Student engagement is more important than attendance
In 2019, a student could show up to school, sit in their seat for the requisite hours, and go home, and we could have safely said that they had attended school that day. If they completed assignments, asked questions, studied in the library, and participated in school-based activities, we could have confidently considered them engaged in the process of learning.
What happens when school is without a building?
Educational inequities for Black and brown students existed in Connecticut prior to COVID, and have only grown as a result of the pandemic. In the pursuit of racial equity, we urgently need to mitigate learning loss accrued during the pandemic and commit to accelerating student growth when schools reopen full-time. In order to do this, we need systems of measurement to identify not just who attended school, but who engaged in learning.
Currently, Connecticut measures student attendance and uses chronic absenteeism to signal concern through the Next Generation Accountability System. Student attendance, while important, is an insufficient measure on its own. In a COVID world, a student can log into class, turn their video off, and the system considers them present. But did they engage in learning? Hard to know. For many students of color, inequitable access to broadband and technology has negatively impacted their ability to attend class and engage in learning.
To comprehensively understand students’ learning in school, the state should begin measuring and publicly reporting student engagement, not just student attendance.
What would the functional definition of student engagement be?
Engaged students participate in 75% or more of learning opportunities (in-person/hybrid/remote) by signing into lessons, completing assignments, and participating in learning tasks. Engagement is measured by student participation and output.
The definition of engagement is interrelated with the conditions required for a student to fully participate and meet expected outputs. These conditions include access to high-quality wifi/broadband, a computer or Chromebook, and an appropriate workspace.
How can Connecticut start measuring student engagement?
The State Department of Education (SDE) can create guidance for districts to begin measuring student engagement using the definition above. Districts would then report their data to SDE on a monthly basis. SDE would publicly report and track student engagement across all districts. This proposal would provide an opportunity for the SDE, whose efforts have been tireless throughout the pandemic, to partner with the Connecticut General Assembly to write these changes into law, and utilize existing federal funds to build capacity for the tracking and mitigation of disengagement.
After we measure, then what?
Connecticut should use this new engagement data to guide the allocation of resources to districts demonstrating significant rates of disengaged students. The state should recommend specific mitigation strategies to increase engagement and accelerate student learning. These strategies could be funded by CARES federal funds, and should include:
- employing interventionists for each grade level to track engagement and provide targeted academic support for disengaged students;
- hiring and utilizing SEL professionals in all schools with significant numbers of previously disengaged learners;
- and, afterschool, summer, and engaging hands-on STEM programs.
When we measure smarter, we invest smarter.
In the words of our former Commissioner, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona:
“Presence is a prerequisite for engagement, and engagement is a prerequisite for high-impact learning. During this most important school year of our lifetimes, we want to make sure all of our students are accounted for and engaged with equitable access to meaningful educational opportunities – regardless of learning model…”
Expanding our focus beyond attendance to include engagement strengthens our collective ability to support our students now and in the future.
Robert Goodrich on behalf of the Coalition for Equity in Learning, CONNCAN and Educators For Excellence-CT. Goodrich is Executive Director of RACCE and Steering Committee Member of The Coalition for Equity In Learning.
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