By: Dr. Mahnaz Charania

“It took a pandemic to get schools to think differently,” Superintendent Scott Muri of Ector County ISD acknowledged in a recent interview. “We have an opportunity to redesign schools and accelerate improvements that should’ve happened over the last century.” Across the nation, district leaders like Dr. Muri are experimenting with ambitious innovations to keep students connected to their teachers and peers, alongside solving real logistical and academic challenges. For example, across the border in Canada, Abbotsford School District is planning on ditching their 20-week semester for a quadrant model to strengthen students’ support network by having them spend more time with fewer teachers.

Will these innovations ultimately harm or help students’ sense of connection? With most districts innovating faster than they can track, these new efforts risk falling into the trap of the many redesign efforts that came before: educators innovating in the dark. How can districts ensure their redesigns are headed in the right direction? One way is by identifying metrics for success at the design stage. For Ector County ISD, that meant surveying their 34,000 students to understand what worked and what didn’t work during spring school closings. The results indicated low student engagement, feelings of boredom, and a major lack of resources to support remote learning. In other words, the survey revealed both academic and social challenges confronting students. Dr. Muri’s team is now using this data to inform their upcoming remote learning and school reopening plans.

For schools across the country, metrics of success for redesign efforts will need to include both existing measures of academic progress and newer measures of social progress in the coming year. Social measures can ensure students and families are receiving the support they need and that students’ connections to teachers and peers remain strong. How can districts committed to redesigning students’ social experiences support them reliably and equitably?

Early innovators: Measuring students’ relationships as assets

Measuring students’ relationships is new territory for most schools and districts. Fortunately, a host of early innovators across schools and education programs are piloting new relationship metrics alongside academic ones. Some of these measurement approaches are embedded in the curriculum, some are enabled by technology, and most are implemented through student and staff surveys. All of them prioritize measuring aspects of students’ relationships and networks that align with their program goals and student and family needs.

In our recent report, The Missing Metrics: Emerging practices for measuring students’ relationships and networks, my colleague Julia Freeland Fisher and I highlight these innovative programs across K–12, postsecondary, and workforce development. Schools and institutions are developing new measures of students’ relationships that cross multiple dimensions: the quantity and quality of relationships in students’ networks, the structure of students’ networks, as well as students’ ability to build and mobilize networks while in school and post-graduation.

Below I highlight the efforts of three programs from the report, each measuring for changes in students’ relationships and networks to drive student care, learning, and access to opportunities:

  1. Measuring to expand and diversify students’ connections to industry professionals by deepening partnerships with parents: Cajon Valley Union School District (CVUSD), a public school district in California, is expanding their curriculum-embedded “Meet-a-Pro” activity on the Nepris platform to include parents and the local community. Educators will track the number and type of industry professionals students meet to ensure they are growing the quantity and diversity of relationships within students’ reach.
  2. Measuring to expand the web of peer connections: xSEL Labs is a company that produces tools and assessments focused on students’ social-emotional learning (SEL) and mindsets. One of its tools, called Networker, offers schools a web-based social connections assessment. Students fill out a peer friendship nomination survey, which Networker then uses to generate a network map of peer connections across a classroom. The map shows which students are deeply connected and which student may lack webs of connections. Educators can then triage the support students need based on these insights.
  3. Measuring to expand and diversify students’ access to new mentors, as well as enable them to mobilize their connections: iCouldBe is a virtual mentoring program that connects high school students to online mentors. As students forge connections based on their academic and career interests, they build a virtual map of their networks that is visible to them. Not only does iCouldBe maintain data on the number of connections students are forging through their program, but students are gaining skills in building and activating relationships and learning the value of diverse connections in helping them get by and get ahead.

Innovations grow on the metrics we hold them to

These examples serve as an important reminder—data, when used to drive continuous improvement versus accountability, can be a powerful driver of innovations. In the words of Dr. Muri, “It’s the classic education issue: we have many great ideas but we fail to execute effectively, much less measure results. Why? Because we are off to the next shiny thing… That is an unacceptable outcome. Now is our opportunity to get better, and our intentional focus will help us do that.” Muri’s observation will be especially crucial to measuring students’ social connections in the year ahead. Simply acknowledging relationships matter isn’t enough. Simply putting relationships within reach and hoping those meet the actual needs of students isn’t enough either. Instead, school and district leaders that deliberately measure those relationships can ensure that innovation in service of building students’ relationships isn’t just a suite of new inputs but also new—and hopefully better—outcomes.

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Mahnaz is a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute. Her work focuses on studying disruptive innovations in K-12 and higher education that amplify equitable opportunities for students to achieve social and economic mobility. In her current role, she leverages her deep expertise in measurement and evaluation to drive innovations that expand students’ social capital.

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