Newly released and long-awaited data from the nation’s third-largest school system shows what many have suspected: In the best circumstances, remote learning has been an uneven and dubious replacement for in-person instruction; and in the worst, it has left students entirely disconnected from their teachers.
Fewer than 60% of all Chicago Public Schools students are engaging with online remote learning three or more days per week, data unveiled Wednesday shows. Vulnerable populations, such as kids who are homeless and black and Latino students whose families have been disproportionately hurt by the coronavirus pandemic, are logging on at lower rates. Tens of thousands of students aren’t being reached by their schools at all despite computer and internet access having largely been achieved.
The report, which includes some of the most detailed metrics in the country, measures 294,000 students at district-run schools and focuses on the week of May 11, the most recently measured time span which also saw the best engagement thus far. Officials said they don’t have access to data for another 60,000 kids who attend charters.
The data shows about 85% of students were successfully contacted by someone at their school at least once the week of May 11, whether to check in for academic reasons or to offer social and emotional support. But more than 43,000 students, including a quarter of all high schoolers, weren’t reached that week. Since schools closed, 2,200 students haven’t been reached a single time.
District: Data shows growth
“As an educator, I want to see all kids engaged,” CPS Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade said in an interview. “Ultimately that’s what I would love to see. But I know that remote learning is not perfect. So my expectation was growth.”
McDade said her goal has been to find populations that aren’t seeing week-over-week improvements so CPS officials can use those metrics to identify where to focus their efforts.
Engagement has steadily risen since remote learning started the week of March 13, when slightly less than half the district logged on three or more days that week.
But the effort to bridge the so-called “digital divide” during that time hasn’t necessarily translated to online learning for all students.
District officials said 93% of students now have digital access, including a laptop and internet connection, after more than 100,000 laptops and tablets were passed out. That’s no small accomplishment since mid-April, when one in three students started remote learning without a computer. At least 15,600 are still learning using paper homework packets, the district said.
Yet 58,000 kids, about a quarter of all students, didn’t log onto a Google digital learning site — the platform used in the vast majority of CPS schools — at all the week of May 11.
Many of those who did log in engaged consistently: More than two-thirds of the 116,000 kids in fourth through eighth grades signed on to Google Classroom or Google Meet at least three times the week of May 11. Those grades were the most engaged in the district.
High school students and first- and second-graders drove down those totals, with only about half of high schoolers logging on three or more times the week of May 11. Seniors, by far, engaged at the lowest rate.
Preschoolers and kindergartners were not included in those figures because very few have CPS login credentials. And the district said there are an unidentified number of students are engaged yet weren’t captured by this data because their schools are using online learning platforms other than Google, making engagement there more difficult to track.
So when CPS officials presented the data to the Board of Education at its monthly meeting Wednesday, board vice president Sendhil Revuluri asked whether engagement in reality is better or worse than these numbers show.
Shannon Heston, a CPS administrator, said engagement “is probably a bit higher” in some cases and “a bit lower” in others than the data shows, especially because of the use of platforms that aren’t tracked. But she acknowledged the district wants to see more engagement than just once per week, for example.
“We need to go deeper in order to understand more,” she said.
Inequities impacting students of color
Black and Latino students, who combined make up 83% of the district, have engaged at lower rates than other groups, CPS figures show. Slightly more than 70% of black students logged on at least once the week of May 11, while 78.2% of Latino students did. By comparison 87% of white and Asians children went online to learn.
Several social and educational inequities might be contributing to those discrepancies.
Students of color primarily made up populations who didn’t have computer or internet access going into the pandemic, such as those who are homeless or come from low-income families.
Studies have also shown people of color largely have been the ones working jobs classified as “essential,” meaning those parents might not always be home with their children to help with remote learning.
McDade said it was “disheartening but not surprising” to see those factors contribute to lower rates of engagement among students of color.
“When you look at communities of color and how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color, which is the majority of our students, you’re also seeing that play out in the data,” McDade said.
Fewer than two-thirds of homeless students have been online at all. Special education students and English learners have logged on at slightly higher rates.
Board member Lucino Sotelo said difficult life circumstances for lots of families are leading to lower engagement.
“There are real situations where both parents are working, they want the best for their children, they’re trying their hardest,” Sotelo said. “Now you have other children acting as parents at home, as well. So there’s a lot of dynamics, and the empathy and work the teachers are demonstrating through this whole process is tremendously appreciated.”
Teachers express frustration
A third grade teacher at a Southwest Side school, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly about her experience, said some of her best students are no longer completing all their work. Half her class of 27 students is engaged daily, and another 10 are online at least three days a week. A few have been really difficult to reach.
“I don’t know how to get more kids engaged,” the teacher said. “In school, we have rewards and things, and you would just miss out on those. And also [there was] the peer pressure of, ‘All my friends around me are doing their math worksheet, let me go ahead and do mine, too.’”
A mother of a young child herself, the teacher said stress levels have reached a boiling point. She’s doing more work to stay connected with students— while feeling she doesn’t have enough time to help with her own kid’s learning — with seemingly less of an impact on kids.
“We’re stressed out too, it’s not just the kids who are in these situations,” the teacher said. “I’m fatigued too.”
Another educator, a first grade teacher at a West Side school, said only about half her students are engaged to the degree they were before remote learning began. She said she’s been going easy on grading on last week’s progress reports to give kids credit for trying.
“My grades ended up high, but I was exceedingly generous, and basically gave a kid a ‘C’ if they’d turned in any assignment for a given content area. I’m not sure other people were as lenient.”