Building an effective COVID-19 response: Addressing the education crisis

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The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant reductions in the quality and quantity of schooling across the United States. With school closures, high school students received on average 3.9 hours of instruction versus the 6 hours per day required by most states. Reduced learning time and in-person instruction has resulted in learning loss that disproportionately harms students from low-income families and students of color.

J-PAL North America’s COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Initiative aims to identify effective ways to support students, educators, and families in the face of COVID-19 related school closings, remote learning, and learning loss by evaluating strategies to improve educational outcomes.

Pre-existing inequity in education

In the United States, millions of students are behind grade level. In 2019, only 41 percent of fourth graders were considered “proficient” in math. This figure drops to 34 percent by eighth grade. For reading, only 35 percent of fourth graders and 34 percent of eighth graders met or exceeded the 2019 proficiency benchmark.

These numbers change drastically when examined by race and income level. Only 18 percent of Black fourth graders and 23 percent of Hispanic fourth graders met the reading “proficiency” benchmark, as compared to 45 percent of white fourth graders. Similarly, only 21 percent of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program––a proxy for students from low-income families––were considered proficient as compared to 51 percent of students who were not eligible.

Racial and economic disparities in educational opportunities start early and persist throughout school. Students from low-income families are more likely to begin school already behind their more affluent peers and face challenges catching up. Further, school districts that serve large populations of students of color and students from low-income families receive far less funding for student resources than those serving student communities who are predominantly white or affluent. The average Black or Hispanic student remains roughly two years behind the average white student, and low-income students continue to be underrepresented among top performers.

Falling behind early has long-term consequences. For example, students who are not reading proficiently in third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school than children with proficient reading skills. Further, while high school dropout rates are declining nationally, they are continuing to rise for students from families with low-incomes, and racial gaps persist.

These disparities are not limited to learning outcomes. The adoption of zero-tolerance and punitive disciplinary policies is more likely as the percentage of Black students in a school system increases. Compared with white students, Black students are less likely to be placed in gifted programs and subject to lower expectations from their teachers. These practices are linked to higher rates of dropouts and failure to graduate on time, as well as to the “school to prison pipeline.”

Education inequalities are perpetuated by the ways in which schools are funded in the US. The majority of funding for public schools comes from state and local taxes, which contributes to large resource disparities between schools in high- and low-income communities.

However, inequities span beyond school geography and community income. In 2019, researchers found that high-poverty districts serving mostly students of color receive about $1,600 less per student than the national average, while high-poverty school districts that are predominately white receive only about $130 less.

Differences in funding can affect all aspects of the K-12 education system, including per pupil expenditures, course offerings, access to counseling and other educational resources, teacher salaries, and availability of technology at school. Long-term impacts of school funding disparities include lower earnings and an increased annual incidence of poverty as children become adults.

Racial and income disparities in education are not limited to the K-12 system. Low-income, Black, and Hispanic students attend college at lower rates than their more affluent or white peers, and are also more likely to attend colleges of lower quality. For low-income students of color, attending lower quality colleges is related to their long-term earnings and lower representation in fields such as the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering.

The impact of COVID-19

As a result of nationwide school closures, 55 million students completed the 2019-2020 school year from home, and approximately 9 million (16 percent) did not have access to the technology they needed for remote learning.

These school closures are likely to result in disproportionate learning losses for low-income students and students of color, and by September many students will be behind a full academic year. The World Bank suggests that foundational learning loss as a result of school closures could lead to lower learning trajectories for a whole generation.

COVID-19 has underscored the disparities in access to essential technology between high-income and low-income schools. An EdWeek Research Center survey found that 62 percent of leaders in districts with poverty rates under 25 percent said all families had access to home internet. For leaders in high-poverty districts where the poverty rates exceed 75 percent, just 31 percent of families had the necessary access. This suggests that a significant portion of students have no way to access learning at home. For this reason, lower-income parents are much more likely to say they are concerned about their children falling behind.

Access disparities are race-based as well––a 2020 survey conducted by Pew Research found that one-quarter of Black teens reported they often or sometimes cannot do homework assignments due to lack of reliable access to a computer or internet connectivity, compared with 13 percent of white teens and 17 percent of Hispanic teens. It is clear that districts, schools, state and local governments will first need to address the issue of access in order to implement equitable and effective programs to keep students learning during the pandemic.

The numbers of students impacted by school closures and disparities in access to learning are unprecedented. However, researchers are turning to existing evidence on missing school to understand the potential learning loss for students across the US. Examining the impacts of unique events like Hurricane Katrina and the more common summer slide, analyses suggest that while most students will see significantly smaller learning gains relative to a typical school year, students who were already struggling will fall further behind. Learning loss will likely be greater in mathematics relative to reading.

The unequal impacts of the pandemic also affect access to and success in higher education. Low-income students were 55 percent more likely to delay graduation than their more affluent peers as a response to the shut down. These educational setbacks at all levels will further exacerbate long standing inequalities in not only academic achievement but also employment opportunities, earnings, and intergenerational mobility.

Research to support students, teachers, and parents

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to exacerbate stark opportunity gaps that persist throughout the US education system. Research is needed to demonstrate how best to adapt our education practices and policies to respond to and recover from the impact of the pandemic on schools.

Turning to the evidence on what works and testing new strategies to address education inequalities is paramount in order to stem the COVID learning slide. Researchers, working collaboratively with education leaders, have an opportunity to test programs and interventions and develop generalizable lessons to inform education policy and support recovery for all students.

How can districts use data to determine which students are most in need of additional support?

Before schools can determine if their online learning efforts are effective, educators need to identify which students are struggling to access and engage with online learning programs. District leaders, working to support online learning as schools closed in the spring 2020,  learned that effective, equitable remote learning was almost impossible without a learning management system.

Researchers should work with districts and education technology platforms to improve data collection and data management systems. A data management system that provides robust and transparent data will allow schools to determine which students are doing well and which students’ needs have not been met.

Using passive data collection from digital education technology platforms, researchers and districts can potentially identify and track students who are not engaging with online learning in real time. This will enable educators to reach out and provide targeted resources to students who need them most.

How can educators combat learning loss and minimize the widening of the opportunity gap?

As a first step to minimizing the impact of the pandemic on student learning, states and districts need to ensure that all students have access to the technology they need to succeed. While evidence suggests that simply expanding access to technology on its own typically does not improve learning outcomes, providing students with these essential tools during the pandemic is critical to support remote learning. New research can seek to identify effective methods to expand access to vital technology to students who need it.  

In addition to technology, new research can also explore innovative ways to expand access to evidence-based programs. For example, while a growing body of evidence points to both computer assisted learning programs and tutoring as effective educational tools, new research may explore how to effectively blend these programs to expand tutors’ capacity. Additionally, more evidence is needed on the effectiveness of online tutoring, particularly while students are unable to access face-to-face teaching due to COVID-19.

Researchers can work with districts to implement and test tutoring models that engage service corps such as AmeriCorps or college students who have delayed their studies, to deliver tutoring support via online platforms alone, or combined with in-person sessions. 

Beyond tutoring, new research should explore other interventions to support students who have fallen behind and identify how these strategies can best function in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Potential topics for study may include extended school days, summer school, vacation academies, or credit recovery programs. For older students, new research should include efforts to increase graduation rates and college attendance. This may entail evaluations of remote college guidance interventions, credit mapping supports, or nudges for parents and students to complete necessary college tasks.

For all of the above strategies, research should focus on methods to ensure that resources are effectively targeted to reach students who need them most and advance equity in education.

How can we effectively help parents support student learning?

COVID-19 has further exposed significant weaknesses in schools’ ability to engage families in solutions and planning, or even communicate the most basic information. Schools need to invest in communication tools, systems, and training to ensure every family receives information they need to help their children.

With school closures in spring 2020 and uncertainty about how schools will reopen in the fall, many parents and caregivers are faced with the daunting task of supporting their children’s learning from home. While most parents lack experience as educators, approachable and simple interventions will be critical to help parents respond to this challenge.

Evidence suggests that short, actionable directions and suggestions for engaging activities can better equip parents to support learning at home. Researchers, program developers and educators recognize that parental engagement during the pandemic may look completely different from parental engagement prior to school closures. There is an opportunity to redesign programs to deliver content that supports student learning at home. And while many of these interventions have not yet been tested at scale, researchers can partner with districts or state departments of education to implement these family engagement strategies at scale and identify effective ways to support parents during and after the pandemic.

How can schools address student trauma and provide other non-academic supports?

Following COVID-19, many students are likely to face increased trauma from periods of isolation, loss of family income, or loss of a family member. Many schools, particularly those in low-income districts, are not adequately equipped to provide quality mental health services to students. Researchers should partner with schools and other organizations to identify effective interventions to expand access to mental health services and improve mental health outcomes for students in the wake of COVID-19.

This post is an installation in J-PAL North America's "Building An Effective COVID-19 Response" research guide blog series. The complete series highlights the interaction between COVID-19, research, and the policy areas of education, health care delivery, and jobs and the social safety net.