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Wonder Years

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Subtraction and Division
What has the coronavirus pandemic done to America’s young students? Morgan Polikoff on learning loss, widening inequality, and their consequences for democratic life.
Almost two years into the pandemic, Covid-19 is still causing massive disruptions to public education globally. While in-person learning has largely resumed after widespread school closures earlier in the crisis, around the world, the omicron variant is already complicating the resumption of classes in 2022. In the United States, thousands of schools stayed closed immediately after their winter breaks. Some larger U.S. districts are temporarily returning to remote learning. Schools across the country are meanwhile contending with staffing shortages, a lack of coronavirus tests, and anxiety about the safety of in-person instruction. And now, added to all the unusual challenges educators have been facing since 2020, they’re now figuring out how effectively to work with kids who’ve fallen behind academically. Where is this all going?
Morgan Polikoff is an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California and the author of Beyond Standards: The Fragmentation of Education Governance and the Promise of Curriculum Reform, who’s been looking at the impact of Covid-19 on American families. As Polikoff sees things, the pandemic has meant extremely negative educational consequences that will significantly affect certain students and the society around them for decades—especially among young people who already live with disadvantages that impair their education. Some interventions can help, Polikoff says. The U.S. government provided $122 billion last year to help reopen America’s schools, sustain their operations, and “address the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our nation’s students.” Still, a lot of that impact will be hard to undo—for many reasons, including that students most in need of remedial help often end up being the least likely to get it.
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Graham Vyse: What’s Covid meant for student learning in the U.S.?
Morgan Polikoff: We see a few different trends. In general, there have been declines in student achievement across the subjects that have been tested, though the declines are concentrated in different grades, depending on the subject. For instance, there seem to have been big setbacks in reading among students in kindergarten through third grade. And if you’re a kid who isn’t able to read by third grade, and you don’t catch up, it’s very difficult to engage with written content later on in your schooling.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected the education of students who were already disadvantaged. That would include those who were previously low-achieving; those from disadvantaged schools; and underrepresented minority groups, who’ve been disproportionately in remote learning throughout the pandemic.
Another implication of these trends is widening disparities within grades, which make teaching more difficult. Teachers say, There are kids in my classroom who are two, three, or four grades behind. How am I supposed to teach kids who came through the pandemic and are where they should be while, at the same time, teaching kids who can’t even comprehend words and phrases. It calls into question the idea that American public education can return to normal when the pandemic is done.
Vyse: Which of the pandemic’s effects on learning will be short-term—and possible to compensate for—and which are inevitably long-lasting?
Polikoff: First of all, the evidence is super-clear that the main driver of the pandemic’s effects on learning has been school closures. Kids got less instructional time, and that instructional time they did get was poorer in quality, because of Zoom. Young kids, especially, have a really hard time with remote learning.
Some of these problems are solved just by getting back to in-person learning. There’s preliminary evidence showing that a fraction of the negative learning consequences are addressed simply by getting kids back in classrooms with the same kind of quality instruction they had before. At the same time, what a lot of people are saying—and certainly what federal policy is implying with large amounts of money allocated for education—is that we need various interventions to try to address these widening disparities.
Now, we didn’t know how to get every kid to be able to read at grade level before the pandemic. There’s no reason to think we’ll be able to do it now. There’s evidence that various kinds of interventions can be effective. The one we have the most evidence for is high-quality tutoring. The truth is, we don’t really know how to solve this problem. We can throw lots of ideas at it, and those ideas will work to some extent, but the negative educational effects of the pandemic will be felt for a very long time.
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The evidence is super-clear that the main driver of the pandemic’s effects on learning has been school closures. Kids got less instructional time, and that instructional time they did get was poorer in quality, because of Zoom. Young kids, especially, have a really hard time with remote learning.”
If low-income kids fall behind in reading and are unable to catch up, and are less likely to attend and graduate from college, we could be seeing effects for these people for 20 years. Then there are societal implications: More educated societies do better in the long term. If we’re seeing negative educational effects piling up, that will depress future economic growth, democratic stability, and civic well-being—and it’s not like we have that in great supply right now.”
Figuring out how to provide schooling during the pandemic has been an unprecedented and massive challenge for local educational leaders in the U.S. We were asking them to make public-health decisions they weren’t well equipped to make. This is another example of how we heap more and more responsibility in America on educational systems to solve all our problems. Rather than having robust healthcare and mental-health systems, we say schools have to provide that support for kids. We have 13,000 school districts in this country, and the vast majority of the educational decisions—during and before the pandemic—are made at the local level. There are times when that can be a good thing, but in the time of a pandemic, it can mean disaster.”
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This Week
Why are voters across Latin America rejecting right-wing authoritarian populists? Amy Erica Smith on economic inequality, cultural backlash, and a shifting anger with elites.
Where are the real threats to voting rights and elections in the U.S.? Jessica Huseman on how Democratic legislative priorities are distracting from Republicans’ most consequential political initiatives.
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