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Covid-19 Education Research for Recovery

Alvin Christian, Brian Jacob, John D. Singleton.

The COVID-19 pandemic drew new attention to the role of school boards in the U.S. In this paper, we examine school districts' choices of learning modality -- whether and when to offer in-person, virtual, or hybrid instruction -- over the course of the 2020-21 pandemic school year. The analysis takes advantage of granular weekly data on learning mode and COVID-19 cases for Ohio school districts. We show that districts respond on the margin to health risks: all else equal, a marginal increase in new cases reduces the probability that a district offers in-person instruction the next week. Moreover, this negative response is magnified when the district was in-person the prior week and attenuates in magnitude over the school year. These findings are consistent with districts learning from experience about the effect of in-person learning on disease transmission in schools. We also find evidence that districts are influenced by the decisions of their peers.

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Sara White, Leiah Groom-Thomas, Susanna Loeb.

This study synthesizes existing research on the implementation of tutoring programs which we define as one-to-one or small-group instruction in which a human tutor supports students grades K-12 in an academic subject area. Tutoring has emerged as an especially promising strategy for supporting students’ academic success with strong causal evidence finding large, positive effects on students' math and reading test scores across grade levels. Prior studies have reviewed this causal evidence of effects, but none have summarized the evidence on implementation. We iteratively developed search and selection criteria to identify studies addressing key research questions and synthesized these 40 studies which employ a range of research methodologies to describe how tutoring is implemented and experienced. We find that existing research provides rich descriptions of tutoring implementation within specific programs of focus, with most studies describing after-school tutoring and small-scale programs run by university professors. While few elements of implementation are studied in depth across multiple studies, common patterns emerge. Tutoring program launch is often facilitated by strategic relationships between schools and external tutoring providers and strengthened by transparent assessments of program quality and effectiveness. Successful tutoring implementation often hinges on the support of key school leaders with the power to direct the use of school funding, space, and time. Tutoring setting and schedule, tutor recruitment and training, and curriculum identification influence whether students are able to access tutoring services and the quality of the instruction provided. Ultimately, the evidence points to strong tutoring being driven by positive student-tutor relationships through which tutors provide instruction strategically targeted for students’ strengths and needs driving towards a long-term academic goal.

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Matthew A. Kraft, Sarah Novicoff.

Policymakers have renewed calls for expanding instructional time in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We establish a set of empirical facts about time in school, synthesize the literature on the causal effects of instructional time, and conduct a case study of time use in an urban district. On average, instructional time in U.S. public schools is comparable to most high-income countries, with longer days but shorter years. However, instructional time varies widely across U.S. public schools with a 90th-10th percentile difference of 190 total hours. Empirical literature confirms that additional time can increase student achievement, but how this time is structured matters. Our case study suggests schools might also recover substantial lost learning time within the existing school day.

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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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