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The Sunshine Economy

'The Cost Of Not Acting': How Ineffective Virtual Learning Could Shrink Students' Lifetime Earnings

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Camila Kerwin
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Virtual learning is exacerbating the inequities in public education. One explanation is unequal access to internet and devices.

Note: In this special edition of The Sunshine Economy, WLRN reports on how the PTA at a public school in a gentrifying neighborhood has tried to help the school's poorest families survive — as the fundraising organization faces its own existential threat. Read that full story soon at classofcovid.org. Plus, click here to sign up for our limited-run newsletter.

A year ago almost to the day, Philip Preddy walked into the school where he had been an assistant principal for a decade and found elementary students lining the hallway to greet him.

"Mr. Preddy! Mr. Preddy!" the students chanted, waving hand-painted signs with rainbows and hearts. Preddy walked in between the two lines of students, accepting their high fives with a huge smile. "I love it!" he said over and over.

Preddy had just been promoted to a principal's job at a different Palm Beach County school, Lake Park Elementary, and this hallway celebration was his sendoff.

Not even two weeks after his promotion, COVID-19 hit.

"I'm the last principal in Palm Beach County who went to a board meeting and was installed as a principal at the board meeting," Preddy said. "Right after that, everybody was installed virtually."

Of course, it wasn't just school board meetings that shifted online. Public education would be delivered through screens for months, and many students would struggle to get connected and stay on track — especially students like his.

The vast majority of Lake Park's student body qualifies for free or discounted meals, which means they come from low-income households. Also, the school serves a majority Black area in northern Palm Beach County.

Because of systemic racism and longstanding inequities in access to high-quality teachers, school facilities, coursework and technology, low-income students and children of color face more severe educational challenges than their more affluent or white peers. The pandemic has exacerbated those disparities.

But not at Lake Park. It was among 9% of elementary schools serving mostly low-income students nationwide that did not see a "COVID slide" — academic regression during the pandemic — according to an analysis of testing data last fall.

And not only are the Lake Park Lions not falling behind, but also they are roaring ahead.

"I remind the teachers all the time — and this is just something that's been concreted during this pandemic — we have to make the six hours that [students] are in our care the best six hours of their day," Preddy said, "and show them that they're cared about and that they're loved. Because we don't know what they're going through at home.

"We can't waiver on our expectations, especially if the students are going through something," he said. "We've still got to keep those expectations high, because education is going to be the key to them being something big one day."

Unfortunately, Lake Park is an outlier. The school's success does not represent the typical experience of the most disadvantaged students. And economists warn, that could cost them for a lifetime.

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Camila Kerwin
Students who have spent nearly a year learning online stand to lose up to 9% of their potential earnings over their lifetime, according to an education economist from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

The deep cost of lost learning

American teachers estimate their students are more than two months behind where they should be, according to a new international report from McKinsey. And worldwide, teachers working in high-poverty schools rated the effectiveness of virtual learning only 3.5 out of 10, compared to nearly 5 out of 10 for teachers with more affluent students.

Experts anticipate a steep economic toll for students who have fallen months or even a year behind in their education.

Among the questions researchers are still trying to answer are, "what jobs will be available for them, … how that impacts their family's financial future, and what that means for our country," said Annette Anderson, an assistant professor with the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

"If there are too many students that have gone through this experience, does that mean that we will have a cumulative impact on our GDP [growth domestic product] as a nation?"

Eric Hanushek expects it will. Hanushek is an education economist at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a public policy think tank. According to his calculations, the U.S. is facing the potential loss of up to $30 trillion — more than a year's worth of the entire American economy — because of the ineffectiveness of remote learning for many students.

"The growth rate of countries is very highly related to the skills of the population," Hanushek said. "And what this learning loss that we suffered and continue to suffer has meant is that the skills of the U.S. population will be less into the future, which will have an impact on our economic growth."

There's a historical precedent for Hanushek's predictions — although not related to a pandemic. In Germany, in the 1960s, two school years were shortened to bring the country into a standardized academic calendar. The shorter years meant students missed about three-quarters of a year’s worth of learning. Those students earned an average of 5% less during their careers.

Hanushek predicts the COVID-19 pandemic could shave even more off the lifetime earnings of students now.

"The average student who has not had the old-fashioned learning that they would have expected is going to have 6 to 9 percent lower income if we don’t do anything," Hanushek said. "This is a real cost to these students. Their learning is less, and that's going to trail them throughout their entire lifetime."

These worst-case scenarios would be the results of doing nothing to mitigate students' academic losses — "the cost of not acting," said Emma García, an education economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

While Hanushek and García approach education economics from different viewpoints — the Hoover Institution is a conservative policy research organization, while the Economic Policy Institute leans left — they agree on some solutions to the potential enormous economic cost of lost learning.

Those include focusing on personalized instruction for students and matching the best teachers with the neediest students.

"If we are able to design the right interventions, and if we are able to allocate those to these students who need them most, and we are able to keep those in place for a lot longer, we would be actually doing ourselves a great favor," García said. "We could be actually finding a way of addressing some of the pre-existing inequities and the ones that the pandemic may have exacerbated."

The education economists also agree states should continue administering standardized tests, so schools can determine how far students have fallen behind and what they need to catch up. But they argue there should be at least a temporary pause on using students' scores to evaluate the performance of teachers, schools and districts.

"Something that I would strongly recommend … has to do with expanding the assessments that we are doing," García said.

Schools should be evaluating students not only on their performance in math and reading but also their emotional well being, she said. That's "part of what will help some of them recover from the consequences of the pandemic."

García cautioned against retaining large numbers of students, as repeating a grade has been shown to have significant detrimental effects on students' socialization and, for older kids, is highly correlated to dropping out. During the legislative session that kicks off this week, the Florida Legislature is considering a bill that would allow parents of elementary and middle school students to choose to hold their kids back a school year.

State lawmakers will also face a budget deficit.

Hanushek said states and municipalities' finances have not been hit as hard by the pandemic as initially feared, and there is an expectation that the federal government will continue to offer support. So money, he argued, isn't what schools need most.

What they need, he said, is a redesign tailored to the students who have been most affected by learning loss during the pandemic.

"We have to be moving toward making our schools better than they were in 2019," Hanushek said, "because if we just get back to 2019 — which seems to be the goal that many have — we're going to have this generation that has been significantly harmed.

"What we have to be thinking about is: How can we come out of this improving the schools?" he said. "That's the only hope."

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Lake Park Elementary Facebook page
In Palm Beach County, Lake Park Elementary students did not lose ground academically last spring. That makes the school a national outlier among those serving mostly low-income students.

Lake Park Elementary's story: Academic advancement despite a health crisis

When campuses closed last March, Phillip Preddy started calling around to colleagues at schools with more resources to find out if they had any Chromebooks to spare. "Or even computers that I could reformat into a Chromebook," Preddy said.

Then a brand new principal at Lake Park Elementary in Palm Beach County, he directed his school's administrative staff to make sure his students had internet access at home, "because a computer without Wi-Fi — it's nothing," he said.

"Our technical support staff … [were] calling CEOs and sending emails to companies trying to get students internet," he said.

Preddy knew devices and connectivity were not available to most of his students. More than 90% of his students live in poverty.

And while some staff members worked on getting students connected, Preddy told his teachers to focus on teaching.

"They were still providing a full day's worth of instruction for our students," he said.

Some days last spring, 95% of the school's roughly 350 students were logging on and participating in virtual classes, Preddy said.

As students worked through their lessons and passed online quizzes, teachers went to great lengths to celebrate their success.

"My teachers were actually buying things and either having them shipped straight from Amazon to the student's house as a reward, or they were buying things in bulk and then they were filling envelopes full of rewards for the students' ambition and their hard work," Preddy said.

Teachers sent gift certificates for ice cream at fast-food restaurants, special pencils and art supplies. A big want was headphones, because a lot of students didn't have them.

"And honestly, the teachers were doing this out of their pocket," Preddy said. "And then there were the teachers who would drive around Lake Park, and they would leave these incentives at the student's door and then call them from their car [to tell them] that there's something sitting at their door. Because early on, we didn't come within any distance of each other.

"It really motivated the students," he said.

A national study by the firm Curriculum Associates pinpointed Lake Park as one of only about 9% of low-income elementary schools nationwide where students did not start this school year behind. That means they didn't lose any ground in the spring.

And now, older students at the school are scoring significantly higher on the district's annual diagnostic assessments than the previous year's classes did even before the pandemic.

"My kindergarten, first and second [graders], though, are struggling. It is a whole different ball game," Preddy said. "If you try to engage a kindergartner in person — now, imagine trying to engage them through a Google meet session. It's just — it's very, very hard, but it's something that we've gotten really good at."

Kristen Huff, vice president of assessment and research at Curriculum Associates, said her firm not only analyzed data from classwork and quizzes during last spring, but also the researchers interviewed successful principals to find out how they bucked the trend.

"What Principal Preddy has said about going above and beyond to eliminate technical barriers, a relentless commitment to reaching every single family, phone calls, texts, going for home visits, … and then celebrating learning — these themes came through in all of our interviews with schools," Huff said.

"It is this culture that really helps schools maintain this learning during a crisis such as COVID."

Jessica Bakeman is an investigative reporter and editor focusing on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, South Florida's NPR member station. Bakeman was awarded the 2020 Journalist of the Year award from the Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.