(Bloomberg Opinion) — As students head back to school — virtually or in-person — parents are legitimately concerned about the effects on children of distance learning. Evidence on how children fall behind over summer breaks suggests that the harm from missing in-person instruction will be larger for low-income children, exacerbating educational gaps across socioeconomic status. A bit of good news comes from an important new analysis suggesting that, prior to the pandemic and contrary to popular perception, those gaps had been narrowing in the U.S.
From kindergarten to college, schools are balancing pandemic risk against educational need with wildly varying approaches to in-person classes, virtual instruction, mask-wearing, and keeping students in bubbles. For schools with extensive online learning, the question is how much it might weaken educational performance.
The best guide is probably what happens over summers: Researchers have documented a substantial “summer slide” while students are out of school. This is clearly not a perfect comparison, since during the pandemic students have been receiving virtual (as opposed to no) school instruction. On the other hand, the effects may accumulate over time, and this period is significantly more extended than summer break. Also, students distressed by the pandemic may have more difficulty learning. But the summer slide literature is more informative than anything else we have available.
A 2011 RAND study succinctly summarized the evidence on summer fade:
By the end of summer, students perform, on average, one month behind where they left off in the spring. Of course, not all students experience “average” losses. Summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students. While all students lose some ground in mathematics over the summer, low-income students lose more ground in reading, while their higher-income peers may even gain. Most disturbing is that summer learning loss is cumulative; over time, the difference between the summer learning rates of low-income and higher-income students contributes substantially to the achievement gap.
A Brookings analysis extrapolated these summer learning losses onto the current pandemic and found the situation “deeply concerning.” Virtual-only learning during the 2019-2020 academic year may have reduced reading gains by 30% and math gains by 50% compared with normal in-person learning, the research team found. These effects probably vary significantly across household income, given differences in access to computer equipment, a quiet space to study, and adequate nutrition outside school. Preliminary evidence suggests that low-income students are often not logging on during virtual instruction.
McKinsey researchers also highlighted the same risks, estimating substantial harm from virtual classrooms: “Even more troubling is the context: the persistent achievement disparities across income levels. … The possibility that Covid-19 could make it worse deserves focused attention.” Which is where the new research on the educational gap by income comes in.
Leading academics from Harvard University and Dartmouth College recently re-examined the evidence on educational achievement by income. Lacking any national database containing both student performance and income, they had to combine various data and make some informed guesses about the household income of each student based on where the student lived. Their conclusions are stunning: From 1990 to 2015, achievement improved significantly at all levels of household income, and the gap in performance fell substantially for reading and math in fourth grade and for math in eighth grade. (The gaps in reading performance across eighth graders from different household incomes remained steady.)
“We found gaps in achievement narrowing between groups with high and low predicted mean household incomes,” the authors wrote. “Our results challenge the prevailing understanding that income-based achievement gaps have widened in the United States over the last 30 years.” They are currently examining whether accountability reforms and school finance reform have driven these trends.
None of this is reason to stop being concerned about the potential harm to student learning from virtual instruction, which needs to be weighed against the public health risks from in-person classes. But it does suggest some good news: We went into the present situation with trends that were less troubling than many believe. The pandemic may reverse that progress, so as students go back to school, educators need to focus on mitigating the harm from virtual instruction for low-income children.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Peter R. Orszag is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the chief executive officer of financial advisory at Lazard. He was director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2010, and director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2007 to 2008.
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