When schools were forced to go remote during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it shone a spotlight on inequities that had long plagued education.
For example, teachers serving schools with high levels of student poverty were far more likely to report that their students lacked appropriate remote-learning workspaces free of distractions during the pandemic, according to research from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Also during that period, teachers with a high share of students classified as English learners were more likely to report that their students regularly struggled to understand lessons, complete assignments and get help from an adult.
Those disparities are carrying over into the learning recovery process, according to the results of the School Pulse Panel. The federal data comes from a national survey of principals, which makes it unique, according to Allison Socol, vice president of P-12 policy, research and practice at the Education Trust. The nonprofit aims to promote equity in education.
“I think it’s really powerful to see what principals are telling us,” she says. “We’re seeing a very similar pattern [to other data sets], which is that the pandemic had a big impact on students, and that it shed a light on and exacerbated racial inequities that have existed for a long time.”
The results aren’t all that surprising: Schools serving more students experiencing poverty and more students who are racial minorities report that they already had more students behind grade level before COVID-19 struck. They also report that those numbers ballooned during the years following the initial pandemic-related lockdown.
There are a lot of reasons for that, Socol says, and they started before the health crisis, including “long-standing funding inequities and resource inequities in those schools, and the fact that the pandemic had a disproportionate health impact, financial impact, educational impact on long under-resourced communities.”
What Does the Data Say?
Nationwide, 36 percent of students were behind their grade level before the pandemic. That shot up to 50 percent at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, when many districts were still giving remote instruction. That fell by one point to 49 percent at the start of the 2022-23 school year, when nearly all schools brought students back on campus.
When broken down by student ethnicity, schools with the lowest proportion of minority students — 25 percent or less of the student population — started off with fewer students behind grade level and had a relatively smaller increase in lagging students by fall 2021.
On the other end of the spectrum, schools with the highest proportion of minority students — more than 75 percent of their enrollment — started off with half of their students behind grade level before the pandemic. That surged to a whopping 64 percent at the start of the 2021-22 school year, though it fell to 61 percent in fall 2022.
How Poverty Comes Into Play
The picture was similar when schools were categorized based on poverty rates in their surrounding neighborhoods. Schools were designated “high-poverty” or “low-poverty” depending on the household income of their surrounding neighborhood. Areas where the household income was higher than roughly $55,500 — more than double the federal poverty line — were considered by researchers to be “low-poverty.” Those with household incomes below that threshold were categorized as “high-poverty.”
Schools serving low-poverty neighborhoods had fewer students who were behind grade level both before and after the pandemic. At schools in high-poverty neighborhoods, nearly half of students were behind grade level before the pandemic. That rate rose to 63 percent at the start of the 2021-22 school year but improved by two percentage points in fall 2022.
Lack of Progress
What that data doesn’t show is much success getting students, at the very least, back to pre-pandemic rates of grade-appropriate academic achievement. The data showed no improvement in the rate of students behind grade level from fall 2021 to fall 2022.
But returning to pre-pandemic rates of student struggles should not be the goal, Socol says.
“There were far too many students who were not getting what they needed to achieve dreams that they have,” Socol says. “We’re not going to see progress overnight, and we need not to just get back to normal but to do better than before.”
To that end, the survey did reveal that schools with higher rates of students who are racial minorities and students experiencing poverty were more likely to employ tailored accelerated instruction, family outreach and professional development in attempts to help with learning recovery. And research from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that, for example, teachers found some success mitigating learning declines among English language learners using one-on-one check-ins with students and assigning small-group work in person.
But Socol says more detailed information about these kinds of efforts is needed. The data from this particular survey is just what the name says it is, she reasons: a “pulse” check of how principals feel their schools are doing.
“There are some interesting trends to pay attention to, but we’re going to rely more on granular data to make decisions,” Socol says. ”For that, we need much more transparency, both about how students are doing in every school but also about where [federal relief] dollars are going, what kind of interventions are being put in place, and the positive impact that those interventions are having.”
The education field already has information about what it takes to help students improve, she says. That includes resources and strategies like a strong and diverse workforce, rigorous curriculum that prepares students for college and careers, and intensive tutoring tailored to the needs of each student.
“I think what this moment necessitates is for us to quickly pivot from asking ‘What do the data say?’ to ‘What do we do because of the data we see?’” Socol says.