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Covid-19 Education Research for Recovery

Matthew A. Kraft, Nicole S. Simon, Melissa Arnold Lyon.

COVID-19 shuttered schools across the United States, upending traditional approaches to education. We examine teachers’ experiences during emergency remote teaching in the spring of 2020 using responses to a working conditions survey from a sample of 7,841 teachers across 206 schools and 9 states. Teachers reported a range of challenges related to engaging students in remote learning and balancing their professional and personal responsibilities. Teachers in high-poverty and majority Black schools perceived these challenges to be the most severe, suggesting the pandemic further increased existing educational inequities. Using data from both pre-post and retrospective surveys, we find that the pandemic and pivot to emergency remote teaching resulted in a sudden, large drop in teachers’ sense of success. We also demonstrate how supportive working conditions in schools played a critical role in helping teachers to sustain their sense of success. Teachers were less likely to experience declines in their sense of success when they worked in schools with strong communication, targeted training, meaningful collaboration, fair expectations, and authentic recognition during the pandemic.

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Matt Grossmann, Sarah Reckhow, Katharine Strunk, Meg Turner.

The COVID-19 pandemic created enormous challenges for public education. We assess the role of political factors and public health in state and local education decisions, especially the continuation of learning during COVID-19. Using an original dataset of state education policies since the start of the pandemic, we find that governors took the lead on ordering school closures in Spring 2020 but left decisions to districts in the Fall, regardless of partisanship. Partisanship played a much stronger role in local decisions than state decisions. We analyze local district reopening plans and public opinion on reopening in the politically competitive state of Michigan. Partisanship was much more associated with district reopening plans than COVID-19 rates. Republicans in the Michigan public were also far more favorable than were Democrats toward in-person learning. States' decisions to leave reopening plans to their districts opened the way for students’ experiences to be shaped by their area's partisanship.

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Michela Carlana, Eliana La Ferrara.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the governments of most countries ordered the closure of schools, potentially exacerbating existing learning gaps. This paper evaluates the effectiveness of an intervention implemented in Italian middle schools that provides free individual tutoring online to disadvantaged students during lock-down. Tutors are university students who volunteer for 3 to 6 hours per week. They were randomly assigned to middle school students, from a list of potential beneficiaries compiled by school principals. Using original survey data collected from students, parents, teachers and tutors, we find that the program substantially increased students’ academic performance (by 0.26 SD on average) and that it significantly improved their socio-emotional skills, aspirations, and psychological well-being. Effects are stronger for children from lower socioeconomic status and, in the case of psychological well-being, for immigrant children.

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Beth Schueler, Martin R. West.

We study an early effort amid the Covid-19 pandemic to develop new approaches to virtually serving students, supporting teachers, and promoting equity. This five-week, largely synchronous, summer program served 11,769 rising 4th-9thgraders. “Mentor teachers” provided PD and videos of themselves teaching daily lessons to “partner teachers” across the country. We interviewed a representative sample of teachers and analyzed educator, parent, and student surveys. Stakeholders perceived that students made academic improvements, and the content was rigorous, relevant, and engaging. Teachers felt their teaching improved and appreciated receiving adaptable curricular materials. Participants wanted more relevant math content, more differentiated development, and less asynchronous movement content. Findings highlight promising strategies for promoting online engagement and exploiting virtual learning to strengthen teacher development. 

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Matthew A. Kraft, Grace Falken.

In this thought experiment, we explore how tutoring could be scaled nationally to address COVID-19 learning loss and become a permanent feature of the U.S. public education system. We outline a blueprint centered on ten core principles and a federal architecture to support adoption, while providing for local ownership over key implementation features. High school students would tutor in elementary schools via an elective class, college students in middle schools via federal work-study, and full time 2- and 4-year college graduates in high schools via AmeriCorps. We envision an incremental, demand-driven expansion process with priority given to high-needs schools. Our blueprint highlights a range of design tradeoffs and implementation challenges as well as estimates of program costs. Our estimates suggest that targeted approaches to scaling school-wide tutoring nationally, such as focusing on K-8 Title I schools, would cost between $5 and $15 billion annually.

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James D. Paul, Patrick J. Wolf.

Virtual charter schools provide full-time, tuition-free K-12 education through internet-based instruction. Although virtual schools offer a personalized learning experience, most research suggests these schools are negatively associated with achievement. Few studies account for differential rates of student mobility, which may produce biased estimates if mobility is jointly associated with virtual school enrollment and subsequent test scores. We evaluate the effects of a single, large, anonymous virtual charter school on student achievement using a hybrid of exact and nearest-neighbor propensity score matching. Relative to their matched peers, we estimate that virtual students produce marginally worse ELA scores and significantly worse math scores after one year. When controlling for student mobility during the outcome year, estimates of virtual schooling are slightly less negative. These findings may be more reliable indicators of the independent effect of virtual schooling if matching on mobility proxies for otherwise unobservable negative selection factors.

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Michael T. Hartney, Leslie K. Finger.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to examine how local governments respond to a public health crisis amid high levels of partisan polarization and an increasing tendency for local issues to become nationalized. As an arena that has, in recent years, been relatively separate from national partisan divides, public schools provide a useful window into these dynamics. Leveraging the fact that all of the nation’s school districts had to adopt a reopening plan for the fall, we test what factors best predict whether a district chose to return students to the classroom or educate them remotely. Contrary to the conventional understanding of school districts as localized and non-partisan actors, we find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making. Mass partisanship and teacher union strength best explain how school boards approached reopening. Additionally, we find evidence that districts are sensitive to the threat of private school exit. Districts located in counties with a larger number of Catholic schools were less likely to shut down and more likely to return to in-person learning. These findings have important implications for our understanding of education policy and the functioning of American local governments.

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Lucrecia Santibanez, Cassandra Guarino.

In March 2020, most schools in the United States closed their doors and transitioned to distance learning in an effort to contain COVID-19. During the transition a significant number of students did not fully engage in these learning opportunities due to resource or other constraints. An urgent question for schools around the nation is how much did the pandemic impact student academic and social-emotional development. This paper uses administrative panel data from California to approximate the impact of the pandemic by analyzing how absenteeism affects student outcomes. We show wide variation in absenteeism impacts on academic and social-emotional outcomes by grade and subgroup, as well as the cumulative effect of different degrees of absence. Student outcomes generally suffer more from absenteeism in mathematics than in ELA. Negative effects are larger in middle school. Absences negatively affect social-emotional development, particularly in middle school, with slight differences across constructs. Our results add to the emerging literature on the impact of COVID-19 and highlight the need for student academic and social-emotional support to make up for lost time.

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Jessica Goldstein, Josh B. McGee.

Jackson, Wigger, and Xiong (2020a, JWX) provide evidence that education spending reductions following the Great Recession had widespread negative impacts on student achievement and attainment. This paper describes our process of duplicating JWX and highlights a variety of tests we employ to investigate the nature and robustness of the relationship between school spending reductions and student outcomes. Though per-pupil expenditures undoubtedly shifted downward due to the Great Recession, contrary to JWX, our findings indicate there is not a clear and compelling story about the impact of those reductions on student achievement. Moreover, we find that the relationship between K-12 spending and college-going rates is likely confounded with contemporaneous higher education funding trends. While we believe that K-12 spending reductions may have negative impacts on student outcomes, our results suggest that estimating generalizable causal effects remains a significant challenge.

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Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman, Gabrielle Lohner.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to an abrupt shift from in-person to virtual instruction in Spring 2020. Using a difference-in-differences framework that leverages within-course variation on whether students started their Spring 2020 courses in person or online, we estimate the impact of this shift on the academic performance of Virginia’s community college students. We find that the shift to virtual instruction resulted in a 6.7 percentage point decrease in course completion, driven by increases in both course withdrawal and failure. Faculty experience teaching a course online did not mitigate the negative effects of moving to virtual instruction.

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