Schools right now are facing unprecedented challenges as they reopen and begin to serve students for another academic year. 

It goes without saying that our thoughts are with teachers and school staff these days – we see in our community and in our everyday contact with schools the variety of challenges you face as you pivot to a vastly changed landscape for schooling this year. What is so difficult is that there will likely be ongoing change, further disrupting plans.

Watching this from the Ed-Fi Alliance I have personally felt the pain of not being able to do more about the challenges I see teachers facing everyday. I don’t work in a school: I’m not the person entrusted to call the parent and explain to them what school will look like for their child in the fall, to revise the middle school math curriculum for online delivery, to adopt a new learning management system, or to figure out how to deliver any number of important student services for those with individualized needs in a radically revised social context.

Leaning into Data Problems

Our organizational focus and the Ed-Fi community focus is making use of data, and we are leaning into those areas. A few previous blogs (see this post and this post) have described some of the Alliance’s work to respond, including projects active in the area of facilitating parent-teacher contact and helping to unlock a clear picture of student academic progress across online systems.

I won’t recap those projects here, but I did want to place those efforts in context. When systems are challenged in the ways they are today, there is often no other appropriate reaction than to meet it head-on with all hands on deck.

To make an analogy, when a flood comes, it’s too late to start thinking about digging a channel to divert an upstream river, passing a municipal bond to reinforce a levee, or building a new dam. When the flood comes, you have to fill sandbags. Fast.

All over the K12 landscape today, teachers are engaging in the tasks that are going to hold schools together in the coming year. School districts have done what they can in very limited time to put in place new tools, processes and supports, but it is teachers who are filling the sandbags against this flood of change. We are all enormously grateful for those efforts.

How We Can Help

What can we do as a data community to help?

An necessary but unfortunate consequence of such challenging times is that our processes tend to place many new demands on teachers themselves. They do this because there is no other place for those challenges to go.

In addition to the myriad challenges teachers face in their core role as instructors, we have seen a number of new “data tasks” placed on teachers—tasks such as monitoring student progress across multiple systems, filling out new reports and spreadsheets with student data, interpreting school policy and marking student attendance according to that policy, figuring out how to reach a parent, comparing remote learning notes with colleagues.

All of these tasks are critical and our collective job as data experts is to make them easier, less burdensome and more effective for teachers, allowing them to focus on helping students, rather than on moving data from place to place or aggregating information manually.

Solving the “Human API” Problem

We have a code phrase for this problem: the “Human API.” (For any non-techies, “API” stands for “application programming interface” which is a common method for connecting two information systems directly).

When data does not move between systems automatically either it won’t move, or it will move by human intervention. Either is bad: valuable data sits unused, or the process is time-consuming, error-prone, and produces outcomes too late to be actionable.

In all the tasks teachers are doing today to hold schools together, we will see a lot of “Human APIs.” As a data community, if we want to be part of the solution, we need to focus on freeing teachers from these burdens. 

Time that a teacher spends manually checking attendance, filling out forms that could be generated automatically from activity data, or figuring out how to login to a new system is time they are not spending focusing on their curriculum and students. And beyond that: not only do we need to relieve teachers of these problems, but we should be feeding them insights to help them maximize each student’s potential.

Working Together

At the Alliance, we believe the best way to do this is as a community, by sharing our know-how and pooling our resources. While data tools are improving, data is still difficult and time-consuming to access and use, and in a time of budgets stretched thin, working together is our best option.

In that spirit, let me invite community members again to join the activities we have in progress now.

And for teachers: thank you for all that you are giving of yourselves these days. Stay safe and good luck.

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