The coronavirus will explode achievement gaps in education

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The COVID-19 pandemic will take existing academic achievement differences between middle-class and low-income students and explode them.

The academic achievement gap has bedeviled educators for years. In math and reading, children of college-educated parents score on average at about the 60th percentile, while children whose parents have only a high school diploma score, on average, at the 35th percentile.* The academic advantages of children whose parents have master’s degrees and beyond are even greater.

To a significant extent, this is a neighborhood issue—schools are more segregated today than at any time in the last 50 years, mostly because the neighborhoods in which they are located are so segregated. Schools with concentrated populations of children affected by serious socioeconomic problems are able to devote less time and attention to academic instruction.

In 2001 we adopted the “No Child Left Behind Act,” assuming that these disparities mostly stemmed from schools’ failure to take seriously a responsibility to educate African American, Hispanic, and lower-income students. Supporters claimed that holding educators accountable for test results would soon eliminate the achievement gap. Promoted by liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, the theory was ludicrous, and the law failed to fulfill its promise. The achievement gap mostly results from social-class based advantages that some children bring to school and that others lack, as well as disadvantages stemming from racial discrimination that only some children have to face.

The coronavirus, unfortunately, will only exacerbate the effects of these advantages.

With schools shut, white-collar professionals with college degrees operate home schools, sometimes with superior curricular enhancements. My own children, with postgraduate degrees, are introducing my young grandchildren to Shakespeare and algebra, topics they would ordinarily encounter only in later grades. A friend, a biologist in normal times, now staying home from work, is taking her preschool, kindergarten, and 2nd-grade children for walks in the woods where they learn the names of birds, why goldfinches get their bright yellow wings, about sexual selection in birds and their funny displays to attract a mate, and how moss reproduces with spores. They found some of that moss in the woods and saw that when you touch the red part, it lets out a puff of tiny spores; this was a huge hit with the children.

In neighborhoods that are socioeconomically segregated, friends and classmates of children like these have similar experiences. Parents with full-time professional jobs never before had the opportunity to be full-time instructors, and many make the most of it.

Meanwhile, many parents with less education have jobs that even during the coronavirus crisis cannot be performed at home—supermarket clerks, warehouse workers, delivery truck drivers. Even with distance learning being established by schools and teachers—many of whom are now busy with their own children at home—too many students in low-income and rural communities don’t have internet access: 35% of low-income households with school-aged children don’t have high-speed internet; for moderate-income families it is 17%, and only 6% for middle-class and affluent families. When measured by race and ethnicity, the gap is greater for African American and Hispanic families.

In New York City, 300,000 students live in homes with no computer. The Philadelphia school system, a majority of whose students are from low-income families, initially chose not to conduct online classes during the coronavirus shutdown because it would be so inequitable: “If that’s not available to all children, we cannot make it available to some,” the schools superintendent announced. He has since relented and announced that the district would purchase Chromebooks and lend them to students without computers. This did not, however, solve the problem for students who have no high-speed internet service at home, something the district is trying to address, but only with great difficulty and not in time to bridge the current digital divide.

For students in some states, the shutdown could last for almost half the school year. The achievement gap between low-income and other children is already equivalent to at least two years of schooling. Might the coronavirus shutdown expand that by another half year?

We have evidence that tells us what to expect. Increased reliance on homework, for example, widens achievement gaps. Children whose parents can more effectively help with homework gain more than children whose parents can do so less well.

We also know that the educational gap is wider when children return after summer vacation than it was in the spring, because middle-class children frequently have summer enrichment that reinforces knowledge and experience. The larger gap shows up in test scores, but also in less easily quantifiable areas that are particularly valued in higher education, professional workplaces, and civic life, such as cooperative skills in group activities, possibly due to enrichment from things like summer camp and family travel.

Children living in low-income, disinvested, overcrowded, or less-safe neighborhoods are more likely to experience toxic stress from exposure to violence, homelessness, and economic insecurity that interfere with emotional health and learning, as well as leading to behavior challenges that affect the classroom environment for others.

For some, school is the safest place. Teachers report that when children in low-income neighborhoods who are living in overcrowded and highly stressed homes return to school after breaks, evidence of physical abuse is more noticeable. (Two examples of research on this can be found here and here.) It is frightening to consider the consequences of a three- or four-month break when some children and parents will be isolated and frustrated in overcrowded conditions.

Congressional consideration of a massive economic program to minimize a virus-induced depression has properly focused on immediate needs to save small businesses, enhance and extend unemployment insurance, and guarantee sick leave. But when schools reopen, the expanded achievement gap will be in urgent need of intervention.

We can’t (and in a free society, probably shouldn’t) try to reduce the resources that advantaged parents can give children (although Philadelphia’s attempt to forego online instruction on equity grounds offers a contrary ideal). But we can increase resources for other children to provide more equity. Federal law now provides added support for schools serving low-income children. It enables, for example, the hire of additional teacher aides or reading specialists, the purchase of some additional curriculum materials, reduced class sizes in schools serving concentrations of low-income students, or a truncated summer school program focused on basic skills. The stubborn persistence of the achievement gap shows it is not nearly enough.

We should do much more. Not only should we substantially increase teacher pay, but also finance nurses, social workers, art and music teachers, instructional librarians, and after-school and summer programs that not only provide homework help but clubs that develop collaborative skills, organized athletics, and citizenship preparation—like the expansive education that middle-class children typically receive at parents’ expense.

Most important, all children should have publicly funded, high-quality early childhood education, including preschool for three- and four-year-olds with evidence-based programs. If a research consensus exists on anything in education, it is that the socioeconomic gap in cognitive performance is well established by age three.

The continued segregation of children by income and race, however, will dilute the impact of even these reforms. In the long run, redressing this segregation has the potential for a much bigger impact. That redress should include both opening up middle-class and affluent neighborhoods to diverse residents, and improving the quality of existing disadvantaged neighborhoods, not only with better-resourced schools, but with mixed-income housing, transportation access to good jobs, markets that sell fresh food, and walkable options.

Americans have become dramatically more divided by income and wealth. Upward mobility has declined; inequality is increasingly transmitted intergenerationally. We can act to prevent the coronavirus from accelerating these trends.


*The estimates of achievement differences by parental educational attainment, and of how achievement gap can be expressed in “years of schooling” are based on an average of fourth- and eighth-grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The estimates were developed for this article by economists at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), using the online NAEP Data Tool. Martin Carnoy is a professor of education at Stanford University and an EPI research associate, and Emma Garcia is an EPI staff economist. I am grateful to them for their assistance.