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Only One in Five Schools Offered 'Rigorous' Remote Learning, Study Says

remote-learning-IMG (1)Image: iStock/Getty

Only 20% of schools offered rigorous, technology-based remote instruction while school buildings were shut down this spring, according to a new report from the American Enterprise Institute, and students in K-12 districts with a majority of high-poverty or low-achieving students were less likely to receive rigorous instruction at a distance.


Nat Malkus, the institute's deputy director of education policy, examined the websites of a nationally representative sample of 250 districts. He organized his findings on remote learning plans into three categories:

"Rigorous": Delivered content through online platforms; offered some synchronous learning (via Zoom or another videoconference platform); tracked student attendance or otherwise expected student participation; and graded students' work to some extent.

-"Perfunctory": Relied primarily on paper instructional packets; explicitly stated students were not required to participate; or didn't offer information about remote learning on its website.

-"Moderate": Somewhere in between "rigorous" and "perfunctory."

Overall, Malkus found one-fifth of schools fit the "rigorous" category, with 40 percent each for the other two categories.

High-poverty districts are defined in the report as districts with more than 60 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch programs. Malkus separated high- and low-achievement schools using data from the Stanford Education Data Archive's Education Opportunity Project.

Only 12 percent of high-poverty districts' remote learning plans earned Malkus' "rigorous" distinctions, and 52 percent were "perfunctory" by those standards. Meanwhile, 23 percent of low-poverty districts offered rigorous instruction, and 35 percent offered perfunctory instruction. 

The outcomes were similar when sliced to distinguish schools with a significant percentage of high-achieving students from schools with a low percentage of high-achieving students. Half the schools with low-achieving students offered perfunctory remote learning, and almost double the schools with high-achieving students offered rigorous remote learning.

"We have some pretty large gaps here between the percentages of schools that are getting potentially substantially higher quality education supports," Malkus said Monday during a Zoom briefing with reporters.

The study also broke down the findings to distinguish between districts with high and low percentages of minority student—but the numbers were fairly similar for both categories.

Prior research has shown evidence of a "poverty gap" in the form of significantly lower standardized-test scores for students who attend high-poverty schools, regardless of race. Surveys this spring conducted by the Education Week Research Center also found significantly higher rates of truancy among students and lower rates of access to technology and live instruction for teachers in districts with a high percentage of low-income students.

Today's new report marks Malkus' first effort to compare findings across districts from his research on how schools evolved this spring. It's worth sounding a note of caution that the new study is preliminary; deeper data dives are expected later this year and for years to come, Malkus said. 

Technology Challenges

Some education observers might take issue with Malkus' decision to characterize remote learning on online platforms as inherently more rigorous than instructional packets. Millions of students nationwide lack at-home internet access, which means paper packets would be inherently more rigorous for them. Students with disabilities might struggle in some cases to access online instruction even if it's available. In fact, several districts reported widespread technical glitches during early attempts to connect virtually with students.

Malkus argues paper packets can be a "weak facsimile of in-class learning," particularly if they're tied to weak policies for academic accountability. "Rigorous" instruction also encapsulates an expectation that students will demonstrate learning to their teachers. 

Indeed, fewer schools with a majority of high-poverty students required one-on-one contact and participation, and fewer still tracked attendance, according to Malkus' data.

New survey data out today from AASA, The School Superintendents Association reinforces those concerns. Slightly more than half of 501 superintendents said they've been concerned about their ability to equitably offer remote learning. Sixty percent of respondents said inadequate at-home internet access for students prohibits their district from offering fully online learning, while 40 percent said their districts lack adequate infrastructure, including teacher capability and necessary software programs.

School budgets are tightening nationwide, but the urgency to ensure equal learning opportunities for all students has only increased. Many districts are spending the summer on efforts to close achievement gaps, particularly around access to digital devices and broadband service. Slightly more than a quarter of respondents to the AASA survey said they only offer 1-to-1 computing programs to certain clusters of students in their districts, and 14 percent said "we do not offer any one-to-one device programs in our district."

During a virtual panel discussion on the "digital divide" hosted by Common Sense Media on Tuesday, the Indianapolis district superintendent Aleesia Johnson said her schools, on average, had one device per three students prior to the pandemic, but she hopes the district will offer fully 1-to-1 computing environments this fall. The district has a high number of students of color and from low-income families, and more than 30 percent were struggling with internet access this spring, she said, so providing all students with devices is an important step.

"One to one would normally take much longer than what it's going to take us to pull off right now," Johnson said. "We are not going to go into the 2020-21 school year having to play this pick-and-choose game with our students."


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  • Jul 2, 2020 8:00:00 AM

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