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Understanding Equitable Access Data

Jeremiah Okal-Frink HeadshotGuest Blog post by Jeremiah Okal-Frink, PhD,  Senior Education Strategist – Dell Technologies

We have all witnessed the pressure that had been building within our education system to transform the way we prepare students for a drastically different future erupt over the past few years. What was once merely digital opportunities for students have shifted to digital essentials that are prerequisites for their future in an  increasingly sophisticated world. 

As Julia Fallon in her post about Digital Equity already articulated, the need to address this gap was known and being addressed prior to March 2020. However, it was the rapid increase in digitally-enabled teaching and learning that centered the conversation that has been an ongoing struggle for district, regional and state leaders for years: How do we ensure that all students have access to the learning resources and experiences they need as these become more digital?

This is the conversation that precipitated the joint project between Dell Technologies and SETDA focused on  Digital Equity data. Beginning in December 2020, Dell and SETDA began a project that culminated with a recently released report that involved four phases to advance our collective understanding of student access.  We know that there are inequities throughout the system and we saw the need to better understand the specifics to address inequity at a national scale.

Phase 1: Identify what data is available
If one does a quick internet search, you will find statistics that suggest we have comprehensive data about student connectivity. When  digging deeper into these reports, there are many questions left unanswered with a mix of different and sometimes conflicting information. 

The project launched with focus groups, conversations with State leaders and other national organizations, through which we confirmed there is a lack of consistent data elements, collection processes and access to  data needed for decision-making. 

We recognized the importance of developing a better understanding of what data was even available for state leaders.

Phase 2: Survey of current and planned data capture
Following those initial conversations, SETDA connected with other projects already in motion. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) had already released recommended data elements to begin this needed standardization. Working with this standard, the SETDA and Dell project team worked with a subgroup of SETDA membership to develop a survey that was distributed to the SETDA membership. The survey focused on three areas of inquiry to better understand what data was available to state leadership:

  1. Data collection: What data have you collected and do you plan to collect? 
  2. Standardization: Are you aligning your collection to the CCSSO recommendations? What are the reasons if not?
  3. Concerns and recommendations: What barriers and concerns are in the way of data collection? What is needed to have more meaningful data?

Phase 3: Results analyze survey data and identify recommendations
As often happens with this type of data collection, it was not the what of the data, but what was revealed in terms of the why that is most compelling for making change. We already knew that the equitable access data collection is varied in both process and type across states. What was helpful was the identification of why there is such variation. 

Data Collection Findings: Hampered  by legislative, regulatory or capacity restrictions 25% of the responding states are not able to even begin a plan for collection.

Standardization:  Adopting standards such as the CCSSO data elements face two challenges; some states are seeking longitudinal data including pre-pandemic surveys preventing them from switching data collection methods and others are seeking more detailed data fields not included with the CCSSO recommendations. 

Phase 4: Advocate for change
When looking at surveys, data and reports we can lose sight of what this represents: Students who can not access the learning resources they need to be successful. We, as leaders, must develop a plan to eliminate  inequity of access. This report revealed our current understanding of the full scope of the problem. Across those who participated and reviewed the survey there were some identified ways we can be advocates for change:

  • Setting the standard of measurement allows us to track if we are improving and helping create a country where there is opportunity for all
  • Develop awareness and advocacy resources to inform those leaders who can remove current barriers.
  • Review and update the standardization of the data elements and processes for collection.
  • Identify data integration models that use multiple data sets for addressing the root problems.
  • Be public with your data sets to inform and gain greater buy-in from the larger community to spur change.
  • Develop a long-term plan for a national process and reporting.

In some ways, what came out of the process is not a surprise for those who have worked in education. However, just as the pandemic placed a spotlight on the issue of Digital Equity, this report helps to spotlight areas that need to be addressed if we are to succeed in both responsibly leveraging the current federal funding and developing sustainable change of the system. It is the hope and expectation that as organizations join together with partners like SETDA, together we can provide relevant and meaningful learning opportunities to ALL students.

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