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Coronavirus school shutdowns could worsen achievement gap

Experts say school systems will need to be flexible whenever schools restart and should be willing to allow some children to repeat a grade

Karl Alexander’s 25-year study of Baltimore city schoolchildren found that America’s academic achievement gap, which separates poor, mostly minority children from their wealthier peers, is rooted in the things underprivileged kids forget in the summer. The Johns Hopkins sociologist’s theory is that wealthier parents provide more enrichment to their children during the two- to three-month break.

Alexander believes that the unprecedented closure of schools to combat the coronavirus, affecting more than 55 million U.S. students, will set the underprivileged back far more than is typical. And he says policymakers need to start thinking now about how to make up for the loss.

“If you can generalize from the literature of summer learning loss to what we are experiencing now, it’s not a pretty picture,” Alexander said. “My expectation is that if we can’t figure out a way to help parents manage the situation, we are going to see the experience of summer learning loss writ large.”

Forty-three states have said that children will not go back this academic year. More are likely to follow. Many, though not all, schools are attempting to implement distance learning curricula, but some students do not have computers or access to the internet. Public libraries, which might offer a connection, are closed too.

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And some students rely on schools for more than education: They are safe spaces in rough neighborhoods and often provide two meals a day to kids who might otherwise go hungry.

Meanwhile, most teachers have no experience instructing students remotely. That leaves much to parents, some who still must go to essential jobs, while others telework and all are stressed and anxious.

Congress is attuned to the issue, with the Senate, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee planning a Tuesday hearing with top administration health officials to consider how to reopen schools safely.

Alexander’s research, conducted with fellow Johns Hopkins University sociologist Doris R. Entwisle, tracked 790 Baltimore city students starting in first grade in 1982, examining how they did on tests they took in the spring and the fall. The lower-income students held their own during the academic year but forgot much more of what they’d learned over the summer. This summer learning loss built over time, creating a wide achievement gap.

In the first year, the more affluent first-graders, albeit still ones enrolled in Baltimore city public schools, were about half a grade level ahead of less privileged ones. But by fifth grade, Alexander and Entwisle found a gap of two full school years, with the poorer children at a fourth-grade level and the middle-class students learning at a sixth- or even seventh-grade level. “Almost all of that increase in the achievement gap could be traced to differential summer learning,” said Alexander.

Alexander’s thesis is not without controversy. Paul von Hippel, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin who studies education policy, says other studies have not been able to replicate Alexander and Entwisle’s results and that Baltimore may be unique.

Von Hippel agrees that the achievement gap is the result of parents’ education levels, but he says it forms by the time children are in kindergarten and persists through the school year and summer breaks. He says that while more affluent parents could provide their children more summer enrichment, most actually treat summer as a break from academics, keeping summer learning loss similar across income groups.

That said, von Hippel sees the current school shutdown, which could last five months or more, as presenting a different sort of risk. Unlike during summer breaks, when schools might ask students to read a few books, many schools are now asking parents to supervise distance learning that is supposed to replicate the classes they are missing. “If the shutdown goes for any length of time, it is likely to increase the achievement gap,” he said.

Every student is likely to suffer, with the low-income suffering the worst. The current experiment in distance learning is “not likely to end well,” wrote Kevin Huffman, a former Tennessee education commissioner, in an opinion piece for The Washington Post in March.

“Years of research shows that online schooling is ineffective — and that students suffer significant learning losses when they have a long break from school,” he explained, citing data from online charter schools as well as research on the “summer slide.”

There are some oddities about the current moment that could affect how much students forget. White-collar parents who could normally send their children off to extracurricular enrichment now cannot. Those programs are closed, just like the schools. And those same parents often work for employers who are asking them to telework, leaving them to juggle their children’s distance learning and their own jobs.

By contrast, many working-class parents are also home but are unable to work at all, giving them more time, potentially, to supervise their children’s studies.

On the other hand, those unable to work are more likely to lose their jobs, increasing their anxiety. “The additional stress introduced by job loss is also unhealthy and not conducive to learning,” David Quinn, an assistant professor of education at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, wrote in an email. Quinn notes that studies have linked income with student learning, with those families with more money achieving more academically.

The experts say school systems will need to be flexible whenever schools restart, allowing students and teachers ample time to review old material. They should consider extending their school years to recover lost days of learning, even as that may prove difficult given the loss of state revenue from the economic downturn.

And they should be willing to allow some children, those behind both academically and socially, to repeat a grade, even as that is not, normally, considered an effective way to help students catch up.

“The case for having kids repeat a grade is much stronger after an interruption like this,” said von Hippel. “They’ve lost a quarter year of school experience and a quarter year of socialization.”

Alexander sits on the board of the National Summer Learning Association, which seeks to bolster learning opportunities outside the traditional academic year. He and the group’s chief executive officer, Aaron Philip Dworkin, see a potential silver lining amid the pandemic, if schools begin to think harder about how to increase students’ opportunities to learn outside of school.

That includes extended school years, of course, as well as improved online curricula and better training for teachers overseeing remote learning. But Dworkin also foresees a need for greater cooperation between schools and places where children congregate outside of schools, at Boys & Girls Clubs, churches and recreational sports leagues, community centers and, for older children, part-time jobs.

Schools will learn something this year about educating children outside the classroom, and should seek to build on those lessons when children can return, said Dworkin: “Now more than ever, we want to tie the academic learning to enrichment and other opportunities.”

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