The coronavirus double whammy: School closures, economic downturn could derail student learning, research shows
That’s a cocktail with the potential for harmful, long-lasting effects on students, research suggests.
Studies of student absences, summer learning loss, and lengthy school closures show that losing time in school sets students back academically. Research on the last recession found the resulting drastic cuts in school spending lowered students’ test scores and college attendance rates. And other research has shown that families’ financial stress affects how well students do in school.
Together, these findings paint a grim picture of what the latest crisis could mean for students — and indicates that many will not be able to easily shake off its effects. But it also hints at opportunities for policymakers to cushion the blow.
“This is going to exacerbate pre-existing inequalities,” said Josh Goodman, an education economist at Brandeis University. “It’s going to be a massive shock directly to students because their own lives are going to be disrupted. And it will also be a massive fiscal shock to state and school funding streams.”
?Lengthy school closures will likely hurt students, and perhaps follow them into adulthood.
What will missing weeks or even months of school mean for students? The coronavirus crisis is unprecedented in recent history, so it’s impossible to say for sure. But research offers some clues.
For one, a number of studies have linked students’ individual absences to worse academic results. Missing 10 days of math class in middle or high school led to lower test scores and grades, one recent paper found, while reducing high school graduation by 6 percentage points and college enrollment by 5 points.
Mass school closings are different than individual absences, but the evidence is concerning here, too.
A 2019 study took advantage of the fact that teachers’ strikes were common in Argentina in the 1980s and 1990s — so common that the average student missed nearly 90 school days in the early and middle grades.
That time without school lowered students’ chances of earning a high school diploma or a college degree, compared to students in parts of the country less affected by strikes.
As adults, those students were more likely to be unemployed, and earned between 2 and 3% less. There was even evidence that the children of those who missed more school did worse in school themselves, many years later.
In other words, Argentina’s experience suggests that lengthy, unexpected school closures can do long-lasting harm.
One other way to look at this question is to consider what happens when schools are regularly closed: summer. Researchers have long worried about “summer slide,” or low-income students losing ground academically when they’re not in school. There is actually significant debate about whether this phenomenon is real. But there is clear evidence that most students learn less during the summer, even if test-score gaps don’t necessarily widen much.
All in all, the weight of the research is consistent with common sense: missed school is going to mean missed learning.
“The learning loss is going to be large, and almost certainly going to be worse for low-income kids,” predicted Goodman.
?Online instruction might help, but don’t count on it to replace regular school.
It’s important to remember that while virtually all school buildings are closed, school is not necessarily out of session. Many districts have begun offering instruction from afar, often using computers.
That’s why David Jaume, who conducted the study on Argentina, is somewhat optimistic. “The situation today is much different. You have online learning,” he said. “I would think that would at least mute part of the negative results.”
Some instruction is likely better than none. But there’s also reason to be skeptical that the transition to move to remote instruction will replace what’s being lost.
Studies on fully virtual charter schools, for instance, have shown that their students score far worse on end-of-year tests than those who attend traditional schools. And these fully virtual schools are designed to operate this way.
School districts, on the other hand, are transitioning out of necessity and with little preparation.
Some are struggling to get computers or internet access to all students and to deliver services to students with disabilities. In Illinois, nearly two-thirds of surveyed educators said their schools are not prepared for online learning. In places that have set up remote learning, it’s far from clear that all or most students will remain engaged.
“Even the best and most well-intentioned efforts will mean that students suffer — especially low-income students,” wrote Doug Harris, a Tulane University researcher, of the current crisis.
To make up for this, Harris has proposed federal funding for summer school. “Students who struggled to learn during the coronavirus school closure period could attend in the summer to catch back up,” he wrote.
With American society at a standstill, businesses have closed and many workers have already been laid off. Many economists are predicting the coronavirus will have a devastating impact on the economy, with a recession likely.
In the last recession, unemployment spiked, household income declined, and school funding cratered. The federal stimulus at the time likely prevented an even worse downturn and also provided extra money for schools. But the damage was still significant, both economically and educationally.
One study found that the recession led to lower test scores particularly among low-income students and students of color.
A separate paper homed in on the consequences of deep spending cuts. It found that states that made bigger cutbacks had worse test scores and college enrollment rates as a result. A cut of $1,000 in per-student spending translated into a nearly 3 percentage point average decline in college attendance.
“Growing up during a recession can lead to long lasting ill-effects,” conclude researchers Kirabo Jackson, Cora Wigger, and Heyu Xiong of Northwestern University.
Economic troubles faced by individual families are also likely to affect children’s performance in school.
Research has directly linked parents’ job losses to lower student test scores, worse in-school behavior, and higher odds of being held back a grade. Another recent study found that children born during healthier economic times did better in school. Dozens of papers have found that low-income children do perform better academically when their families have access to additional resources, including through anti-poverty programs like food stamps, subsidized health insurance, unemployment insurance, and housing vouchers.
These findings suggest that students would benefit from efforts to cushion the economic blow to both schools and families. Congress is currently working out the details of a stimulus bill that reportedly would provide additional funding for schools, one-time cash payments to families, and expanded unemployment benefits.
“The biggest bang for our buck and time is not going to come from schools,” said Goodman. “It’s going to come from getting the world back on track through public health systems and fiscal stimulus.”
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