How Pandemic Educational Policy Widened Achievement Gaps. Reflections From a New Study
Updated: Jul 25
From the start of the pandemic, I wondered about the lack of discussion and immediate choice to engage in remote online learning for K-12 students. I asked what would have happened if the pandemic had hit us in 2000 instead of 2022, before Zoom existed. I raised the suggestion that perhaps we would have come up with a better, more creative idea than relying on online instruction. But because remote instruction was possible in 2020, it became the obvious choice, denying us from the much needed discussion of the pros and cons with different approaches to education during the pandemic. My concern then, was that remote instruction will negatively and disproportionally impact students from low income backgrounds. It wasn’t the access to technology that I was worried about, as much as access to a home with one or two parents who are working from home and can support their child during this special period, access that is clearly inequitable.
My concerns were intensified when I read stories in summer 2020 about the lives that have changed especially for people from already underserved backgrounds that were disproportionally impacted and lost loved ones, had to take on house chores instead of learning, and did not have access to private options that were spiking among more privileged populations.
A recent study that was published by some of the sharpest minds in educational research is called “The Consequences of Remote and Hybrid Instruction During the Pandemic” (Goldhaber et. Al., 2020), and sadly confirms many of these concerns. In the study, the authors utilized robust data to measure the differential impact of remote learning on different student populations. The results are devastating. The study finds that remote instruction was a primary driver of growing achievement gaps. The study reveals how poorer students experienced significantly more learning loss than others (high-poverty schools experienced 50 percent more achievement loss than low-poverty schools).
Interestingly, the majority of the difference comes from changes between schools, rather than between students within schools. As the authors put it, “the widening racial gap happened because of negative shocks to schools attended by disadvantaged students, not because of differential impacts within schools”. This is because first, high poverty schools were much more likely to go remote. And then once they did, these schools saw more significant decline than others. Why were high-poverty schools more likely to go remote than others? Perhaps a question for another post, but I would hypothesize that it has something to do with the spike in private school enrollment during some parts of the pandemic, and the effects of privilege. I do find it astonishing though that so many people supported a public policy or remote instruction while they themselves used their wealth and privilege to opt their kids out of its consequences.
I find these school, rather than student level effects to be very informative to the discussion on the effect of growing school segregation in the United States, that was discussed by many including my own theoretical work published last year. These types of finding showing school level effect, immediately raise the question of why we still have ultra segregated schools that predominantly or exclusively serve low income and Black and Brown students, and what would have happened, including to the growth in achievement gaps during the pandemic, if our schools were a better reflection of our society.
During many months of the pandemic, and certainly before the vaccines arrived, schools could not have remained safely open. And I am not suggesting that they should have operated normally during these times. In conversation with one of the authors of the study, he shared with me his concern about how some people are using the study findings to justify the behavior of elected officials that insisted on keeping schools open while they were not safe to students or teachers. I of course do not condone that practice that cost lives of many. But I do want to use this new study to go back to my initial question from 2020. Why did we immediately skip to remote instruction, knowing its likely disproportionate impact on students from low-income backgrounds as oppose to the impact on those with other options, without any serious discussion? And what ideas we would have generated if the pandemic would had come 20 years ago?
The study: Goldhaber, D., Kane, T. J., McEachin, A., Morton, E., Patterson, T., & Staiger, D. O. (2022). The consequences of remote and hybrid instruction during the pandemic (No. w30010). National Bureau of Economic Research. Available here: https://www.nber.org/papers/w30010