The COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis, an economic crisis, and also a crisis for children’s education. UNESCO reports that in response to the pandemic schools have closed in 160 countries, affecting more than 1.5 billion students.
In the best-case scenario, schools seamlessly adopt online learning, students continue to interact virtually with each other, and parents step up as temporary teachers. For this scenario to be realized, a series of factors have to line up to perfection: Schools need to have the resources to implement remote learning, students need to have access to computers, printers, and reliable internet connections at home, and parents need to have the ability, time, energy, and patience to turn into home-school instructors, on top of other responsibilities. It is a lot to ask.
In the worst-case scenario, learning will simply stop, and already acquired knowledge and abilities will start to fade. A single missing factor – a lack of a working computer or internet access, parents tied down with work or caring for other relatives – can mean that the worst-case scenario becomes reality for a given family.
Even many well-off families will struggle with successfully implementing remote learning and home schooling for their children. But inevitably, the challenge will be greater for those already at a disadvantage. Less-educated parents will face obstacles in turning into temporary teachers, even more so if they are immigrants for whom English is a second language. For many single parents on low wages, squaring the education needs of their children with continuing to earn an income will simply be impossible.
In short, the disruption of schooling during the pandemic will have disparate effects across the socio-economic ladder. The achievement gap between children from poorer and richer families is bound to rise as long as school closures continue.
How big is the effect of COVID-19 on achievement gaps likely to be? We can make an educated guess by considering as a benchmark what happens during an interruption to learning that takes place every year: the summer break. The phenomenon of “summer learning loss” has long been noted: when students return to school in the fall, some of the knowledge they had acquired before the summer is lost.
A recent analysis uses results for the standardized MAP tests that are used in many school districts across the United States to measure the extent of summer learning loss. In mathematics, from sixth to eighth grade, students gain about 8 points on the RIT scale (the point system used by the MAP tests) during the school year, but then lose 4 of those points during the summer. In English, summer learning loss is proportionally smaller but still substantial: a gain of 5 points during the school year compared to a loss of 2 points during the summer.
Now consider what will happen to learning if the current interruption of schooling lasts until the end of the school year, or about three months. This is similar to the length of the typical summer break. If a child does not engage at all with school during this period, we therefore would expect losses of 4 points in math and 2 points in English. A child that continues learning at the usual speed, in contrast, would gain about 2.7 points in math (one-third of the gain during the nine-month school year) and 1.7 points in English.
The achievement gap between children in the best- and worst-case scenarios would therefore be expected to rise by close to 7 points in math and close to 4 points in English. These numbers are larger than the typical learning gain during a school year. In short, the less fortunate children might be left behind by the equivalent of more than an entire year of schooling.
It is possible that summer learning losses do not apply as directly to the current crisis as our back-of-the-envelope calculation assumes. But even if the actual rise in the achievement gap were only half as large, this would still present a huge upward shift in educational inequality among children from different rungs of the socio-economic ladder.
The impact of the crisis on gaps in cognitive skills, such as math and reading, is only part of the story. Non-cognitive skills such as patience, perseverance, and the ability to figure out the future consequences of one’s behavior are also central to children’s success. These skills are particularly responsive to the environment in the early years, and are likely to suffer during the crisis just as the cognitive skills of older children.
The COVID-19 shock exacerbates a trend that has been ongoing for almost four decades. In our book Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids, we discuss how during the last 40 years family upbringing and parenting styles have diverged across different socio-economic groups, causing a decline in social mobility and fostering ever-growing inequality. This growing “parenting gap” has a particularly large impact on socio-economic achievement gaps during early childhood, whereas for older children the more equitable access to education provided by schools dilutes the effect of family background.
The equalizing effects of schools are mute when schools are closed and the main burden of formal education returns to families. If no countermeasures are taken, the COVID-19 shock will only magnify the parenting gap and accelerate the trend to increased polarization and lower mobility in society.
Fortunately, there is still time to take action and push back against the repercussions of COVID-19 for education and for educational equity. In the short term, the focus has to be on keeping the learning gap between richer and poorer students as small as possible. Many school districts have already started their own initiatives, such as a plan by Chicago Public Schools to distribute 100,000 laptops, iPads and Chromebooks to students for home use.
Still, no policy will be able to offset all of the inequities behind learning gaps during the crisis. For this reason, we think that the central plank of the response has to consist of massively expanded summer learning programs. Social isolation policies are likely to be lifted by the summer, so that regular schooling becomes possible again. There will also be sufficient time left before the start of the fall semester to make up for much of the learning losses during the crisis.
Research has shown that such programs can be highly effective. The authors of a recent study describe the effects of a randomized experiment that offered access to summer training programs to some students in five school districts across the United States. The five-week program had a large effect on the math achievement of the enrolled students, equivalent to 20 percent of the average full-year progress in mathematics from third and fourth grade. The benefits were particularly large for poor, minority, and low-achieving students.
To make up for learning loss during the crisis, similar programs should be offered at a large scale and at no cost to low-income families through the summer of 2020. Depending on the length of school closures, longer programs of up to ten weeks are called for.
To make these large-scale programs reality, planning and preparation should start right now. Given that school districts cannot easily increase their funding, especially in the short term, funding should be provided at the federal level. The cost will be high, but moderate in comparison to the hundreds of billions already being approved on supporting the business sector during the economic downturn. Given the magnitude of the impending crisis in education, it will be money well spent.
McCombs, J., Pane, J., Augustine, C., Schwartz, H., Martorell, P., & Zakaras, L. (2014). Ready for Fall? Near-Term Effects of Voluntary Summer Learning Programs on Low-Income Students' Learning Opportunities and Outcomes. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation.
Heckman, J.J. (2000). Policies to Foster Human Capital. Research in Economics 54 (1), 3-56.
Kuhfeld, M. 2018. Summer Learning Loss: What We Know and What We’re Learning. NWEA Blog, https://www.nwea.org/blog/2018/summer-learning-loss-what-we-know-what-w…
Thum Y.M. and Hauser, C.H. (2015). NWEA 2015 MAP Norms for Student and School Achievement Status and Growth. NWEA Research Report. Portland, OR: NWEA
Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta-Analytic Review. Review of Educational Research, 66(3), 227-268.