New Data Suggest Pandemic May Not Just Be Leaving Low-Income Students Behind; It May Be Propelling Wealthier Ones Even Further Ahead

New data suggests that the pandemic is not only leaving some students behind but also widening the gap between privileged children and their peers. The data, which tracks participation and mastery rates in the online math program Zearn Math, reveals that when schools closed in mid-March, students from low- and middle-income communities experienced a drop in participation and progress, while students from high-income areas saw increased engagement and progress. However, there were some communities that managed to overcome these barriers and maintain strong engagement for all students, regardless of income.

Nationally, higher-income students showed a slight increase in participation in Zearn Math, whereas middle- and low-income children showed a decrease in participation levels, according to Opportunity Insights. The data, which is based on a representative national sample of approximately 800,000 students from various types of schools, tracks participation and progress through online lessons provided by Zearn, a nonprofit organization that offers free online math lessons and curriculum.

The anonymous student data used in the analysis is publicly available as part of a new tracker developed by Opportunity Insights, a nonpartisan research group based at Harvard University. The tracker utilizes Census Bureau data to classify schools as low-, middle-, or high-income based on the median household income of the zip code where they are located.

Shalinee Sharma, co-founder and CEO of Zearn, expressed her concern when she observed the divergence in student use based on income. This could indicate a significant setback in Zearn’s results, as previous data from the past four years had shown that participation and progress in the program were generally consistent across different income levels, defying the typical correlation between wealth and academic achievement.

The national data reveals a significant increase in the progress of high-income students through Zearn Math lessons compared to when schools were open, while low-income students experienced a 36% decline in progress during the same period. Sharma noted that by early April, it was clear that high-income students were maintaining their participation rates and making progress in math, while many low-income students had either disappeared or were doing significantly less math.

In most states, Zearn Math participation declined after school closures, but progress in the program held steady or even increased in many states. This suggests that although many students may have stopped using the program, those who continued to engage with it showed significant growth in their math skills.

Overall, the data suggests that school closures are not only perpetuating existing learning gaps but also widening them. David Williams, the policy outreach director at Opportunity Insights, emphasizes that this crisis is having a real and adverse impact on low-income children and communities, potentially leading to future challenges.

While the data does not provide specific reasons for the drop in participation and progress, factors such as the digital divide and varying expectations from teachers or school districts likely played a role. Previous research conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated that a significant number of students, particularly those from low-income families, faced challenges completing homework assignments due to lack of reliable access to the internet or computers at home.

The findings from Zearn Math align with other research indicating that distance learning was not an effective substitute for in-person schooling, especially for vulnerable students. NWEA, a nonprofit assessment organization, has warned about a potential "COVID slide" in which students may retain only about 70% of their previous year’s reading gains and less than 50% of their math gains. This could also result in a wider range of achievement levels within individual classrooms, exacerbating educational inequalities.

In conclusion, it is crucial to address the impact of the pandemic on students’ learning outcomes, particularly for those from low-income backgrounds. Efforts should be focused on bridging the digital divide and ensuring equitable access to quality education, both during and after this crisis.

Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, stood out among other regions in terms of student engagement and progress during the school closures. Despite the challenges, Jefferson Parish Schools implemented various strategies to ensure students remained connected to their academic studies. A call center, operated by school personnel and educators, was established to assist students and families with questions regarding logistics, lessons, and technology. Additionally, paper packets distributed with grab-and-go lunches included contact information for families to seek further assistance. The district also provided teachers with training on Google Classroom and collaborated with an internet company to offer affordable internet service to families in need.

Furthermore, the district implemented a grading policy that allowed students to receive grades for their work during the final quarter of the school year, even if they did not have access to paper packets or online learning. This policy aimed to motivate students to continue learning during the challenging circumstances. Jenna Chiasson, the former executive director of teaching and learning in Jefferson Parish schools, explained that this approach has influenced her current work as the assistant superintendent of academics for the Louisiana state Department of Education. She believes that it is important to maintain high expectations and accountability measures, such as state tests and minimum instructional minutes, while considering the current situation.

Chiasson emphasizes the significance of effective communication with families and the importance of prioritizing teaching and learning alongside health and safety measures. While safety is of utmost importance, ensuring quality education remains a crucial objective.

It is worth noting that Zearn and receive financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Similarly, Opportunity Insights and receive financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

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  • owenbarrett

    I'm Owen Barrett, a 31-year-old educational blogger and traveler. I enjoy writing about the places I've visited and sharing educational content about travel and culture. When I'm not writing or traveling, I like spending time with my family and friends.