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Covid-19 Education Research for Recovery

Megan Kuhfeld, James Soland, Karyn Lewis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a seismic and on-going disruption to K-12 schooling. Using test scores from 5.4 million U.S. students in grades 3-8, we tracked changes in math and reading achievement across the first two years of the pandemic. Average fall 2021 math test scores in grades 3-8 were .20-27 standard deviations (SDs) lower relative to same-grade peers in fall 2019, while reading test scores decreased by .09-.18 SDs. Achievement gaps between students in low-poverty and high-poverty elementary schools grew by .10-.20 SDs, primarily during the 2020-21 school year. Observed declines are more substantial than during other recent school disruptions, such as those due to natural disasters.

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Katharina Werner, Ludger Woessmann.

If school closures and social-distancing experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic impeded children’s skill development, they may leave a lasting legacy in human capital. To understand the pandemic’s effects on school children, this paper combines a review of the emerging international literature with new evidence from German longitudinal time-use surveys. Based on the conceptual framework of an education production function, we cover evidence on child, parent, and school inputs and students’ cognitive and socio-emotional development. The German panel evidence shows that children’s learning time decreased severely during the first school closures, particularly for low-achieving students, and increased only slightly one year later. In a value-added model, learning time increases with daily online class instruction, but not with other school activities. The review shows substantial losses in cognitive skills on achievement tests, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Socio-emotional wellbeing also declined in the short run. Structural models and reduced-form projections suggest that unless remediated, the school closures will persistently reduce skill development, lifetime income, and economic growth and increase inequality.

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Stacey L. Brockman.

This paper presents results from a randomized trial of a nudge intervention designed to encourage and enhance virtual student support. During the 2019-20 school year, randomly selected mentors in a school-based mentoring program received monthly reminders with tips for communicating with youth via text, email, and phone. Unexpectedly, the results showed that although the informational reminders did not impact the frequency of mentors’ outreach, they reduced the rate at which students reached out and responded to their mentors. Moreover, and possibly as a consequence, mentors who received the intervention felt less connected to students and less satisfied with their mentoring relationships, and treated students gained less from the mentoring program as a whole in terms of their personal and attitudinal growth. This study’s findings add an important nuance to the evidence on how behavioral interventions in educational contexts operate. Although past studies find that reminder nudges can support individuals’ engagement in discrete tasks, this evidence suggests that prescribing relational practices may be less effective. Thus, mentor supports must be carefully designed in order to yield the intended benefits for students.

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Tareena Musaddiq, Kevin Stange, Andrew Bacher-Hicks, Joshua Goodman.

The Covid-19 pandemic drastically disrupted the functioning of U.S. public schools, potentially changing the relative appeal of alternatives such as homeschooling and private schools. Using longitudinal student-level administrative data from Michigan and nationally representative data from the Census Household Pulse Survey, we show how the pandemic affected families’ choices of school sector. We document four central facts. First, public school enrollment declined noticeably in fall 2020, with about 3 percent of Michigan students and 10 percent of kindergartners using other options. Second, most of this was driven by homeschooling rates jumping substantially, driven largely by families with children in elementary school. Third, homeschooling increased more where schools provided in-person instruction while private schooling increased more where instruction was remote, suggesting heterogeneity in parental concerns about children’s physical health and instructional quality. Fourth, kindergarten declines were highest among low income and Black families while declines in other grades were highest among higher income and White families, highlighting important heterogeneity by students’ existing attachment to public schools. Our results shed light on how families make schooling decisions and imply potential longer-run disruptions to public schools in the form of decreased enrollment and funding, changed composition of the student body, and increased size of the next kindergarten cohort.

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Morgan S. Polikoff, Daniel Silver, Marshall Garland, Anna R. Saavedra, Amie Rapaport, Michael Fienberg.

During the 2020-21 school year, families' access to--and desire to participate in--in-person schooling was highly stratified along racial and income lines. Research to date suggests that "school hesitancy" was driven by concerns about "fit" and safety, as well as simple access to in-person opportunities. In the context of a nationally-representative survey study, we tested the impact of targeted messaging on parents' reported willingness to send their children back for in-person learning in the 2021-22 school year. Our results suggest that specific messages focused on either fit or safety issues outperform generic messages--they substantially increase the reported likelihood for previously-unsure parents to send their children back for in-person learning (while having no effect on parents who already reported they would or would not send their children back). The results have direct implications for education agencies seeking to address school hesitancy as the pandemic continues.

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Jonathan E. Collins.

Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the decision to reopen schools for in-person instruction has become a highly salient policy issue. This study examines what overall factors drive public support for schools re-opening in person, and whether members of the public are any more or less willing to comply with school re-opening decisions based on their own preferences and the level of government from which the order comes. Through two rounds of national surveys with an embedded experiment, I find consistent evidence that 1) trust in information from elites - not contact with COVID - best explain preferences for reopening, 2) political ideology and racial and class identification help explain preferences as well, and 3) the President of the United States is best positioned to generate compliance with a school reopening mandate. However, low public trust in the president makes the public significantly less likely to comply. This study suggests that politics - not public health - drives public support for schools reopening and compliance with government orders to reopen. 

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Thomas S. Dee, Elizabeth Huffaker, Cheryl Philips, Eric Sagara.

Before the 2020-21 school year, educators, policymakers, and parents confronted the stark and uncertain trade-offs implied by the health, educational, and economic consequences of offering instruction remotely, in person, or through a hybrid of the two. Most public schools in the U.S. chose remote-only instruction and enrollment fell dramatically (i.e., a loss of roughly 1.1 million K-12 students). We examine the impact of these choices on public-school enrollment using unique panel data that combine district-level enrollment trajectories with information on their instructional modes. We find offering remote-only instead of in-person instruction reduced enrollment by 1.1 percentage points (i.e., a 42 percent increase in disenrollment from -2.6 to -3.7 percent). The disenrollment effects of remote instruction are concentrated in kindergarten and, to a lesser extent, elementary schools. We do not find consistent evidence that remote instruction influenced middle or high-school enrollment or that hybrid instruction had an impact.

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Andrew Bacher-Hicks, Joshua Goodman, Jennifer Greif Green, Melissa K. Holt.

School bullying is widespread and has substantial social costs. One in five U.S. high school students report being bullied each school year and these students face greater risks of serious mental health challenges that extend into adulthood. As the COVID-19 pandemic forced most students into online education, many have worried that cyberbullying prevalence would grow dramatically. We use data from Google internet searches to examine changing bullying patterns as COVID-19 disrupted in-person schooling. Pre-pandemic historical patterns show that internet searches provide useful information about actual bullying behavior. Real-time data then shows that searches for school bullying and cyberbullying both dropped about 30-40 percent as schools shifted to remote learning in spring 2020. This drop is sustained through the fall and winter of the 2020-21 school year, though the gradual return to in-person instruction partially returns bullying searches to pre-pandemic levels. These results highlight how in-person interaction is an important mechanism underlying not only in-person school bullying, but also cyberbullying. We discuss how this otherwise damaging shock to students and schools provides insight into the mixed impact of the pandemic on student well-being.

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Beth E. Schueler, Daniel Rodriguez-Segura.

Covid-19-induced school closures generated great interest in tutoring as a strategy to make up for lost learning time. Tutoring is backed by a rigorous body of research, but it is unclear whether it can be delivered effectively remotely. We study the effect of teacher-student phone call interventions in Kenya when schools were closed. Schools (n=105) were randomly assigned for their 3rd, 5th and 6th graders (n=8,319) to receive one of two versions of a 7-week weekly math-focused intervention—5-minute accountability checks or 15-minute mini-tutoring sessions—or to the control group. Although calls increased student perceptions that teachers cared, accountability checks had no effect on math performance up to four months after the intervention and tutoring decreased math achievement among students who returned to their schools after reopening. This was, in part, because the relatively low-achieving students most likely to benefit from calls were least likely to return and take in-person assessments. Tutoring substituted away from more productive uses of time, at least among returning students. Neither intervention affected enrollment. Tutoring remains a valuable tool but to avoid unintended consequences, careful attention should be paid to aligning tutoring interventions with best practices and targeting interventions to those who will benefit most.

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Paul von Hippel.

In an effort to reduce viral transmission, many schools are planning to reduce class size if they have not reduced it already. Yet the effect of class size on transmission is unknown. To determine whether smaller classes reduce school absence, especially when community disease prevalence is high, we merge data from the Project STAR randomized class size trial with influenza and pneumonia data from the 122 Cities Mortality Reporting System on deaths from pneumonia and influenza.

Project STAR was a block-randomized trial that followed 10,816 Tennessee schoolchildren from kindergarten in 1985-86 through third grade in 1988-89. Children were assigned at random to small classes (13 to 17 students), regular-sized classes (22 to 26 students), and regular-sized class with a teacher’s aide.

Mixed effects regression showed that small classes reduced absence, but not necessarily by reducing infection. In particular, small classes reduced absence by 0.43 days/year (95% CI -0.06 to -0.80, p<0.05), but had no significant interaction with pneumonia and influenza mortality (95% CI -0.27 to +0.30, p>0.90). Small classes, by themselves, may not suffice to reduce the spread of viruses.

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