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New Studies Show The Pandemic Highlights Inequality In U.S. Education System


A handful of new studies have recently tried to answer one of the most important questions facing K-12 schools - how much learning have students lost by having to do school remotely? There's no one universal answer, especially because some of the most marginalized students are also the least likely to be back in a physical classroom at this point in the pandemic. To unpack what we know and what we don't, we're joined by NPR's Cory Turner.

Hi, Cory.


SHAPIRO: So tell us about what those new studies say. What have they found?

TURNER: Yeah, so earlier this week, McKinsey & Company released a report that found when school started this fall, students of color were several months behind in learning and had been hit harder than white students, who were also somewhat behind. Another report last week was a little more optimistic, but many students were missing from their data. The fact is, honestly, Ari, we don't know how bad the learning loss has been because the kids who were hardest hit are also the hardest to find right now. But I will say that every expert I've spoken with says this pandemic has absolutely widened learning gaps for low-income kids, homeless students, communities of color and also students with disabilities.

SHAPIRO: And people often describe this as being a lost generation of kids. Does that seem like an overstatement, or is that valid?

TURNER: I mean, as a reporter who's been covering ed for a while, I think it's important to remember that our system even before COVID was deeply inequitable, with kids getting lost all the time. You know, COVID plugged all of those old inequities around poverty, race and geography into a really loud amplifier.

You know, school funding, for example - schools in low-wealth communities are less able to pay for the things that could help their kids right now through this pandemic. There's also a digital divide, which has always been there. It just mattered less because school was in person. You know, new research from UCLA finds that Black and Hispanic students are still less likely than white students to have consistent access to a computer or Internet. And, you know, I was talking about this yesterday with Regina Crider. She runs a parent-child support group in central Illinois.

REGINA CRIDER: All kids don't have access to, you know, reliable Internet. If we're struggling with paying the bills, Internet may be one of the first bills to go because it's expensive.

TURNER: But the great thing about Regina Crider is she's coordinating an effort through her church to allow students in to do their studies there and use the Wi-Fi. You know, she's pretty amazing, but the fix for all of this inequity just cannot fall on the Regina Criders of the world.

SHAPIRO: And what about students with disabilities? How are they being served during this pandemic?

TURNER: I've heard from a lot of parents who say when schools shut down, so did their child's speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy. You know, a few months ago, I know many schools were considering reopening just for their kids with disabilities. But because infection rates have been soaring, I honestly haven't seen nearly as much of that as I thought I would. I also just got a note from a mother whose daughter has autism. And her school in Minnesota just closed again, and mom is frustrated because her daughter, she says, has been on this roller coaster, you know, between getting services and once again getting nothing.

SHAPIRO: So as long as we are in this pandemic, what needs to happen?

TURNER: So I think it's not just about reopening schools, though that does obviously need to happen. Many parents of color, especially in households with older adults, say they worry about sending their kids back to school because their communities have been hit so hard by this pandemic. You know, we're seeing this right now in New York City, where Black students are underrepresented among those choosing to return to in-person classrooms.

So short term, schools still need to make sure their virtual instruction is as strong as it can be. Longer term, researchers tell me districts need to consider summer school, maybe extending the school year, also investing in tutoring. But for schools to do any of this, they are going to need Congress's help paying for it. And, Ari, in this political climate, that help may not arrive soon or at all.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR education correspondent Cory Turner.

Thanks, Cory.

TURNER: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY VOSS'S "TAKE IT FROM ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
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