School

Not Everyone Can Write Off a School Year

Who should be worried about their kids falling behind?

A redhead looks at a laptop.
Annie Spratt/Unsplash

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Parents across the U.S. are stressed right now about pretty much everything, including how extended school closures will affect their kids’ learning. But the nature of parental concerns runs the gamut. Some parents complain that their kids are bored and not getting nearly enough work from their teachers; others bemoan the parental involvement and password management required to deal with all of the ridiculously named apps that turn learning into screen time, while still others say their kids are overwhelmed and regularly bursting into tears. Some parents contend, despite what they are hearing from their districts, that none of these remote assignments matter, while others worry about their kids falling behind. The one thing that’s consistent is that no one seems happy with what their schools are doing during this crisis.

Actually, there is one other thing that’s consistent: Education researchers and sociologists agree that the implications of the coronavirus on U.S. education are dire, but primarily for disadvantaged students.

“The impact of this COVID-19 crisis is going to be felt most profoundly by the students who are already most vulnerable,” John B. King Jr., president and CEO of the Education Trust and the former U.S. Secretary of Education, told me. These include children with disabilities and children who rely on schools for essential services such as counseling and crisis support, as well as low-income students who may rely on schools for meals and shelter. Although districts are scrambling to provide meals and other services to students in need, many families aren’t receiving them. New York City public schools usually distribute 600,000 free lunches per day when school is in session, but just over 100,000 families daily are getting these meals now.

Some students don’t have the digital tools or resources needed to continue classes at home. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 1 in 4 low-income teens does not have access to a home computer. Some school districts are distributing tablets or Chromebooks but have long backlogs; other students have devices but no internet access. In Philadelphia, for instance, school surveys found that only 41 percent of third through eighth graders in the district, and 51 percent of high schoolers, have internet access.

This class divide has racial implications as well. “There are some students that I haven’t heard from in four weeks,” an eighth grade public school teacher in Seattle who did not want to use her name told me recently; most of her missing families, she says, are those for whom English is a second language. Caroline Smith, a humanities teacher at a Boston public high school in which 96 percent of students are nonwhite, says that at least 35 percent of her students haven’t engaged with their digital curriculum at all.

Even when disadvantaged students do have the necessary hardware, they may not have the parental support they need to navigate unfamiliar platforms and complete the assigned work. “Even older children often need help working through complex math and writing assignments and science projects, and they often need help staying on task with their work,” says Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University who studies how social inequalities affect families and schools. “Having a parent with the time and mental energy to be the de facto teacher will inevitably give affluent white students with stay-at-home or part-time employed parents—or, more likely, mothers—an edge.” The same could be said for the children of parents with full-time but flexible work.

This is why most scholars aren’t worried about how affluent students’ learning will be affected by the pandemic. Some of these students may fall a bit behind, but others may “move ahead, beyond what they would do if they were in school,” says Karl Alexander, an emeritus professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. Affluent parents are, for instance, signing their kids up for online classes in droves: Outschool.com, a platform for K–12 students that offers small online classes, has had to recruit 5,000 new teachers to cover the recent spike in demand. And 200,000 K–12 students have signed up for free trials of Rosetta Stone, the language learning platform, since March 20, a representative told me. Even free, online kids’ fitness and mindfulness classes—which, in a world where we’re all stuck inside, are more important to mental and physical well-being than ever—aren’t accessible to everyone. Cosmic Kids Yoga might seem ubiquitous in your circle, but it’s not ubiquitous in all circles.

“There are all these ways in which more affluent students get advantages over less affluent students in the current system without COVID-19. And that’s only going to be exacerbated now,” says Jason Dougal, the executive vice president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit organization that, among other things, studies educational systems around the world and advises school leaders on best practices. Even privileged families who aren’t signing their kids up for extra classes and tutoring are still probably teaching their kids plenty; they may be having regular lunch and dinner conversations about virology and astronomy and politics, in part because they are more likely than working-class parents to spend the day at home. According to a March report published by the Economic Policy Institute, fewer than 10 percent of workers in the lowest wage quartile can telework, compared with 61.5 percent of workers in the highest.

Affluent parents are also more likely to get the kind of support and education they want from their kids’ schools right now—even if their requests don’t benefit all students equally. “I’ve talked to school leaders, and they’re saying, ‘I’m trying to deal with the kids who don’t have the devices or don’t have internet access’—but who’s calling, who’s emailing, who’s yelling? It’s the parents of students who are doing very well, because they’re worried that their little Johnny or their little Sally is going to fall behind,” Dougal says. “You’ve got school leaders who are juggling these incredibly important issues at the same time they’re being pulled by the squeaky wheels who are worried about their kids and their college applications in eight years.”

Even if you’re not signing your kid up for everything or demanding more of your child’s school—maybe you’re even one of the parents who’s actively refusing to home-school your kids right now—it’s important to acknowledge the role of privilege in that decision. The parents who feel comfortable saying “thanks, but no thanks” to their children’s schools are those who know, on some level, that their kids are going to do just fine in the long run—and who expect that their kids’ teachers will be OK with the decision and not punish them for it. “Privileged students probably won’t face any consequences for not getting their at-home work done. Meanwhile, students from more vulnerable families—arguably the students who most need empathy and flexibility right now—are the ones who are more likely to be held accountable to the rules and to face consequences,” Calarco says; her research has shown that public school teachers give privileged students the most leeway when they don’t turn assignments in.

So what does all of this mean for the long term? If low-income students fall farther behind, and privileged students mostly do fine, achievement gaps will widen in the coming months. “My worry is that the inequalities will manifest in privileged students being promoted to the next grade—or given more access to things like advanced courses or college enrollment—while students from more vulnerable families will be left behind,” Calarco says. If that happens, the effects will be felt for years, because once a student falls behind, it’s really hard to catch them back up; their learning rate has to accelerate beyond the learning rate for kids at grade level.

Given that remote learning could exacerbate equity problems and is generally stressing everyone out, why are schools pursuing it at all? Many states, including New York, have mandated or recommended that schools provide alternate forms of instruction during the coronavirus crisis. But even without these recommendations, public schools likely feel compelled to continue teaching because they believe deeply in their mission, yes, but also because they must stay in business to preserve their funding. “In most states, public schools have to deliver a specific number of days of instruction, or their funding is reduced,” says Timothy Hallett, a sociologist at Indiana University who studies school accountability. “Schools are already underfunded, so this is a big administrative issue, and it is one reason why there is pressure to keep education going.” (Plus, if schools close entirely, taxpayers might question the need to pay school taxes.) Teachers, too, have to continue working to abide by their contracts.

As families switch to online learning, the cracks that have always lurked in the U.S. education system might, now, become easier for everyone to see. For one thing, it’s now obvious that teachers should be better trained in the use of technology and that schools or local governments should do a better job of ensuring that everyone has access to devices and the internet. Technology “is a part of our infrastructure in ways that we are not acknowledging, and that’s a huge problem,” says Cassidy Puckett, a sociologist at Emory University. The upside is that perhaps the crisis will inspire states to prioritize access. “Hopefully, this experience will cause a lot more people to care,” says Amy Gonzales, a communications researcher and information technologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Another shift that could cause problems for schools: Many parents now are engaging with their children’s curricula more closely than they ever have before, and some might not like what they see. Among other things, privileged parents might not find the work stimulating or relevant for their kids. “I’ve heard it multiple times from leaders I’m talking to who are worried that there are going to be some number of parents who are going to decide they’re either going to home-school or, more likely, maybe go to a nontraditional public school, a charter school, or maybe a private school if they have the means,” Dougal says. These moves could threaten the credibility of public school education further.

To be clear, it’s not that public school teachers or administrators aren’t skilled. (I, for one, am realizing just how hard teaching is, as I flail in my attempts to educate my kids.) Nor is it that they don’t know how to come up with creative assignments. It’s that the incentives built into the U.S. education system prioritize the wrong things—specifically, test scores over deep learning. “Test scores are controlling everything that we do, even in, quote, better school districts,” says Barbara Stengel, a philosopher of education and professor emerita at Vanderbilt University (although thankfully, schools this year are allowed to skip statewide standardized tests).

For decades, in part due to No Child Left Behind, U.S. public schools have felt pressure to instruct through lectures and emphasize rote facts rather than to encourage things like cross-disciplinary project-based learning. (This approach doesn’t even work: Students in the United States score lower on international reading, math, and science tests than do students in nearly a dozen other countries, including Canada, Ireland, Poland, and China.) And now, Dougal argues, one of the reasons that remote learning is proving to be such a challenge in the U.S. is because students are so used to lecture-based instruction and aren’t comfortable working independently. In the countries with the highest-ranked educational systems, such as Estonia, Finland, and Singapore, “they approached teaching and learning differently before any of this, and that put them in a position to just be in a much better situation” right now, Dougal says.

The coronavirus is transforming so many aspects of our lives, and our children’s education is no exception. Privileged parents with children who do not have learning challenges can rest assured that their kids are going to be all right. But students who have fewer resources, or who learn differently, may find that the crisis holds them back more. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that the pandemic may expose some of our education system’s long-standing weaknesses to the masses and give us the collective will to finally address them.