Remote Learning (What Is It good For?)

New research suggests: absolutely nothing.

Last year I had the privilege to sit in on some high school classes in Fairfax County, Virginia, as part of a mid-career community college program I was in. In normal times, this process would’ve taken place in an actual classroom. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this instead took the form of sitting in on a “remote learning” session.

This learning lasted for approximately a day, before the entire system went down and students didn’t have another class for weeks. Mind you, this was in one of the richest counties in the United States.

If that’s what the situation was like in such a prosperous place, just imagine what remote learning was like in poorer districts, with more students who lack access to good Internet services or computers, who may be sitting at home in a chaotic environment.

It’s not hard to imagine that students in those sorts of circumstances aren’t getting a quality education at all. But we don’t have to just imagine what happened in this scenario because large portions of the world have been living it.

A team of researchers recently looked at the impact of school closures in the Netherlands, a relatively equitable place with a a brief lockdown and widespread high-quality Internet access. By every measure, this should have been one of the least harmful examples of remote learning in the world.

Yet the researchers found that students didn’t fare very well:

In this study, we have addressed this question with uniquely rich data on primary school students in The Netherlands. There is clear evidence that students are learning less during lockdown than in a typical year. These losses are evident throughout the age range we study and across all of the three subject areas: math, spelling, and reading. The size of these effects is on the order of 3 percentile points or 0.08 SD, but students from disadvantaged homes are disproportionately affected. Among less-educated households, the size of the learning slide is up to 60% larger than in the general population. […] Using the larger benchmark, a treatment effect of 3.16 percentiles would translate into 3.16/0.40 = 7.9 wk of lost learning—nearly exactly the same period that schools in The Netherlands remained closed. Using the smaller benchmark, learning loss exceeds the period of school closures (3.16/0.30 = 10.5 wk), implying that students regressed during this time.

Basically, there was no real learning during the remote learning period. Students slid backwards, with students from disadvantaged homes faring the worst.

I reached out to one of the researchers, Per Engzell of Nuffield College at Oxford, to ask him how these results relate to the United States. Does this study have implications for what we did here in this country?

“There is no reason to think that the Netherlands were hit particularly hard in this respect and every reason to think that the impact of the pandemic on students' learning will be larger in the US context,” he told me.

Pointing to large inequalities across the United States, he noted that there will be a lot of variation in outcomes across our country, but that this would also mean that parts of our population probably had it much worse than the Netherlands. “So while there will be schools and students that coped excellently with remote learning in the US, the conditions are likely to be more unequal and the most disadvantaged populations will face losses many times larger than those we uncovered,” Engzell concluded.

With the rapid distribution of vaccinations, more and more schools are returning to in-person learning for students. Hopefully by the fall, we’ll see in-person learning from coast to coast (although that’s not yet a done deal).

In a country where virtually everything becomes a partisan issue eventually, the issue of school openings became bitterly partisan, with most districts in right-leaning states like Texas and Florida only briefly closing their schools, while most districts in large blue states like California shuttered their schools for a prolonged period of time.

If you trust the research, the districts that kept students at home are likely to see more “learning loss,” where students fell behind their normal trajectories of learning. Because the issue of school openings became so polarized, with Democrats (and many teachers unions) on one side and Republicans and conservative activists on the others, it naturally follows that learning loss, too has been politicized.

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, a left-wing education writer, is boosting advocates who argue “there is no such thing as learning loss.” A New York Times ran a reported piece with the following headline: “Does It Hurt Children to Measure Pandemic Learning Loss?” In that piece, we get this bit of conspiratorial ideation:

Jesse Hagopian, a Seattle high school teacher and writer, said testing to measure the impact of the pandemic misses what students have learned outside of physical classrooms during a year of overlapping crises in health, politics and police violence.

“They are learning about how our society works, how racism is used to divide,” he said. “They are learning about the failure of government to respond to the pandemic.”

Mr. Hagopian said he believed that “learning loss” research was being used to “prop up the multi-billion-dollar industry of standardized testing” and “rush educators back into classrooms before it’s safe to do so.”

Oh, so the problem isn’t so much that the best tools we have show that students simply weren’t learning very well over the past year, but the problem is that we found this out — something that only serves the Big Test kingpins.

Look, there are no easy answers when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the best research we have shows that schools haven’t been a big source of spread, it’s also true that keeping schools closed does reduce the risk of teachers falling ill to this virus. The question is: are those risks big enough to keep schools closed? By attacking the science of measuring learning loss and denying the science that shows very little spread in schools, we are hobbling our ability to measure policy tradeoffs.

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