Coronavirus and Inequality

Published — March 20, 2020

‘Yawning gaps’ in learning expected during pandemic

Sarah Marton, para-professional at Niles Township District for Special Education, left, talks with her son Cooper Marton, an 8th grader at Disney II Magnet School, while her son studies school work with his computer at his home during the coronavirus outbreak in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

MIT’s Justin Reich explains how children in low-income families with limited or no internet access may fall farther behind their peers


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As millions of students and their parents grapple with learning from home in the age of coronavirus, the Center for Public Integrity turned to Justin Reich to discuss technology and its limitations. 

Reich, an assistant professor of comparative media studies and director of the Teaching Systems Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out that internet access is a scarce commodity for many Americans. Just 56 percent of adults in households earning below $30,000 have broadband internet at home, and about 17 percent of adults access the internet at home through a smartphone only. 

Internet access, Public Integrity has reported, is “the civil rights issue of our time.”

You study the future of education and technology’s role in classrooms. As a parent, I’m wondering if COVID-19 forced school districts in the United States to jump-start their use of technology before they were really ready for it. What are your thoughts?

Schools use all kinds of technology to varying degrees, but the technologies to support in-class learning only partially overlap with the technologies needed to support distance learning. But certainly our schools, especially urban and rural schools, are dreadfully underfunded, and that insufficient investment will be increasingly revealed in the weeks ahead. Schools were not only unready in the sense of not having enough technology, but unready in the sense of having been woefully underfunded at least since the growth of 1970s era anti-government, austerity policies. 

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Some students have laptops and tablets at home, some do not. Some have internet connections, some do not. How many students lack technological resources at home, and what will happen to them once this is all over with? Will they fall behind their peers?

To my knowledge, we have never surveyed American households in ways that would allow us to measure readiness for distance learning in a pandemic. Broadband access is one issue, but the other issue is, do households have enough devices to allow parents to work and children to participate in distance learning activities? 

Students without reliable devices and online access will fall behind their peers, but it’s worse than that. The last decade of research on online learning has shown a kind of “online penalty” in terms of grades and dropout rates when people switch from face-to-face to online learning. High achieving, already-educated, already-affluent learners tend to be minimally affected by online learning. Students who do fine anywhere will do fine online. But most students earn lower grades online, and the online penalty is more severe for vulnerable and struggling students — students with low prior achievement, ethnic and racial minorities, younger students, etc. 

These are the same groups of students most likely to be hit hard by COVID-19 and the recession — the same students whose parents will lose jobs or reduce work hours, who will lack insurance and have inadequate access to health care, who have unstable housing and nutrition. In the best of circumstances, we’d expect these students to struggle in a transition to online learning, and we can expect yawning gaps in outcomes to emerge during a pandemic. 

How are teachers accounting for the differences between students in terms of the resources available to them?

Schools can lend and give devices and broadband access to all students, which is only feasible in very affluent districts. They can either close school or pursue “enrichment” rather than new instruction. Or they can leave poor kids and kids with special needs behind. Teachers largely aren’t making these choices, districts are. 

Most K-12 virtual schools are what we might call “coached homeschooling.” They depend upon a full-time parent as a coach and teacher. There is no viable model for elementary schools to provide remote instruction without every child having a parent, sibling or other guardian to instruct, assess and coach them.

What lessons can Americans draw from this experience in terms of technological disparities and the state of the education system?

We are learning that in education, as well as many other parts of our society, that we have woefully underfunded the infrastructure of civilization. We are learning that schools play a vital role in our social safety net, providing food, shelter, nutrition, health care and counseling to some of America’s most vulnerable young people.

Is distance learning the future or does it have limitations?

Distance learning is certainly part of the future, and it has severe limitations. All of us are distance learners already, and online learning works great for things that we are passionate about — people around the world go online to learn how to cook a recipe, do their hair and makeup, unclog a toilet, beat a level in a video game and all sorts of things. But even though people fluidly, naturally learn online about topics they are passionate about, most people find it difficult to pursue assigned topics or formal courses online.

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