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Covid-19 Education Research for Recovery

Jackie Eunjung Relyea, Patrick Rich, James S. Kim, Joshua B. Gilbert.

The current study aimed to explore the COVID-19 impact on the reading achievement growth of Grade 3-5 students in a large urban school district in the U.S. and whether the impact differed by students’ demographic characteristics and instructional modality. Specifically, using administrative data from the school district, we investigated to what extent students made gains in reading during the 2020-2021 school year relative to the pre-COVID-19 typical school year in 2018-2019. We further examined whether the effects of students’ instructional modality on reading growth varied by demographic characteristics. Overall, students had lower average reading achievement gains over the 9-month 2020-2021 school year than the 2018-2019 school year with a learning loss effect size of 0.54, 0.27, and 0.28 standard deviation unit for Grade 3, 4, and 5, respectively. Substantially reduced reading gains were observed from Grade 3 students, students from high-poverty backgrounds, English learners, and students with reading disabilities. Additionally, findings indicate that among students with similar demographic characteristics, higher-achieving students tended to choose the fully remote instruction option, while lower-achieving students appeared to opt for in-person instruction at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. However, students who received in-person instruction most likely demonstrated continuous growth in reading over the school year, whereas initially higher-achieving students who received remote instruction showed stagnation or decline, particularly in the spring 2021 semester. Our findings support the notion that in-person schooling during the pandemic may serve as an equalizer for lower-achieving students, particularly from historically marginalized or vulnerable student populations.

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Emily Morton, Paul Thompson, Megan Kuhfeld.

Four-day school weeks are becoming increasingly common in the United States, but their effect on students’ achievement is not well-understood. The small body of existing research suggests the four-day schedule has relatively small, negative average effects (~-0.02 to -0.09 SD) on annual, standardized state test scores in math and reading, but these studies include only a single state or are limited by using district-level data. We conduct the first multi-state, student-level analysis that estimates the effect of four-day school weeks on student achievement and a more proximal measure of within-year growth using NWEA MAP Growth assessment data. We conduct difference-in-differences analyses to estimate the effect of attending a four-day week school relative to attending a five-day week school. We estimate significant negative effects of the schedule on spring reading achievement (-0.07 SD) and fall-to-spring achievement gains in math and reading (-0.06 SD in both). The negative effects of the schedule are disproportionately larger in non-rural schools than rural schools and for female students, and they may grow over time. Policymakers and practitioners will need to weigh the policy’s demonstrated negative average effects on achievement in their decisions regarding how and if to implement a four-day week.

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Joshua Bleiberg, Matthew A. Kraft.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended the U.S. education system and the economy in ways that dramatically affected the jobs of K-12 educators. However, data limitations have led to considerable uncertainty and conflicting reports about the nature of staffing challenges in schools. We draw on education employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and State Education Agencies (SEA) to describe patterns in K-12 education employment and to highlight the limitations of available data. Data from the BLS suggest overall employment in the K-12 labor market declined by 9.3 percent at the onset of the pandemic and remains well below pre-pandemic levels. SEA data suggest that teachers have not (yet) left the profession in mass as many predicted, but that turnover decreased in the summer of 2020. We explore possible explanations for these patterns including (1) weak hiring through the summer of 2020 and (2) high attrition among K-12 instructional support staff. State vacancy data also suggest that schools are facing substantial challenges filling open positions during the 2021-22 academic year. Our analyses illustrate the imperative to build more timely, detailed, and nationally representative data systems on the K-12 education labor market to better inform policy.  

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Jeremy Singer.

After near-universal school closures in the United States at the start of the pandemic, lawmakers and educational leaders made plans for when and how to reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year. Educational researchers quickly assessed how a range of public health, political, and demographic factors were associated with school reopening decisions and parent preferences for in-person and remote learning. I review this body of literature, to highlight what we can learn from its findings, limitations, and influence on public discourse. Studies consistently highlighted the influence of partisanship, teachers’ unions, and demographics, with mixed findings on COVID-19 rates. The literature offers useful insight and requires more evidence, and it highlights benefits and limitations to rapid research with large-scale quantitative data.

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Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, Jeremy Singer.

How much school students attend is a powerful indicator of their wellbeing and a strong predictor of their future success in school. Popular media has reported significant increases in chronic absenteeism during the first full school year of the COVID-19 pandemic (2020-21). This sequential explanatory mixed-methods study describes how experiences during the pandemic and socioeconomic circumstances in general shaped Detroit student attendance during this critical school year and how the district responded to attendance issues. We found that 70% of students were chronically absent, with 40% of parents reporting that computer problems contributed to absenteeism. Despite significant investment in technology, the district’s strategies for engaging students were not sufficient in overcoming economic hardships and the new challenges of remote learning.

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Jeremy Singer, Julie A. Marsh, David Menefee-Libey, Jacob Alonso, Dwuana Bradley, Hanora Tracy.

Nearly all schools in the United States closed in spring 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With a micropolitical lens, we analyze traditional public and charter schools reopenings for the 2020-21 school year in five urban districts. Districts’ adherence to and strategic uses of public health guidance, as well as a combination of union-district relations and labor market dynamics, influenced reopening. Parents, city and state lawmakers, and local institutional conditions also played a role, helping to explain differences across cases. We provide a rich description of reopening decisions in each of our case districts, and offer theoretically-grounded explanations for how factors identified in prior studies—which were interrelated and varied across local contexts—influenced district decision-making.

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Claire McMorris, David S. Knight.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in 2020 included significant aid to state education systems. These included direct aid to K-12 districts and higher education institutions, and funds to be used at the discretion of Governors through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER). We examine the factors influencing where and how GEER funding was distributed across state K-12 systems and what inequities were introduced in its spending. Using a mixed methods analysis of state GEER spending plans and district-level finance data, we focus specifically on how governors sought to target schools serving disadvantaged student groups. We find that several state leaders decided to send their GEER funds to school districts via funding formulas, and that some Governors made decisions to direct their GEER funds towards certain student groups. State spending patterns were not strongly related to governor political ideology or the states’ existing funding formulas or inter-district resource allocation patterns. We discuss the implications of this policy related to two state case examples, California and New York, and provide insight for future education stimulus funding proposals.

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Robert W. Fairlie, George Bulman.

This paper examines how the pandemic impacted the enrollment patterns, fields of study, and academic outcomes of students in the California Community College System, the largest higher-education system in the country. Enrollment dropped precipitously during the pandemic – the total number of enrolled students fell by 11 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020 and by another 7 percent from fall 2020 to fall 2021. The California Community College system lost nearly 300,000 students over this period. Our analysis reveals that enrollment reductions were largest among Black/African-American and Latinx students, and were larger among continuing students than first-time students. We find no evidence that having a large online presence prior to the pandemic protected colleges from these negative effects. Enrollment changes were substantial across a wide range of fields and were large for both vocational courses and academic courses that can be transferred to four-year institutions. In terms of course performance, changes in completion rates, withdrawal rates, and grades primarily occurred in the spring of 2020. These findings of the effects of the pandemic at community colleges have implications for policy, impending budgetary pressures, and future research.

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Leigh Wedenoja, John Papay, Matthew A. Kraft.

We examine the dynamic nature of student-teacher match quality by studying the effect of having a teacher for more than one year. Using data from Tennessee and panel methods, we find that having a repeat teacher improves achievement and decreases absences, truancy, and suspensions. These results are robust to a range of tests for student and teacher sorting. High-achieving students benefit most academically and boys of color benefit most behaviorally. Effects increase with the share of repeat students in a class suggesting that classroom assignment policies intended to promote sustained student-teacher relationships such as looping may have even larger benefits.

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Andrew Camp, Gema Zamarro, Josh B. McGee.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a trying period for teachers. Teachers had to adapt to unexpected conditions, teaching in unprecedented ways. As a result, teachers' levels of stress and burnout have been high throughout the pandemic, raising concerns about a potential increase in teacher turnover and future teacher shortages. We use administrative data for the state of Arkansas to document the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on teachers’ mobility and attrition during the years 2018-19 to 2021-2022. We find stable turnover rates during the first year of the pandemic (2020-2021) but an increase in teacher mobility and attrition in the second year (2021-2022). Teacher mobility and attrition increased by 2 percentage points (10% relative increase) this second year but with heterogeneous effects across regions and depending on the teacher and school characteristics. Our results raise concerns about increased strain in areas already experiencing teacher shortages and a potential reduction in the diversity of the Arkansas teacher labor force.

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