Remote learning not the main driver of school losses, new analysis finds


Exactly how far has remote learning contributed to student academic losses during the pandemic?

This story also appeared in Chalkbeat

A new analysis out friday brings us closer to a complicated answer.

Using the latest data on national and state test scores, a team of researchers found that districts that stayed away during the 2020-21 school year experienced larger drops in elementary and middle school math, and to some extent in reading, than other districts in their state.

But the losses varied widely – and many districts that returned in person suffered greater losses than districts that stayed away. The pattern is inconsistent enough that school closures, it appears, were not the primary driver of these declines in achievement.

“Based on the discussion prior to the publication of these results, one would think that the only thing causing achievement losses would be remote learning, but in reality that does not appear to be the case,” said Thomas Kane. , Professor of Education and Economics at Harvard. who co-directed the research. “I was really surprised by these results.”

Previous research by Kane and others have found a strong link between declining academic performance and remote learning, which poses enormous challenges for students and families nationwide.

Data from half of US students

The new analysis is the first to examine how the pandemic has affected math and reading scores in many school districts. The team drew on test data for 29 states, covering about 4,000 school districts that serve some 12 million students in grades three through eight, or about half of the U.S. student population for those brackets. of age.

The researchers then combined this information with scores released this week in a key national test known as NAEP, which allowed them to compare student performance in spring 2019 and spring 2022. They found that, this year, students in the median school district learned about half a grade less in math and about a quarter of a grade level lower in reading, compared to their pre-pandemic peers. (These time-score conversions are inaccurate, but the researchers say they provide the clearest picture for parents.)

There were drastic differences in performance between districts in each state, they found, with a number of districts doing better since the pandemic, a small number doing much worse and most registering declines.

“The pandemic has been like a band of tornadoes, leaving devastating learning losses in some districts, while leaving many other districts untouched,” Kane said. “But so far that damage has been hard to see.”

The poorest district suffered more losses

The research team also found that high-poverty districts suffered greater academic losses, providing a more sober picture than the national NAEP results made and echoing some previous research on the pandemic.

Differences in lost learning between low and high poverty districts were not large, but were remarkable, especially in mathematics. The trend was maintained for reading, although the differences were smaller.

The researchers said math was likely more affected than reading in high-poverty districts – a trend in this subject that has been widely observed – because school plays a bigger role in how students learn to do math.

These findings, Reardon said, should prompt federal and state leaders to ensure that high-poverty schools have the funding and mental health supports they need over the long term, “so that we don’t end up not with a permanently greater amount of inequality than we had before the pandemic.

The researchers cautioned that their analysis cannot disentangle the effects of remote learning from other factors. It’s possible that districts that have remained remote longer differ in other significant ways from districts that have reopened quickly, Reardon said, so researchers will need to dig deeper “to really unravel” what happened.

The team will add data from other states as it becomes available. Some states that have not yet been analyzed, such as Maryland and New Jersey, have seen high rates of school closures and steep declines in student achievement.

In the coming weeks, the team plans to examine how COVID-related death rates, internet access and parental job losses may have contributed to lower scores.

“All of these things affected the children’s ability to learn,” Reardon said. “So while remote learning is probably one piece of the story, it’s probably a small piece of all the ways the pandemic has affected children’s outcomes.”

Broadband, live instruction

The uneven quality of distance education probably also contributed to the variation in student performance.

Some students had access to live daily instruction with their teachers, while others spent a lot of time working alone or working on packets of paper. Students with patchy internet access were often unable to watch live lessons and teachers reported that some students went online while working or caring for siblings. Others have stopped attending virtual classes altogether.

Kane said he hopes their data will inspire school districts to bolster their school recovery plans this spring and summer with strategies such as tutoring and extra instruction during the holidays — while schools still have time to spend their COVID relief dollars. Too many districts have smaller efforts in place, he said, that won’t be enough to address the losses his team has seen.

“The average child has missed six months of math learning, and we’re not going to make up six months of learning with a few extra teaching days or by providing tutors to 5% to 10% of children,” Kane said.

What he doesn’t want to see are schools waiting to make changes until the spring 2023 test results come in next year, when they might find, “Wow, children are still far behind.”

Kalyn Belsha is a Chicago-based national education reporter. Contact her at [email protected]. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational changes in public schools.


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