The new question-of-the-week is:
Most of the factors that influence student academic achievement are outside the schoolhouse walls. Given that, what does the research say about the differences on student learning between those who spent most of last school year virtually and those who spent more time learning in person? And how much are declines more attributable to overall pandemic conditions?
The temporary closing of schools in the face of omicron has been met in some quarters by end-of-the-world claims, including pollster Nate Silver comparing it to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
I don’t think there is any question that, for the vast majority of students, in-person instruction is far better than distance learning.
However, I’m not all convinced that the academic challenges experienced by many students over the past two years are primarily attributable to remote teaching. Instead, I would say research suggests that the primary reasons for those issues could be the pandemic itself and the stresses it has caused students, and the lives of their families, outside the schoolhouse walls.
So, yes, remote teaching is not that great, but exaggerated claims of its harm do not help students and teachers dealing with the chaos omicron is causing in short-staffed, low-attendance school buildings across the country, including where I teach.
Cara Jackson is a senior associate at Abt Associates, where she works on systematic reviews of research evidence and conducts program evaluations. She previously guest-edited a series appearing here on teachers working with education researchers and agreed to write a response to this week’s question. I was confident that she would write an evenhanded answer and was not disappointed:
Causes & Correlations
While I love bringing evidence to conversations about education, building trust between educators and researchers requires being honest about the limitations of what we know. Researchers have documented changes in student growth during the pandemic, and we have good reason to believe that the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities in student achievement. That said, the evidence we have speaks to the impact of the entire pandemic on students, not on the impact of virtual learning.
In a recent article, Andrew Bacher-Hicks and Joshua Goodman explain why we might be suspicious of research that attempts to use COVID-induced virtual learning to estimate the causal effects of virtual learning here. Essentially, changes in achievement attributed to virtual learning might also be attributable to parental job loss, family illness, student anxiety, loss of social life, or teachers’ stress levels.
Students experienced a variety of pandemic-induced stressors at the same time that they would have been in virtual learning, and as a result, it’s very difficult to know what factors are responsible for changes in achievement. Even if researchers had infinite data on students’ stress levels, screen time, social activities, physical health, and family circumstances over the past two years, we’d at best have correlational evidence of which of these factors seem to play a bigger role, and correlation is not causation.
Some advocates of keeping schools open have pointed to prior research documenting limited in-school transmission of COVID, but here, too, research can only get us so far because the context has changed dramatically in just the past few weeks. Two papers suggest that school reopening is safe when community transmission is low, but schools contribute to community spread when transmission is high. Between the skyrocketing case rate and a considerably more transmissible variant, it is reasonable to question claims that schools don’t contribute to community spread.
Another factor that has changed the equation for in-person versus virtual is that the entire experience of in-person learning has been upended by omicron: bus routes canceled, higher than usual number of substitute teachers, and friends absent due to illness or quarantine. Prior research finds that keeping schools open during a storm is more detrimental to learning than a school closure, likely due to the challenge of coordinating instruction when large proportions of students are absent. In schools where many staff and students have to quarantine, a virtual option might offer more continuity of instruction than in person. If large numbers of staff and students are too ill to participate in remote instruction, that might call for a temporary closure and making up days later in the school year.
Though there are no easy answers to the challenges that schools are currently facing, I believe that the evidence available can guide us toward potential solutions.
Thanks to Cara for contributing her thoughts!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at email@example.com. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
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