Education, Culture & the Family

How many Oklahoma students are continuing to learn?

April 21, 2020

Mike Brake

With schools across the nation closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, a key question is: How many students are continuing to learn?

A previous article focused on actual content being delivered through the many different distance/continuous learning programs put in place by local school districts. Some are simply asking students to review previously presented material, while others are more aggressively assigning lessons that would effectively complete the fourth quarter for kids from kindergarten through high school, although most schools are not grading the students’ work.

But the key question—are most if not all students actually linked to their schools and doing the assigned work?—yields different answers depending on where it is asked. It appears that in some schools 10 percent or more of high school students are off the learning grid, at least initially, and that figure could increase as the school year winds to a close.

So far though, Oklahoma does not appear to be as bad as some other states.

A survey conducted during the first weeks of distance learning nationwide showed that up to 40 percent of secondary school students who were supposed to be enrolled and active in the programs were no-shows. When Common Sense Media polled 849 teens, 41 percent of them said they had not attended even one online class. When responding students were limited to those in public schools, the no-shows rose to 47 percent.

In Los Angeles, a newspaper investigation revealed that some 15,000 high school students were not taking part in that district’s online program, while as many as 40,000 had failed to maintain daily contact with teachers. A New York Times investigation showed that online attendance was worst in districts with high shares of low-income families and in rural areas.

Cleveland’s school district reported an initial 60 percent participation rate, but that had risen to 87 percent after the first week of online classes.

Yet another random survey, of 5,659 teachers via the social media app Fishbowl, showed that 55 percent of those teachers reported that half or more of their students were not connecting to remote classes. More than one-third of them said attendance was 25 percent or less. Only 17 percent reported 75 percent or more student participation.

So how are we doing in Oklahoma? Again, it depends on where you ask the question. As might be expected, districts with high concentrations of low-income families are less likely to have internet connections and a parent at home to direct the work, with resulting poor participation in distance learning programs.

There are bright spots. In Enid, district spokesperson Amber Fitzgerald said all students already had district-provided Chromebooks and assured wi-fi hotspots.

“We had a very successful first week,” Fitzgerald said.

Mary Ladd, speaking for Ponca City Schools, said she could not estimate participation rates but felt they were high.

“We had a lot of students down here for their packets,” she said, noting that the line to pick up hard copies of class assignments stretched “more than two blocks. It was unbelievable.”

Dawn Jones at Moore Schools said teachers used the week before remote learning began to assure that all junior high and high school students had access to computers and an internet connection.

Tulsa Public Schools, with 39,105 students the largest in the state, has directed many of its online students to the Canvas learning platform. District spokesperson Lauren Partain said 14,321 students were using Canvas as of April 13, about 40 percent of those enrolled, but she noted that “some schools use Spark or Summit learning management systems, and are not included in Canvas users.”

Other students are “only engaging with teachers via phone, due to internet accessibility,” Partain said. She said the district has now distributed more than 40,000 hard copy learning packets in the first two weeks of distance learning.

Oklahoma City Public Schools assigned teachers to make initial phone or email contacts with all of their students, according to district spokesperson Beth Harrison. That yielded an 89 percent contact rate, she said.

As the continuous learning program began, elementary teachers were instructed to touch base with students twice a week, while secondary teachers, with a higher student count, were asked to make one weekly contact.

Harrison said the district’s continuous learning website logged 132,783 visitors between April 6 and 16. The district has distributed 50,814 paper lesson packets and had 296 calls to a hotline created for students needing assistance.

At Putnam City Schools, spokesperson Sheradee Hurst said the initial day of the continuous learning program logged 35,512 website views for the district of just under 20,000 students.

“Putnam City is actively surveying to ascertain numbers of student/teacher connections,” Hurst said. “Our survey is still in progress. Partial results show district numbers averaging 95 percent.” 

In Edmond, at least one father is concerned that Edmond Public Schools is “throwing in the towel on one-fourth of the school year” and cheating students out of an education. 

It is too early to accurately track how many students—primarily at the secondary level—may be disconnecting from their home district’s learning and lesson resources, either online or in paper format, but according to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, during a normal school year, one out of four high school seniors who entered four years before as freshmen fail to graduate. That means that even in good times, significant percentages of students in the upper grades drop out of school. One suspects that as the continuous learning programs continue through May, more of those students who were prone to drop out will discontinue contact with schools and teachers, bringing the Oklahoma non-participation rate more in line with those being reported in some other states.

It is also to be expected that districts with inner-city student populations will see a higher disconnect rate, just as they experience higher dropout rates during normal school years.