Staiger discusses the effects of remote and blended learning on young students, urging school districts to take action.
When the pandemic hit, economics professor Doug Staiger began studying the effects of distance and hybrid learning on students in grades three through eight. The report, published by Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research and co-authored by Dan Goldhaber, Thomas Kane, Andrew McEachin, Emily Morton and Tyler Patterson, found that distance and blended learning is stifling academic progress. Dartmouth sat down with Staiger to discuss his findings – the degree of academic stagnation, impacts on high-poverty communities, potential solutions, and possible implications for Dartmouth students.
You recently co-authored a report on the effects of distance and blended learning. What were the results of your study?
DS: The main finding was that when you look at the achievement tests, the children seem to have made much less progress than they would have in a typical year during the pandemic. It was not surprising. The most interesting part also showed that schools that moved away during the pandemic year were even further behind. And this was especially true in very poor schools. If you looked at schools that were entirely in person [the 2020-2021 school year], they all progressed less than in a typical year. The gap did not necessarily widen between high-poverty and low-poverty schools, or between white and Hispanic students, or between white and black students. But when you look at the very poor schools that went remote, all of those gaps widened because it was a double whammy – not only were they more likely to go remote, but when they went remote, that had a much bigger impact on limiting how much they learned in that year.
Why has distance and blended learning had such a disproportionate impact on low-income communities?
DS: There are two possible stories you could tell here. The first is that very poor and more disadvantaged families had a harder time maintaining their learning, especially in a remote setting, for a variety of reasons. But that’s not what our evidence suggests, because the gaps within the school — black and white and Hispanic children attending the same school — haven’t widened. What happened was the schools where poor kids, black kids, Hispanic kids went to did a lot worse during the pandemic when they were away. These schools were consistently less able to adapt to the pandemic and remote learning. And you can imagine a number of reasons for this – some [relating to] basic resources in schools. But the school also has to deal with the student population as a whole, and when a lot of your population is in low-income households, doesn’t have internet, and faces all sorts of other challenges, nobody at that school won’t learn as much.
How have you quantified the effects of distance and blended learning on academic progress?
DS: We were using this fantastic data from NWEA [Northwest Evaluation Alliance] . We had over two million children, in 49 of 50 states, in 10,000 schools. The NWEA is a test that schools use to see how children are doing throughout the year. It’s marked in a way where you can actually see the progress. The NWEA has calculated what a student learns in a typical week of instruction. We were able to use this information and use all the test data from the two years before the pandemic, from 2017 to 2019, to basically determine, “Okay, how many things would people have generally learned?” Our instruments showed that, on average, students were about 12 weeks late. In very poor schools that were far away, they are about 20 weeks behind, or more than half a school year.
How can school districts — and how should they — catch up on academic progress?
DS: There are not many interventions that will move children forward another 20 weeks. One intervention that has proven to be very effective, particularly in very poor schools, is heavy-duty tutoring – one hour per session, three sessions per week year-round in each subject. Now, for very poor schools that were remote and about 20 weeks behind, that means every student has to get heavy-duty tutoring, at least in math and reading. This turns out to be quite a challenge, both financially and logistically.
Another possibility is to extend the school year. It’s expensive. You will have to pay the teachers. But the good thing about this solution is that if you can work with your teachers to do it, you have the staff, the building, the curriculum. In principle, it is logistically easier. You can imagine politically that is quite difficult.
Do any of your findings extend to distance learning for Dartmouth students or higher education in general?
DS: I do not know yet. The question would be, ‘how would you measure it?’ We can look at your earnings, but we have to wait a bit for that. And, if earnings are affected, we’re not sure it’s [due to] learning, as opposed to mental health. But you can imagine a study looking at variations at the college level in terms of remoteness. In theory, we could use this variation to see if it affects life outcomes 10 years after graduation. I’m already thinking, ‘Okay, in 10 years, this will be the paper I’ll have students write.’
You speak to the New York Association of School Boards in Albany in August to present your findings. What are some of your other next steps with this research?
Part of the mission of [the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard] is not simply to admire the problem, but to do something about it. So we certainly do outreach wherever we can. We wrote a Vox article last week and an article in the Atlantic. The goal to [the meeting in Albany] is to help people understand the magnitude and that they really need to do something here with some of these concrete options. We tried to get the other parties to come together, agree, focus and build momentum. It’s not like the usual case where you might try to get financing. The funding is potentially there. It’s more about trying to build political will and awareness of the issue, so the districts will all want to do something about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.