numbers and spreadsheets don't tell us everything.
That doesn't mean that numbers (or quantitative data) are irrelevant.
It just means that they are even more informative when paired with stories, quotations, or anecdotes (qualitative data).
(See the box for a quick refresher on the difference between the two).
Here's an example. Yesterday, I was re-reading an article from The Columbus Dispatch, my local paper, about the spike in youth violence that has occurred during the pandemic.
It's been horrible to hear about how many children and teens (well, really anyone, for that matter) have been victims of gun violence since the spring.
The article cites a number of statistics -- that the number of children treated in Columbus for gunshot wounds this spring and summer was double the rate from 2019 (from 16 to 32); and that children from racial or ethnic minorities are twice as likely to be shot than white children.
Those are AWFUL statistics - and they certainly help me see that there is a dire situation here.
But then, the article talks to a teacher whose student -- an eight year-old boy -- was killed. Here's what the article shares about (and from) the teacher:
Thalgott has lost a handful of former students during her 20 years of teaching on the South Side. She's seen even more students who have lost a parent to gun violence.
Having lost some former students or their family members to gun violence -- either as victims or perpetrators -- this quote really gets to me.
This quote conjures up such raw emotions that suddenly it puts the statistics they cited into context.
Those 32 children are somebody's child, somebody's sibling, somebody's student, somebody's mentee. Hearing from a person who actually experienced that loss made a big difference in how I processed this article. I imagine it did for you too.
Quantitative data can be so powerful, but its impact is amplified when we lift up the voices of those we are serving or studying.
Qualitative data -- gathered through interviews, focus groups, open-ended survey questions, or observations -- can sometimes more effectively communicate the experience of what is happening in your school or community.
I'll be doing a series of posts on qualitative data over the next few weeks -- how to collect it, how to use it, and how using a combination of data can truly help you tell your story.
I started writing a completely different blog post for this week, but when I read the news this morning, I knew I had to shift gears.
CNN featured a story yesterday called "Teachers and social workers search for students who are 'missing' in the pandemic."
The word "missing" made my heart drop.
It immediately reminded me of this story, of a young girl from Washington, DC named Relisha Rudd. I heard about her story in 2014, and it broke my heart -- at the time, I was a community school coordinator and led our school's charge for attendance and engagement tracking and interventions. Staff from Relisha's school tried to track her down, only to find that a man working at the homeless shelter where she was staying had been impersonating her doctor to the school.
She is still missing to this day.
As a community school coordinator, her story lit a fire under me to do everything I could to make sure that we knew, to the best of our ability, that our kids were safe and able to come to school.
I have thought of Relisha over the years and find the tragedy of her story to be a call to action for schools, districts, and other youth- and family-serving organizations.
How can we make sure that no other students fall through the cracks?
When I read the story this morning about the Robla School District in California doing home visits and trying everything they can to find their students "missing" from online school, I had so many thoughts:
Labeling students as "missing" drives home the gravity of the situation our country is in. Families are truly struggling because of the virus and the economy, but honestly, lacking access to the internet, to stable housing, and to consistent work have been challenges for so many families for so long. The fact that things are only getting worse is upsetting and shows us that we have so much work to do.
Literally going into neighborhoods searching for children is heroic, but also emotionally grueling. I remember the disappointment and worry of having a string of unsuccessful home visits -- you gear yourself up for making a difference, only to find that addresses were incorrect or have changed, or worse -- you just don't know where students and families are living. That is scary, and it is emotionally taxing for educators.
While data tracking can't help us physically locate a family, it can help us focus our efforts where they are needed most. You may have seen that last week, I released a guide for how to Track Your Engagement Data in 4 Simple Steps. I believe strongly that using simple functions in Excel can help educators pinpoint exactly which students and families need additional support -- whether that's with attendance, engagement, or academics.
(I know it can work because I've seen the impact it has had on my own work in schools!)
So in honor of Relisha and in commitment to the well-being and success of students who may be "missing" from online school today, let's get tracking.
To learn more about data tracking, visit my Engage with Excel page or sign up below.
When I started my doctoral program at Vanderbilt, I certainly didn't expect to get into a ... heated discussion, shall we say? ... with the professor of my first course.
We were discussing characteristics of effective leaders, and our professor mentioned that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, one of the most well-known personality tests, was essentially worthless.
You see, despite its incredible popularity, there is actually no data to show that Myers-Briggs is a valid and reliable assessment -- that it measures what it intends to, and that you'd consistently get the same outcomes if you took it again and again.
Now, I've always been a pretty introspective person, and I (still) love personality tests as a fun way to reflect on how I think, feel, and interact with others. I'd never taken them as a scientific assessment of my psyche, but Myers-Briggs especially had stood out to me as a somewhat revelatory framework for why people interact and act the way they do.
I had always gotten the exact same result when I'd taken the Myers-Briggs (ENFJ, if you're curious), so when my professor started talking about how most people get quite different results each time they take it, and that there was no research to support its utility, part of me was bummed, and part of me was fired up.
I argued (civilly, of course) that I didn't use it as a formal diagnostic tool, but instead as a helpful resource or an interesting way of looking at things. So why should it matter? (Newsflash: It does matter.)
For fun, I recently read The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by Merve Emre. Of course, she confirmed what my professor had said many years ago. However, it reminded me of something I see often in education.
People who are passionate about helping children and families often feel that they KNOW that what they're doing is helping the communities they serve, even without any real data to back it up.
We KNOW that our Family Science Night was a success because there were lots of families there, and everyone enjoyed themselves. We BELIEVE that a teacher is effective because the children love them. We FEEL the impact of an after-school program because, well, it's been in the community forever.
Unfortunately, we can't rely on gut instincts, feelings, and beliefs alone to tell us if something is effective... just like I couldn't make decisions based on only an affinity for Myers-Briggs.
Let me be clear: education, and family engagement in particular, tends to get kind of fuzzy. While we can't rely on intuition, it's also true that we can't rigorously test everything that happens in schools. We need to find a middle ground.
But this isn't just my random interest in personality theory.
When it comes to children and families, we need to make sure that what we're doing to try to help them actually works.
Luckily, it's not that hard to get started. We can begin tracking data, analyzing trends, and ultimately, measuring our impact so that we know we aren't just THINKING that we're changing lives. We actually are.
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Fear. Uncertainty. Frustration. Isolation.
In recent conversations with districts across the country and in analyses of surveys for clients, these words have come up a lot. Families, educators, and community members are feeling a whole lot of unpleasant things as we grapple with how - or if - we can simultaneously facilitate safety and high-quality learning experiences in our nation's schools.
Instead of shopping sprees at Staples (oh, how I wish!), we are experiencing back-to-school season like never before. Reopening plans change so quickly we can't keep up, and districts are scrambling to ensure that the safety protocols can be met and that all students can actually access and benefit from remote learning. My conversations and analyses lately have shown me how palpable and salient these fears and questions are for so many people.
The good news? While no one really knows what will happen with COVID, we do have some ways to alleviate the feelings I listed above. Think about these: Communication. Relationships. Empathy. Engagement.
Let's be honest: we have always needed these things. However, with most districts going fully or partially remote this fall, the role of families in children's education is even more prominent than before. For those of us who have long promoted the critical nature of family and community engagement, we've been saying to ourselves lately, "Now's our time."
It's time for family engagement to be a priority for all educators, community members, and policymakers, not an afterthought. We must lift up the voices of families, truly hear what they have to say, and use their feedback as a key driver for decisions moving forward.
It's time for us to leverage the wealth of resources in our communities to support families who are struggling right now. In my city, I was pleased to see that the City of Columbus and Columbus City Schools have agreed to spend $7 million of the CARES Act funds on providing Chromebooks for every student and wifi hotspots for families who lack internet access.
It's time to embrace partnerships with organizations who can help make learning fun, interactive, and accessible. Here's an example of how one of my favorite local institutions, the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), is facilitating the exploration of science for children in under-resourced communities.
It's time for us to focus our energy and public dollars on practices that have been proven effective and to put systems in place to begin tracking our progress. AttendanceWorks has done a great job of bringing data tracking to the forefront as we work to ensure that all students have an equitable school experience this fall.
More than anything, it's time for us to dismantle barriers created by historical and institutionalized racism and to embrace all children and families as our own. We need to be unafraid to check our privilege, acknowledge racist policies and practices, and work to rectify harm that has been done. If you're not sure where to get started, here is a free training on implicit bias for K-12 educators from the Kirwan Institute on the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State (I attended an incredibly powerful trainings with them this week.).
As we continue to weather the uncertainty from COVID, we need to remember that we all have the ability to communicate effectively, build meaningful relationships, empathize with others, and engage families in partnership. With these priorities and a plan for how to measure if we're doing them right, we will be able to help all children, families, and communities make the most of this unconventional back-to-school time.
How are institutions and organizations near you embracing engagement during this time?
I still remember how scared I was during the 2015 riots/uprising in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.
I understood the pain and outrage in the black community over the death of a young, black man in police custody, but looking back, I didn't really get the depth of the collective trauma that was at the heart of it.
At the time, I was a Community School Coordinator at a predominately black elementary school about two miles down the road from Mondawmin Mall, the epicenter of the protests. As word spread of a student-led protest at Mondawmin that afternoon, staff and families began to fear for the safety of our students as they left school for the day. I had to take a different route on my way home, since I always passed the mall on my drive. On my detour, I passed armored National Guard tanks and heavily armed soldiers. It was clear that this was much more than a student-led protest. I was rattled.
That night, I holed up in my apartment and spent the entire evening glued to the news, unable to do anything but watch my city burn. Living close to downtown, I heard a lot of noise outside that night, but I was shocked to wake up and find buildings across the street boarded up, having been broken into the night before.
I felt that same initial shock this weekend when I saw images of my new city - Columbus, OH - on fire. While still frightening, I had a different understanding of the situation than I did five years ago.
In the five years since that night, I have continued to study, listen, and learn about the deeply institutionalized racism in this country and the violence that still accompanies it in modern-day America. I now have a better understanding of how intensely traumatized our black communities are from centuries of oppression, discrimination, and brutality, and I also know that I can never truly know that pain for myself.
So the recent surge in senseless and hate-fueled killings of black men and women in this country has rested heavy on my heart. I've felt sick over the horrific and unnecessary deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in recent weeks ... and so many others before them. I've heard the friends and colleagues I love question their own self-worth and the safety of their children just because of the color of their skin. Dyjuan Tatro, featured in the moving series College Behind Bars, about the Bard Prison Initiative, summed this up so eloquently:
And yet, police brutality has only proliferated this week. I've watched videos of officers driving their cars into crowds of protesters, pulling down a young man's mask and pepper spraying him, and shooting protesters and journalists in the face with "non-lethal" bullets.
There is no reason for it, and there is no excuse. The blatant racism and hate crimes in our country must be prosecuted and condemned.
But let's think for a moment about our country's black youth. On top of this historical and racial trauma that so many of them carry before they are old enough to understand it, they also attend under-resourced, hyper-segregated schools ... and yet, we expect them to learn and function like those who are lucky enough to live without these burdens.
It doesn't make sense. We have to do better.
I'm still grappling with my role in all of this and how I can try to make the world a bit better. I will continue to serve and support communities and school districts serving black and brown youth, but somehow that doesn't feel like enough. I hope that as a nation, we can collectively remember that there is a common good, and that it is far easier to stand for that than to stand for hate.
Last week, I watched a powerful webinar from Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center about health inequity and COVID-19. One of the first speakers, Dr. Nwando Olayiwola, started to talk about vulnerable populations but quickly corrected herself. She called them, "populations that have been made vulnerable."
What a difference such a small change made. Instead of assuming that people in those populations are inherently vulnerable, her corrected phrase shows that inequity is the result of intentional decisions that negatively affect specific groups of people. Her quick self-correction stuck with me.
This morning, I was reading the education news that comes to my inbox each day and saw a headline from the Wall Street Journal last week that read, "Some School Districts Plan to End the Year Early, Call Remote Learning Too Tough." Another entry in the same newsletter suggested that based on a national poll of teachers and administrators, 65% want to start the school year as normal in the fall, without adjustments to the curriculum or schedule. My heart sank, and I instantly thought of Dr. Olayiwola's revised phrase.
Now, I am no longer a K-12 teacher, so it is unfair for me to pass judgment on educators, whose jobs were already difficult, and who had to do a 180-degree shift in their daily practices within days or weeks. That is an incredible challenge, and it will take time to adjust. I empathize with teachers and cannot imagine what I would have done if I had to shift my middle school instruction online in a heartbeat. However, we're also faced with a growing educational crisis.
Evaluators and researchers have been doing some great work to illuminate the educational ramifications of COVID-19 on disadvantaged communities. Researchers have studied the concept of "summer slide" for many years and have shown students regress in math and reading skills without educational opportunities during the summer. There is even a National Center on Time and Learning, whose work revolves around reducing inequities related to the inflexible and insufficient school year schedules that predominate in our country. Recently, the Collaborative for Student Growth found that an even more significant "COVID slide" is likely to occur when students return to school in the fall, having retained only about 70% of the reading growth and 50% of the math growth they would have typically made in a school year. Recommendations to mitigate the COVID slide include summer school and additional learning time for students.
Yet, the Wall Street Journal article discussed how districts across the country are choosing to end the school year up to three weeks early in order to have more time to prepare for the fall. One superintendent even stated, "It made sense to us to get rid of the stress and get ready for the following school year." We certainly need more supports for teachers and greater access to technology for students in order to make online learning more functional and effective. But does that justify giving up entirely?
Decades of research have shown that more time in school leads to better outcomes for students, especially those from low-income communities. In a time of increased risk for widening the achievement gap, is it ethical to throw in the towel? By justifying inaction with the feeling that it is too difficult to educate students from home, we are making our student populations -- in many cases -- more vulnerable than they already were. I hope that evaluators and researchers can come together with educators to study the data, fully understand the problem and its drivers, and develop policy recommendations that will not only support teachers but will also do right by students who need time with teachers to thrive.
It's not always easy to measure the impact of family and community engagement efforts. Some aspects of education -- like test scores or report card grades -- (notwithstanding the wide variety of controversies around their use) are pretty straightforward to measure. They're already quantified. They're known entities. We can tell that story. But when we talk about measuring the impact of, say, a super successful family science night, our minds go blank.
Thinking of our present situation, in which family and community engagement is more critical than ever, how can we tell the story of how a school or organization engaged and supported its students and families and even its neighbors during the pandemic? How do we collect and measure both the individual or personal impacts and the large-scale results?
Erica Green and Lola Fadulu did such an effective job of this in a recent New York Times story about how school cafeterias across the country have become "relief kitchens" for not only students and their families, but also community members in need. The cafeteria manager featured in the story effortlessly rattles off the incredible numbers of people she and her team have served and also shares stories of individuals she's encountered. Not only is she a hero in her community, but she's a perfect example of one of my core beliefs -- that you don't need to be a statistician to effectively use data in your work.
If your team is not sure how to start measuring your COVID-19 impact and telling its story, here are three steps to get started:
This is just a short list of ways to use data to measure your impact and involve your community in doing so. Of course, if your school or organization needs some guidance, I'm here for you. I offer three different packages to support schools, districts, and organizations with this work. I'm also happy to do phone consultations to help you brainstorm.
Regardless of how you do it, this is the time to make data a priority. What will be your story?
For the past few weeks, one image has been recurring in my mind. I keep picturing the living conditions of a student whose home I visited a few times when I was working as a community school coordinator in Baltimore. This student had struggled at other schools but was thriving at ours. He had repeated second grade, so his maturity compared to his peers was notable, but overall, he was just a really sweet kid. We did a number of home visits for him that year because he missed a lot of school, and as a black child from a low-income home with documented learning disabilities, school was even more important for him than most.
Every time I get frustrated with having to stay home - in my very comfortable apartment, with my husband and dog, and with fairly steady work - I've been trying to check myself. I keep thinking of my former student and imagining how difficult it must be to be confined to a space that may not be healthy, safe, or developmentally appropriate. I keep thinking about all the students I've known who love coming to school because there are people there who love them, two to three meals a day, and a sense of community. I keep thinking that I wish I knew how to help them all right now.
There is no question that low-income students struggle to get to school. (I wrote about this in my last blog post as well.) According to Attendance Works:
"Children living in poverty are two to three times more likely to be chronically absent—and face the most harm because their community lacks the resources to make up for the lost learning in school. Students from communities of color as well as those with disabilities are disproportionately affected."
Unfortunately, they're struggling to access school online as well. The New York Times reported this week that large percentages of low-income students in districts across the country are absent from the virtual education being provided as a result of COVID-19. So not only are students from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on the resources that many of them so desperately need and want to access, but they are also disconnected from their school communities. Since it is unclear when we will be able to return to work and school, there is the possibility that our highest-need children could be without school for many months, only exacerbating already-existing gaps in achievement and opportunity.
Making matters worse, black communities are disproportionately becoming victim to COVID-19. As one of the many social determinants of health, education joins other critical factors such as adequate housing, socioeconomic status, access to and coverage of healthcare, and more to comprise health outcomes for people and communities. As you can see in the chart below from the Kaiser Family Foundation, these factors have a profound impact on a person's ability to live a healthy life.
For low-income black communities in particular, the collective impact of these factors has not only disastrous outcomes but also clear roots. Dr. Camara Jones, a physician and epidemiologist, is cited in the article linked above about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black communities:
“COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, the historical injustices and the impact of residential segregation... This is the time to name racism as the cause of all of those things. The overrepresentation of people of color in poverty and white people in wealth is not just a happenstance."
Our unequal and unfair society is how it is by design and not by chance. COVID-19 is showing us how this is even more urgently a matter of life or death. Other than overhauling our government systems and laws entirely, I struggle with not knowing how these issues can be fixed or what I as an individual can do to make things better for others. I just hope that opening up the dialogue about these issues will start to lead to changes for students like mine and the families and communities in which they live.
I naively said to my family a few weeks ago that I was lucky that my business wouldn't be affected in the way that so many restaurants and other small businesses are by the pandemic. I couldn't see then, but it has become incredibly clear since that every business and every industry have been and will be impacted on a massive scale by this pause in how we normally function. I am so fortunate that I can continue much of my work from home; yet every day, my heart breaks for other small business owners who are doing everything they can to keep their businesses afloat during this unprecedented time.
I spoke to one of my former clients recently, and I expressed how badly I felt that the cancellation of schools would drastically affect his work. His response to me was this: "This is a time to pivot!"
All week, I've been thinking about what he said and what a resilient attitude he had. I've also been pondering how this affects not only my work but the organizations and communities I serve. Take the issue of chronic absenteeism in schools. Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing 10% of more of a given school year, and it has been empirically tied to a host of negative outcomes for students, including reading levels, special education identification, suspensions, dropout rates, and more. Students from vulnerable and underserved populations are at the highest risk. The good news about this issue is that it is both preventable and reversible, and I've found in my work that regular and collaborative data tracking on student absences and related interventions can make a huge difference for kids and schools. A recent article, Chronic Absenteeism in the Time of Coronavirus, discussed the implications of shuttered schools on how schools and systems typically address attendance issues, but also on what closed schools mean for the students themselves.
In thinking of how to pivot from the typical accountability measures associated with attendance, as Jordan's article suggests, how can we in the education field work together during this time to address the root causes -- the underlying reasons why so many students miss school? I am loving all of the positive news articles out there about school districts employing bus drivers to deliver meals, offering wifi hotspots to those without internet access at home, and teachers driving around students' neighborhoods to help them feel connected.
From my lens, I think this break from traditional schooling is an opportune time to go deep with our data and determine all that we can about which students are missing school the most and why. Once we've done that, we can get creative about our interventions for kids while they are in their homes and communities. I've got a few ideas in development for how my work can pivot to best serve our schools, districts, and non-profit organizations who have the most direct lines to children and families (more information on that to come!). In the meantime, if your organization is trying to better support its chronically absent students or more effectively engage with families during this time, let's chat. Shoot me an email here so that we can set up a conversation.
How are you planning to pivot? Share your ideas in the comments below - I'd love to start a conversation and channel our collective creativity!
The goal of this blog is to highlight relevant issues that impact students, families, and communities and spark engaging discussions about how to address those issues through evaluation.