Achievement gap and coronavirus

Jun 6, 2020 by

New evidence shows that the shutdowns caused by COVID-19 could exacerbate existing achievement gaps.

The US education system was not built to deal with extended shutdowns like those imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers, administrators, and parents have worked hard to keep learning alive; nevertheless, these efforts are not likely to provide the quality of education that’s delivered in the classroom.

Even more troubling is the context: the persistent achievement disparities across income levels and between white students and students of black and Hispanic heritage. School shutdowns could not only cause disproportionate learning losses for these students—compounding existing gaps—but also lead more of them to drop out. This could have long-term effects on these children’s long-term economic well-being and on the US economy as a whole.

Despite the enormous attention devoted to the achievement gap, it has remained a stubborn feature of the US education system. In 2009, we estimated that the gap between white students and black and Hispanic ones deprived the US economy of $310 billion to $525 billion a year in productivity, equivalent to 2 to 4 percent of GDP. The achievement gap between high- and low-income students was even larger, at $400 billion to $670 billion, 3 to 5 percent of GDP. 1 Although we calculate these two gaps separately, we recognize that black and Hispanic students are also more likely to live in poverty. Yet poverty alone cannot account for the gaps in educational performance. Together, they were the equivalent of a permanent economic recession.

Unfortunately, the past decade has seen little progress in narrowing these disparities. The average black or Hispanic student remains roughly two years behind the average white one, and low-income students continue to be underrepresented among top performers. 2

We estimate that if the black and Hispanic student-achievement gap had been closed in 2009, today’s US GDP would have been $426 billion to $705 billion higher. 3 If the income-achievement gap had been closed, we estimate that US GDP would have been $332 billion to $550 billion higher (Exhibit 1).

These estimates were made before schools closed and the transition to remote learning began, sometimes chaotically. In this article, we explore the possible long-term damage of COVID-19–related school closures on low-income, black, and Hispanic Americans, and on the US economy.

Learning loss and school closures

To that end, we created statistical models to estimate the potential impact of school closures on learning. The models were based on academic studies of the effectiveness of remote learning relative to traditional classroom instruction for three different kinds of students. We then evaluated this information in the context of three different epidemiological scenarios.

How much learning students lose during school closures varies significantly by access to remote learning, the quality of remote instruction, home support, and the degree of engagement. For simplicity’s sake, we have grouped high-school students into three archetypes. First, there are students who experience average-quality remote learning; this group continues to progress, but at a slower pace than if they had remained in school. 4 Second, some students are getting lower-quality remote learning; they are generally stagnating at their current grade levels. Then there are students who are not getting any instruction at all; they are probably losing significant ground. Finally, some students drop out of high school altogether.

We also modeled three epidemiological scenarios. In the first—”virus contained”—in-class instruction resumes in fall 2020. In the second—”virus resurgence”— school closures and part-time schedules continue intermittently through the 2020–21 school year, and in-school instruction does not fully resume before January 2021. 5 In the third scenario—”pandemic escalation”—the virus is not controlled until vaccines are available, and schools operate remotely for the entire 2020–21 school year.

In our second scenario (in-class instruction does not resume until January 2021), we estimate that students who remain enrolled could lose three to four months of learning if they receive average remote instruction, seven to 11 months with lower-quality remote instruction, and 12 to 14 months if they do not receive any instruction at all (Exhibit 2).

Although students at the best full-time virtual schools can do as well as or better than those at traditional ones, 6 most studies have found that full-time online learning does not deliver the academic results of in-class instruction. 7 Moreover, in 28 states, 8 with around 48 percent of K–12 students, distance learning has not been mandated. 9 As a result, many students may not receive any instruction until schools reopen. Even in places where distance learning is compulsory, significant numbers of students appear to be unaccounted for. 10 In short, the hastily assembled online education currently available is likely to be both less effective, in general, than traditional schooling and to reach fewer students as well.

Likely effects on low-income, black, and Hispanic students

Learning loss will probably be greatest among low-income, black, and Hispanic students. Lower-income students are less likely to have access to high-quality remote learning or to a conducive learning environment, such as a quiet space with minimal distractions, devices they do not need to share, high-speed internet, and parental academic supervision. 11 Data from Curriculum Associates, creators of the i-Ready digital-instruction and -assessment software, suggest that only 60 percent of low-income students are regularly logging into online instruction; 90 percent of high-income students do. Engagement rates are also lagging behind in schools serving predominantly black and Hispanic students; just 60 to 70 percent are logging in regularly (Exhibit 3). 12

Source: Achievement gap and coronavirus | McKinsey

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