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U.S. Educational Inequality with Remote Learning Could Result in a Lost Year for the Poor

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Mom and child at home remote learning: Educational InequalityAddressing educational inequality for all socioeconomic groups has been a central principle of the Public School system since Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). The ESEA provides additional grants and funding to districts serving low-income students in schools with high-poverty rates. Notably the No Child Left Behind Act during the George W. Bush years and the Every Student Succeeds Act during President Barack Obama’s time, has reauthorized the ESEA every five years.

In practice, the dream of giving everyone the same access to education has yet to be realized. Unequal funding distributions creates one form of educational inequality. The United States spent an average of $12,600 per student in public schools during the 2018 fiscal year, but spending on schools varies greatly from district to district. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, school districts that have the highest poverty get on average $1200 less per pupil than districts with the lowest poverty. 

Unfortunately, poverty is also a race issue: 32% of Blacks, 31% of Native Americans, and 25% of Hispanics are living in poverty while only 10% of Whites are. High-poverty school districts tend to have larger minority populations. Thus, addressing educational inequalities is at the same time also addressing racial inequalities. 

One reason for this disparity in funding is that affluent districts are more resilient to state budget shortfalls since they are able to compensate for budget losses with revenue from property taxes while high-poverty districts end up cutting school budgets. 

Before the pandemic, our school districts were still recovering from the loss of state funding following the 2008 Financial Crisis. Funds to high-poverty districts at that time were cut disproportionately. Now with the Covid-19 crisis, states are once again facing huge budget shortfalls, and because of state balanced-budget provisions, more cuts will have to be made. High-poverty school districts expect to disproportionately feel the pain.

Educational inequality and remote learning

With the dangers of reopening schools too soon and issues like poor ventilation causing super-spreader events, many schools are planning for online classes, remote learning, or hybrid schedules. However, in order to attend online classes, students need internet access and a device, which will be a challenge. Ten percent of Americans still don’t use the internet, and the average price of a smartphone is $460, which could be too high for poorer families, particularly for families with more than one school-aged child.

Empty school hallway: Educational InequalityThis last March, many schools across the country closed down. The experience gave many teachers a taste of the obstacles facing students with remote learning. Alison Stackpole, a speech pathology therapist, works in a high-poverty North Carolina school district. She described her experience: “Some of the students—when I was able to have some type of online connection with them—they were using their mom’s phone, and that was really the only option. Maybe there was a tablet. A lot of them didn’t have a laptop. Some families don’t have access to the internet at all. So, [it was] limited. If you have a family where they have two or three kids and the only way to get online is one phone or one tablet, so one kid can do that at a time. So they are not able to participate in the full school day.”

Role of school budgets

With larger budgets at their disposal, many higher-income districts went to a one device per child system. Chris Sergeeff, a teacher at a magnet school for the arts in Colorado, described his experience teaching theater online: “I’m lucky our district has a little money. We live in an area where the district was able to give out a device to every single student. Even families who have multiple students who go to this school, they were able to get a device. A one-to-one school basically.”

Without digital access for all students, online teaching becomes infeasible. Stackpole, who works in a high-poverty district, would call, send paper packets, and try to contact them online. “My district made the decision to not continue with online learning but have optional learning. So that those families who could participate could participate. But nobody was going to be left behind if they didn’t participate. I did not have a lot of students who participated in the optional learning.”

Sergeefff, who works in a low-poverty district where every child has their own device, was more optimistic. Before his school closed, he had been rehearsing the play Newsies with his primary students. When he switched to online rehearsals, his students were able to pick them back up really quickly. The hardest part about teaching primary students online was the necessity of having parent support.

“I used to teach in high school. It is really easy to get a high school kid to sign on and check an assignment on Google Classroom, or Seesaw… It is really easy for a high school student to do that. When you have a first grader who is six years old, mom or dad, or somebody has to sign online for them…. But for the stuff that I put up, it was more in a college setting. I put it up and you take the whole week to develop and do it; then submit your scene to me. It worked. They definitely needed to have their parents help. I tell you I only had maybe 60% of the students do it.”

Parental involvement and educational inequality

Reliance on parental involvement creates more educational inequality. The amount of parental involvement in a child’s education has been shown to be significantly related to children’s perception of cognitive competence and subsequent academic achievement. The educational inequality comes because parental involvement is also positively correlated with the educational level of the parents and the income of the parents. In other words, poorer-income parents generally will be less involved in their children’s education; their children will feel less cognitively competent, which will lead to less academic achievement.

During this coming academic year, most likely schools will transition to a system that uses some remote learning, at least in part. Remote learning will certainly multiply the need for parental involvement. Thus worsening the already existing educational disparities.

Young child behind fence: Educational InequalityFor younger children in particular, remote learning requires a lot of guidance. Technology is new for them and it creates a lot of distractions. Stephanie Texler is a mother of a nine year old and a theater teacher in Michigan. She was glad that she was able to supervise her son’s learning. “At times he could be independent, but for the most part I had to be there. What people don’t understand is that teaching is 75% discipline and motivating students to do their work. That is a huge role. Teachers are sitting, making sure students do what they are supposed to do. As a parent I had to sit with him. I usually had to be there motivating him. In the beginning he was so excited; but as the weeks went on, it was harder to have that independent reading time.”

Ideally, schools should not expect parents in high-poverty areas to be able to sit with their children when learning remotely. Being able to work from home is a luxury. Parents who have low-wage jobs are less likely to have that luxury. Moreover, undereducated parents may also be less familiar with technology or the subject matter. Additionally, essential resources like dictionaries and district-required books might not be readily available at home.

Nevertheless, without parents actively being present with their children during the lessons, the effectiveness of the lessons will suffer. Some students may even stop doing the work altogether. Remote learning has the unfortunate risk of being equated with an extended summer holiday; if the pandemic is around for a year, the summer holiday may become a year long. Such a long break from learning would be detrimental to students’ future academic growth.

Impact of summer holiday

A long summer holiday will have repercussions far into the future. When compared to wealthier districts, high-poverty school districts get lower academic scores across all categories assessed. Using a longitudinal study of 17,000 students from 230 schools across the country, Ohio State University researchers determined that the students from these higher-poverty districts learned at the same rate as their peers from the wealthier districts during the school year.

The problem was that the students from these higher-poverty districts had more “summer loss” than their wealthier counterparts. Their academic progress essentially backtracked. Furthermore, their academic levels lowered from the beginning to the end of the summer. Thus, the Ohio State University study suggests tthe summer breaks increased the learning gaps between the different socioeconomic groups. A year of remote learning could cause disadvantaged students’ academic levels to move backwards rather than make any gains.

The United States is presently debating plans for the reopening of schools. Certainly, the safety of our children, teachers, and parents must be ensured. However, when school plans incorporate online learning or remote learning, governing bodies need to address the inevitable educational inequalities. Without proper safeguards in place, students with wealth will continue their academic progress while those without will be literally left behind. The effects of this educational inequality would carry far into the future.

Read more on how Covid-19 is impacting schools with poor ventilation potentially causing super-spreader events or the impact on the economy with how cutting taxes instead of pandemic relief is bad for the economy or how people are having to prioritize their car payments over health insurance.