COVID-Related Disparities In Education


The rapid succession of statewide school closures due to COVID-19 affected more than 56 million elementary- and secondary-school students across the United States. Data from large ed-tech providers, such as ReadWorks, a non-profit that is one of the largest online providers of education resources, provide a unique opportunity to understand digital use and education gains and losses due to the school closures, both nationally and locally. In a series of reports, the Litmus team, led by Angela Hawken, is providing early insights into how teachers adapted their practices as they transitioned to distance learning and the uneven impact of COVID-19 on students. Drawing on anonymized data on over 256 million student assignments, these results can be used by education leaders and philanthropists to identify neighborhoods to prioritize for the distribution of digital software resources and to support an equitable allocation of remedial-instruction resources to support communities most impacted by education losses. Findings include:

  • Large increases in educator use of online resources. Around the time of the school closures in mid-March, new educator signups shot up by 261 percent, and there was a 157 percent increase in new assignments, compared with the same period in 2019.
  • Uneven patterns in students opening the digital assignments made by their teachers. Tracking students who were active digital ReadWorks users prior to COVID-19, the Litmus team found that nationally there was a 19 percentage-point reduction in the number of students who opened a digital assignment made by their teacher, after COVID-related school closures. Open-rate losses of greater than 30 percent occurred in Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Virginia. The loss was greatest in Mississippi.
  • Greater losses in high-poverty schools. In schools where at least 75 percent of students qualify for the National School Lunch Program, a bleak picture emerges. Fifteen states had at least a 30 percentage-point reduction in students opening their assignments: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. The loss was greatest in Hawaii.

Subsequent reports will identify learning losses at the school-district level, providing insights into (1) the uneven impact of COVID-19 on student learners and the locations of “education deserts,” defined as localities with large reductions in student utilization rates, and (2) the innovative strategies ed-tech providers like ReadWorks are using to mitigate these utilization losses among students in high-poverty schools.

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