Rebecca: I'm Rebecca Ibarra in for Tanzina Vega and this is The Takeaway. We start today with a look at schools. Since last March, students, educators, and families have grappled with how to adjust to the abrupt change to how children learn. Some families participated in online remote learning, while others opted for a hybrid approach with classes offered online and in-person. Parents were tasked with supervising their children's education in addition to navigating the school reopenings and closures as the number of COVID cases ebbed and flowed. Some students stopped attending classes completely. Other parents grew frustrated with the options being provided and opted to homeschool, hire teachers to instruct learning pods or pursue independent schools.
These alternative approaches to education meant they weren't constrained by the same strict COVID era regulations that bound public schools. Analysis from Chalkbeat and the AP found that across 33 states enrollment in public schools fell by more than 500,000 students. Because public schools are funded based on the number of students they serve, this decline will be felt sharply. We're joined now by Moriah Balingit, a reporter covering national education issues for the Washington Post, and Liz Willen, Editor in Chief of the Hechinger Report. Thank you so much for joining us.
Liz: Thank you so much for having me.
Moriah: Great to be here.
Rebecca: Liz, let's start with inequality in our schools and how the pandemic has affected that. What research or data do we have on how the racial achievement gap during the past year?
Liz: Right now there's a lot that we don't know about learning loss. There's a enormous concern about it though. One of the things that we've been focusing on at the Hechinger report has had a STEM that going forward, but we're also really concentrated on the sadness of this year and how most schools were really completely unprepared for both coronavirus and virtual learning. That involves everything from childcare centers to school facilities, to unequal internet. We see it as part of a massive equity crisis has been facing us schools and it's really concerning.
Rebecca: Moriah, what role did the types of resources schools had at the start of the pandemic play in how their students have fared?
Moriah: The disparities that we thought that started a pandemic have likely been widened. We definitely saw a huge difference in the way that affluent districts fared versus districts that did not have very many resources. In some districts, for example, the kids had four or five hours of live instruction, kids had laptops, there were no issues with things like internet. I also spoke to a superintendent in Oklahoma who, in his district, there are so many students without internet that they had to just do paper packets. At the time he was talking to me about publishing school lessons in the newspaper. You see the massive disparities in virtual learning and in remote learning in ways that you might not quite see in the classroom.
Rebecca: Liz back to you. We know there are real benefits to learning in person. Tell us about how both public and independent schools are currently conducting classes.
Liz: It's really all over the place across the country. I would echo that this issue of glaring inequality has a lot to do with not only facilities, but also internet access and the run-down schools, which has caused a lot of more students to go remote. That's why you ask about private schools. Many of them have much smaller class sizes. They have more up-to-date facilities. They were able to offer not only in-person experiences, but in many cases that I know of even offer pop-up campuses in places like the Hamptons, where the wealthy who had summer homes there could stay all year and also could afford tuition, which can be $55,000 a year.
We're talking about even for middle school. They were able to do that. They could put together outdoor facilities and come up with teachers with small class sizes and social distancing measures that the public schools with aging facilities couldn't but. In a way I think that just changes the argument, because you have to be able to afford that. That's not most of our country. That's a very small segment of our population that is able to do that kind of thing.
Rebecca: Liz, I wonder if there are students who have actually benefited from rebel learning. What do we know about that?
Liz: I think that we have found some positive aspects throughout all of this. We're trying to focus on them. It's not easy to find that. It's just that there are some lessons around this that I think that, going forward, will be helpful for some parents and for some schools. I think we're this much more of a recognition of what individual students need, mental health issues and social emotional learning are,, in some ways, things that are gone to the top of people's agendas as a result of this. I think overall you're finding most students and families so anxious to get back to what they remember about public schools and about classrooms as the rock of their existence.
Rebecca: Moriah, some parents have sought out alternatives to public schooling because of the reopenings and closings associated with the pandemic and remote hybrid in person learning. What can you tell us about the change in enrollment in private schools or homeschooling or learning pods since the start of the pandemic?
Moriah: It's really interesting. Parents have sought out, you're right. a number of alternatives. We know of parents, for example, that hired teachers to oversee learning pods. The students were still enrolled in the public school, but they actually had a teacher overseeing them so that they could get that in-person interaction as well and also have somebody supervising them. We also know that there is a huge increase in the number of parents homeschooling their children. My colleagues over at Ed Week did a poll at the beginning of the year that suggests that homeschooling has nearly tripled. That is definitely the case in places like Oklahoma.
I did some reporting as well on New Mexico where they actually had to go looking for students and found out that they were at home being homeschooled, but the parents hadn't registered them. We do see an enormous increase in the number of students being homeschooled. The other thing that is also happening is that we've seen a huge drop in the number of kids enrolled in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. Some parents, a lot more parents these days are "redshirting" their kindergarteners. This was this was something that we used to see mostly among affluent white parents, but it has expanded dramatically, likely from parents who felt like it was not a good idea to put their young child in front of a computer or who were worried about their young child maybe not keeping a mask on all day.
Some of these in-school environments are really not the same. I was at a school in Brooklyn where the kids cannot play on the playground. They cannot have plush toys and it's a somewhat oppressive environment for some of these kids.
Rebecca: Based on your reporting, Moriah, do you think parents are likely to keep their kids in these alternative forms to public education after the pandemic ends?
Moriah: I think if there's anything about the pandemic that I've learned is that it's really, really hard to predict anything. I certainly think there are some parents who might discover that they prefer the curriculum that they were doing. The other thing that's been interesting about this pandemic is that because of virtual schooling, parents had an unusual amount of access to their child's "classroom", because they can just look over their shoulder. Some parents discovered that they didn't like what their kids were learning. They didn't like the way that the lessons were presented. They didn't like their way that their children were being treated. They may opt to continue homeschooling their children.
I also think that it also depends on how much patience the parents have. The other thing that parents have learned through this is just how difficult teaching is. That's a sentiment we saw at the beginning of the pandemic, where some people were going on Twitter and saying, "We should pay our teachers millions of dollars every year. This is so hard." I think it's really difficult to say. I suspect that it'll remain up for a few years but I do suspect that a lot of the parents who are homeschooling this year will be eager to send their kids back to the classroom next year if they feel like it's safe.
Rebecca: Liz, funding for public schools is based on the number of students they serve. How does moving children into alternative forms of education affect the remaining students?
Liz: It really hurts. Remember the public school system in this country, even before the Coronavirus, it's a fragile system. They were still recovering from losses from the 2008 recession and massive layoffs. As far as we're concerned, if more people stay out of public schools, it's going to just exacerbate this gap between the rich and poor. That becomes a chasm for parents, but I also want to add a little bit about the pods. We also found many kindergarten students are missing, no one knows why they didn't show up, but it does make sense because learning online when you're four and five is hardly optimal.
We're also finding that some of these pods, they're just ad hoc and they're made up of camp counselors and babysitters. Yes, parents are doing them, but out of necessity not because this is the way they want their children to learn. The bulk of the parents that we've been interviewing talk about being so desperate to get back into the classroom and also into all the other things that the schools offer. They're the rock. They're the centerpiece of your kid's life. For me, when my kids were going through New York City public school system, the centerpiece of our life, everything about it from the teachers, the relationships to the sports to the after school activities, to the performances, to all the publishing parties.
It's embedded in your life, your daily life and your family's life. That's what I think parents and families and students are really missing.
Rebecca: Do you think the pandemic has changed the perception of public schools? Have people started to view them in a different light, Liz?
Liz: Totally depends on where you live. Remember, right here in New York you might have a suburban system that's open five days a week and the kids are having sports still. Then last week we ran an op-ed by a high school student at Beacon here in New York City who has not set foot in the classroom all year. He is incensed and very angry at the way the city has handled it, so you have a range of reactions and a range of feelings about how it was handled. I think a lot of it depends on whether or not you were able to get back into the classroom. Remember, this is a New York City public high school kid who has not yet set foot in the classroom in a year.
Rebecca: Moriah, the disparities in education go beyond private versus public schools. What have you found in your reporting when it comes to public schools that were well-equipped to adapt versus public schools that weren't?
Moriah: Well, certainly the technology made a huge, huge, huge difference. One of the things is that this pandemic has illuminated is how many kids don't have internet. We're not just talking in rural parts of the country where you and I might struggle to get a cell signal. This is in Baltimore, in Cleveland, in Chicago. These are in urban systems where even within the city there's not good connectivity. That is one thing that we've certainly learned and that had a huge impact on whether a kid was able to get a really good online virtual experience versus a pretty inadequate one.
Rebecca: Moriah Balingit is a reporter covering national education issues for The Washington Post. Among the many things that educators and parents will have to decide in the next few months is how they'll attempt to make up the gap for students who missed out on learning consistently throughout the academic school year. Is summer school the right answer or does that feel cruel for students who spent the last year in educational limbo? I'm still here with Liz Willen, Editor in Chief of The Hechinger Report. Liz, one of your reporters at The Hechinger Report recently published a piece on whether or not summer school is the answer to help students make up for lost school time.
What does research tell us about whether or not summer school would help with improving reading and math levels?
Liz: It's so interesting, first thing you said about summer school being cruel. [chuckles] I once spent a couple of months in the summer following one summer school student in New York City. The teachers don't want to be there, the kids don't want to be there. Overall, it's always felt punitive. So far, Shay who does our proof points column every week and looks at education research, did found something really interesting. Everyone's focusing right now on that summer school is common sense. It's going to make up for all the months that students lost during the coronavirus time and everyone is pushing for schools to stay open this summer, governors, even the teachers union, but there's a problem.
The research studies are showing us that summer school often is punitive, doesn't accomplish its purpose of raising reading achievement or math, and they're not necessarily very effective. It looks like it should help, but we see a lot of mixed research on this and overall a lot of feeling that it isn't beneficial.
Rebecca: There was $1.2 billion set aside for summer schools in the last COVID relief package. Is there something else that you think schools might need more urgently?
Liz: Researchers are really pointing to something called high dosage tutoring. It's a term that you're going to hear a lot of lately, and that's a different way of approaching it. It's far more individual. It's not like once a week homework help. It's actually using tutors who are specially trained and coached and they stick to a detailed curriculum. They work with one or two students at a time. These are the kind of results that can occur either during the ordinary school day, or if you're going to do this during the summer, then also make it a little more fun for kids. Some pizza parties and some trips and a lot of outdoor time. These kids have been indoors for a year.
Rebecca: Back to that cruel word, does it feel cruel to expect kids to spend the summer learning via Zoom or even in person after this incredibly difficult year of learning?
Liz: Zoom? Impossible. I really don't think you're going to get any kid in the slightest bit excited about spending more time on Zoom, or any more parents. In-person, I think there are ways it can be done with this high dosage tutoring, with a different approach, with more outdoor time. If all of the vaccines are really happening as we're hearing in the next couple of weeks and days, it should be a completely different situation by the time summer comes around. It also is super important to look at the research. A lot of the research is showing initial gains that you get from extra summer school instruction are going to disappear by the next spring.
That's not small research. It's conducted in five cities Boston, Dallas, Jacksonville, Florida, Pittsburgh and Rochester, are the five researches that ran. I think that's important to look at that ,because in this study 20% of kids never even showed up for summer school. The kids who did come skipped an average of one out of every four days. Other kids get more, and there were only a fraction of benefits seen from students who attended faithfully for two summers in a row. What they did find, though, that I think is really interesting and instructive and might help us this summer going forward, is that programs that resemble camp and had sports and arts, even though they didn't have any better attendance, but if you give parents prizes for families like supermarket gift cards and treats for kids, pizza and ice cream, all of those things help.
I think the outdoor programs at times definitely make it more palatable to kids if you add in the high dosage tutoring.
Rebecca: What about the process of holding students back to repeat a year? Is that being proposed as a viable solution to make up for the gaps?
Liz: That hasn't been discussed in a widespread way yet, and I think a part of it goes to the first question that you asked me that I really couldn't answer yet. What does the research show us about learning loss this year? It's not yet clear what kind of testing there will be and how teachers are going to measure student progress, especially since a lot of them didn't show up. Think about it, a lot of student progress also is based on the relationship teachers form with their students. I'll bring it back to the example of the student sitting in his bedroom for a year.
He's never even met any of his teachers this year, so a lot of the progress and the relationships that teachers find and how they speak in class and the time that you spend with them, all of that plays into how well a student is performing and how they're evaluated. I think it's going to be really difficult to get a full picture of what kind of learning loss happened among students. Again, lots of students didn't even show up. There's many, many students missing in districts all over the country.
Rebecca: Now, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has actually voiced her support for summer schools. What do you think is the perceived benefit there?
Liz: Well, I think, again, it's a big concern over how much students lost and a desire to get them back in-person and get them in classrooms and get a more normal sense of what school was like and can be like and they can get fun again. I think there are a lot of questions about how they can do that successfully and also help kids catch up. I do think they should take a look at the research because it's concerning and make sure that anything that does take place is not on Zoom. No more Zoom. No more online. Get the kids back in school is the sense that I think we're going to hear overwhelmingly from parents and I think teachers as well, ultimately.
Rebecca: In the last 20 seconds, where do you think school districts and educators should begin when it comes to making up for the gaps of the last year or so?
Liz: Look at the research, listen to parents, and really think about how to make this work. It's been difficult. It's a tough time for everyone. Public schools matter desperately in our democracy and how to make them work and get the kids back and the teachers teaching again and learning and feeling enthusiastic about it is essential.
Rebecca: Liz Willen is the Editor in Chief of The Hechinger Report. Liz, thank you so much for joining us.
Liz: Thanks for having me.
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