Investor Alert

May 16, 2022, 7:29 p.m. EDT

Economists conclude remote learning could hurt children’s future earnings and economic mobility, after crunching data from 2.1 million students in 10,000 schools

By Quentin Fottrell

How has remote learning impacted children’s academic achievement?

More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the experiment of remote learning has not yielded results that would enable parents or teachers to view it as a viable alternative for children. Indeed, social scientists say it’s had an adverse impact on students’ academic ability and mental health, which may have repercussions for years to come.

Using testing data from 2.1 million students in 10,000 schools in 49 states and Washington, D.C, researchers examined the role of remote and hybrid instruction in widening gaps in achievement — and crunched the results by race and school poverty. “We find that remote instruction was a primary driver of widening achievement gaps,” they said .

“The striking and important finding was that remote instruction had much more negative impacts in high-poverty schools,” Thomas Kane, Walter H. Gale Professor of Education and Economics at Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-author of the study, told the Harvard Gazette .

Speaking about the findings, he added, “High-poverty schools were more likely to go remote and their students lost more when they did so. Both mattered, but the latter effect mattered more. To give you a sense of the magnitude: In high-poverty schools that were remote for more than half of 2021, the loss was about half of a school year’s worth of typical achievement growth.”

Gaps in math achievement did not widen in areas with in-person classes, though there was some fall off in reading. “We estimate that high-poverty districts that went remote in 2020-21 will need to spend nearly all of their federal aid on academic recovery to help students recover from pandemic-related achievement losses,” the paper added.

The report, which compared academic data from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020 with that from Fall 2017 to Fall 2019, also issued a stark warning against remote learning for children: “If allowed to become permanent, such losses will have major impacts on future earnings and intergenerational mobility,” the researchers concluded. (Intergenerational mobility refers to a generation’s ability to attain better socioeconomic outcomes than previous ones.)

The report was a collaboration between the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, NWEA, a nonprofit that creates academic assessments for pre-K-12 students, and the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) at the American Institutes for Research.

Public-health and education workers have long been concerned about the effects of school closures on children’s learning wellbeing, with education advocates asking early in the pandemic how children in poorer families could learn remotely when they don’t have computers , as some states rushed to increase supply.

In the first year of the pandemic, 59% of U.S. parents with lower incomes reported that their child could face digital obstacles in schoolwork, the Pew Research Center, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. reported. The latest study may make sobering reading for parents as COVID-19 cases once again rise in the U.S.

Another factor not unrelated to academic performance: COVID-19 school closures took a toll on children’s mental health and also put pressure on their parents who were more likely to lose their tempers, a  paper  published earlier this year by researchers at Duke University and Columbia University found.

A school or care disruption increased the share of parents saying their children were being uncooperative “some or a lot today” by 9.1 percentage points, “a striking increase” from a base rate of 14.1%, it said. The effect was larger for non-Hispanic white children (11.9 percentage points) than for non-Hispanic Black children (6.8 percentage points).

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