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Covid-19 Education Research for Recovery

Drew H. Bailey, Greg J. Duncan, Richard J. Murnane, Natalie Au Yeung.

A survey targeting education researchers conducted in November, 2020 provides predictions of how much achievement gaps between low- and high-income students in U.S elementary schools will change as a result of COVID-related disruptions to in-class instruction and family life. Respondents were asked to suppose that the pre-COVID achievement gap was 1.00 standard deviations. The median forecast for the jump in math achievement in elementary school by spring, 2021 was very large – a change from 1.00 to 1.30 standard deviations. The predicted increase in reading achievement gaps (a change from 1.00 to 1.25 standard deviations) was nearly as large. This implies that many teachers will face classrooms of students with much more heterogeneous learning needs in the fall of the 2021-22 school year than usual. We gauged predictions for the success of efforts by teachers and other educators to make up for lost ground by asking for predictions of achievement gaps in the spring of 2022. Few of the respondents to our survey thought that achievement gaps would revert to their pre-COVID levels. In fact, median predictions of achievement gaps fell very modestly– from 1.30 to 1.25 standard deviations for math and from 1.25 to 1.20 standard deviations for reading. We discuss some implications of these predictions for school district strategies (e.g., tutoring and other skill- building programs focused on individual students) to reduce learning gaps exacerbated by the pandemic.

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Beth Schueler, Martin R. West.

We study an early effort amid the Covid-19 pandemic to develop new approaches to virtually serving students, supporting teachers, and promoting equity. This five-week, largely synchronous, summer program served 11,769 rising 4th-9thgraders. “Mentor teachers” provided PD and videos of themselves teaching daily lessons to “partner teachers” across the country. We interviewed a representative sample of teachers and analyzed educator, parent, and student surveys. Stakeholders perceived that students made academic improvements, and the content was rigorous, relevant, and engaging. Teachers felt their teaching improved and appreciated receiving adaptable curricular materials. Participants wanted more relevant math content, more differentiated development, and less asynchronous movement content. Findings highlight promising strategies for promoting online engagement and exploiting virtual learning to strengthen teacher development. 

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Matthew A. Kraft, Grace Falken.

In this thought experiment, we explore how tutoring could be scaled nationally to address COVID-19 learning loss and become a permanent feature of the U.S. public education system. We outline a blueprint centered on ten core principles and a federal architecture to support adoption, while providing for local ownership over key implementation features. High school students would tutor in elementary schools via an elective class, college students in middle schools via federal work-study, and full time 2- and 4-year college graduates in high schools via AmeriCorps. We envision an incremental, demand-driven expansion process with priority given to high-needs schools. Our blueprint highlights a range of design tradeoffs and implementation challenges as well as estimates of program costs. Our estimates suggest that targeted approaches to scaling school-wide tutoring nationally, such as focusing on K-8 Title I schools, would cost between $5 and $15 billion annually.

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James D. Paul, Patrick J. Wolf.

Virtual charter schools provide full-time, tuition-free K-12 education through internet-based instruction. Although virtual schools offer a personalized learning experience, most research suggests these schools are negatively associated with achievement. Few studies account for differential rates of student mobility, which may produce biased estimates if mobility is jointly associated with virtual school enrollment and subsequent test scores. We evaluate the effects of a single, large, anonymous virtual charter school on student achievement using a hybrid of exact and nearest-neighbor propensity score matching. Relative to their matched peers, we estimate that virtual students produce marginally worse ELA scores and significantly worse math scores after one year. When controlling for student mobility during the outcome year, estimates of virtual schooling are slightly less negative. These findings may be more reliable indicators of the independent effect of virtual schooling if matching on mobility proxies for otherwise unobservable negative selection factors.

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Michael T. Hartney, Leslie K. Finger.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to examine how local governments respond to a public health crisis amid high levels of partisan polarization and an increasing tendency for local issues to become nationalized. As an arena that has, in recent years, been relatively separate from national partisan divides, public schools provide a useful window into these dynamics. Leveraging the fact that all of the nation’s school districts had to adopt a reopening plan for the fall, we test what factors best predict whether a district chose to return students to the classroom or educate them remotely. Contrary to the conventional understanding of school districts as localized and non-partisan actors, we find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making. Mass partisanship and teacher union strength best explain how school boards approached reopening. Additionally, we find evidence that districts are sensitive to the threat of private school exit. Districts located in counties with a larger number of Catholic schools were less likely to shut down and more likely to return to in-person learning. These findings have important implications for our understanding of education policy and the functioning of American local governments.

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Jessica Goldstein, Josh B. McGee.

Jackson, Wigger, and Xiong (2020a, JWX) provide evidence that education spending reductions following the Great Recession had widespread negative impacts on student achievement and attainment. This paper describes our process of duplicating JWX and highlights a variety of tests we employ to investigate the nature and robustness of the relationship between school spending reductions and student outcomes. Though per-pupil expenditures undoubtedly shifted downward due to the Great Recession, contrary to JWX, our findings indicate there is not a clear and compelling story about the impact of those reductions on student achievement. Moreover, we find that the relationship between K-12 spending and college-going rates is likely confounded with contemporaneous higher education funding trends. While we believe that K-12 spending reductions may have negative impacts on student outcomes, our results suggest that estimating generalizable causal effects remains a significant challenge.

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Lucrecia Santibanez, Cassandra Guarino.

In March 2020, most schools in the United States closed their doors and transitioned to distance learning in an effort to contain COVID-19. During the transition a significant number of students did not fully engage in these learning opportunities due to resource or other constraints. An urgent question for schools around the nation is how much did the pandemic impact student academic and social-emotional development. This paper uses administrative panel data from California to approximate the impact of the pandemic by analyzing how absenteeism affects student outcomes. We show wide variation in absenteeism impacts on academic and social-emotional outcomes by grade and subgroup, as well as the cumulative effect of different degrees of absence. Student outcomes generally suffer more from absenteeism in mathematics than in ELA. Negative effects are larger in middle school. Absences negatively affect social-emotional development, particularly in middle school, with slight differences across constructs. Our results add to the emerging literature on the impact of COVID-19 and highlight the need for student academic and social-emotional support to make up for lost time.

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Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman, Gabrielle Lohner.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to an abrupt shift from in-person to virtual instruction in Spring 2020. Using a difference-in-differences framework that leverages within-course variation on whether students started their Spring 2020 courses in person or online, we estimate the impact of this shift on the academic performance of Virginia’s community college students. We find that the shift to virtual instruction resulted in a 6.7 percentage point decrease in course completion, driven by increases in both course withdrawal and failure. Faculty experience teaching a course online did not mitigate the negative effects of moving to virtual instruction.

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Emma M. Klugman, Andrew D. Ho.

State testing programs regularly release previously administered test items to the public. We provide an open-source recipe for state, district, and school assessment coordinators to combine these items flexibly to produce scores linked to established state score scales. These would enable estimation of student score distributions and achievement levels. We discuss how educators can use resulting scores to estimate achievement distributions at the classroom and school level. We emphasize that any use of such tests should be tertiary, with no stakes for students, educators, and schools, particularly in the context of a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. These tests and their results should also be lower in priority than assessments of physical, mental, and social–emotional health, and lower in priority than classroom and district assessments that may already be in place. We encourage state testing programs to release all the ingredients for this recipe to support low-stakes, aggregate-level assessments. This is particularly urgent during a crisis where scores may be declining and gaps increasing at unknown rates.

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Eric A. Hanushek, Ludger Woessmann.

The worldwide school closures in early 2020 led to losses in learning that will not easily be made up for even if schools quickly return to their prior performance levels. These losses will have lasting economic impacts both on the affected students and on each nation unless they are effectively remediated.

While the precise learning losses are not yet known, existing research suggests that the students in grades 1-12 affected by the closures might expect some 3 percent lower income over their entire lifetimes. For nations, the lower long-term growth related to such losses might yield an average of 1.5 percent lower annual GDP for the remainder of the century. These economic losses would grow if schools are unable to re-start quickly.

The economic losses will be more deeply felt by disadvantaged students. All indications are that students whose families are less able to support out-of-school learning will face larger learning losses than their more advantaged peers, which in turn will translate into deeper losses of lifetime earnings.

The present value of the economic losses to nations reach huge proportions. Just returning schools to where they were in 2019 will not avoid such losses. Only making them better can. While a variety of approaches might be attempted, existing research indicates that close attention to the modified re-opening of schools offers strategies that could ameliorate the losses. Specifically, with the expected increase in video-based instruction, matching the skills of the teaching force to the new range of tasks and activities could quickly move schools to heightened performance. Additionally, because the prior disruptions are likely to increase the variations in learning levels within individual classrooms, pivoting to more individualised instruction could leave all students better off as schools resume.

As schools move to re-establish their programmes even as the pandemic continues, it is natural to focus considerable attention on the mechanics and logistics of safe re-opening. But the long-term economic impacts also require serious attention, because the losses already suffered demand more than the best of currently considered re-opening approaches.

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