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Will States Step Up to Address Gaps in Access to Remote Learning This Fall?

It should surprise no one that this spring’s experiment with remote learning revealed huge gaps in access to education that divided low-income students from their more affluent peers, rural students from urban ones, and students with disabilities from non-disabled students. 

While the gaps in resources between schools and districts are significant, they pale in comparison to those faced at home with students experiencing vastly different environments with respect to housing, food security, and parental involvement. 

Addressing these gaps will not be easy, but data from this spring give some cause for optimism. They show that some states and localities managed to hold the line against growing gaps despite the challenges that come with remote learning. What happens this fall will depend on whether states, districts, and schools are able to proactively address gaps in access and give students the support they need. 

It doesn’t take a researcher to understand the challenges families confronted with remote learning this spring. But it also shows up in the data. Take a look at this graph from Brown University’s John Friedman, which his colleague Emily Oster wrote about in June. It uses data from the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker that tracks how students are progressing using Zearn, an online math curriculum in place in many school districts around the nation.

Source: Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker

As Oster details, the graph shows a serious drop off in progress for all students. But students attending schools in low-income neighborhoods fare far worse.  

It’s easy to look at these data and admit defeat. But digging a little deeper, it becomes clear that a better way is possible. Consider the following charts, which present data on low-income students’ math progress across six states.

*Change in student progress through online math curriculum, indexed to Jan 6-Feb 2 2020. This series is based on data from Zearn using online usage data from Zearn Math, a math program normally used in classrooms that combines hands-on instruction with digital lessons. Data is limited to existing school users.
Source: Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker

In three of the states—Louisiana, Virginia, and Wisconsin—the trends mirror the national data that Oster wrote about. Progress declined dramatically after school closures were announced in mid-March and they never really rebounded. At the height of the crisis in early May, low-income students in Wisconsin were making 44 percent less progress in math while their peers in Louisiana and Virginia were making a staggering 68 percent and 79 percent less progress compared to those same users in January. 

But this same story didn’t play out in Colorado, Connecticut, and Wyoming. Like Louisiana, Wyoming is a rural state where technology access posed challenges. But this didn’t stop low-income students from keeping pace. Indeed, at the height of the crisis, students in low-income neighborhoods were making 59 percent more progress in math compared to pre-COVID-19. Connecticut students didn’t lose a clip when the state announced school closures in late March. By early May, students from low-income neighborhoods were exceeding their January progress by a stunning 217 percent. In Colorado, students from low-income neighborhoods kept pace with their more affluent peers during remote learning, providing a bulwark against rising inequality stemming from the school closures. 

We don’t yet know why these states succeeded while others missed the mark. Perhaps states: 

  • Set high expectations for remote learning and required districts to maintain instruction from the start of school closures. 
  • Addressed the digital divide that has shut out too many rural and low-income students from remote learning. 
  • Provided instructional supports like curriculum and professional development to ensure teachers were prepared to support students and families. 

Regardless of the cause, their divergent paths show remote learning isn’t destined to widen inequality. 

As states and districts wrestle with growing uncertainty over whether they will be able to open their doors this fall, they must double down on their commitment to supporting historically disadvantaged students to succeed, even if instruction moves to the cloud. 

There is no question that remote learning is hard to do well. But this must not be an excuse for not doing better.

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