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June 21, 2022
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How unfinished learning affects student equity

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In 2020, remote learning became a sudden necessity when schools closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Families, educators, and administrators faced the unprecedented challenge head-on and did everything they could to make sure students were able to keep learning—in whatever form it took.

But communities now face a new challenge. According to a range of studies, students across the board are months behind on meeting academic benchmarks. Worryingly, students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds are struggling the most.

Unfinished learning and educational inequity

McKinsey’s 2021 report on the pandemic’s effects on education uses the term “unfinished learning” to describe how pandemic conditions negatively affected student learning.

“The pandemic widened preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest.”
COVID-19 and education: The lingering effects of unfinished learning

The phenomenon has also been called “learning loss,” “the pandemic slide,” and “interrupted learning,” among others. City Year prefers not to use the term “learning loss,” pointing out instead that the scale and impact of the pandemic dramatically shifted the learning trajectories for all students.

Regardless of what it’s called, student performance on academic benchmarks makes a difference on student outcomes, especially in the longer term. Unfinished learning affects everything from school outcomes and student health to incarceration rates and political participation. As one example, McKinsey estimates that the current generation of students will face a loss of $49,000 to $61,000 in earnings over the course of their lifetimes.  

Additionally, unfinished learning disproportionately affects students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds. 

The McKinsey report shows that students of color and low-income students have been affected most by unfinished learning: Students from Black-majority schools finished the school year six months behind in both math and reading, while those in white-majority schools finished four months behind. 

In stark numbers, this means that Black students are estimated to potentially lose up to 2.4% of their lifetime earnings, and Hispanic students up to 2.1%, compared to 1.4% for white students. And this doesn’t account for all of the other long-term impacts of student performance.

The impact of the pandemic on students from disadvantaged groups

To understand the disparity, recent research has focused on unpacking the correlation between the academic impacts of the pandemic and factors like race/ethnicity and household income.

Studies show that the pandemic exacerbated existing inequities that were already contributing to the learning gap, including access to internet and technology, household support, the school safety net, and supplemental tutoring services—all at a time when these resources became critical requirements for student learning.

Limited computer availability and internet access

In 2020, a UCLA report concluded that virtual learning during Covid-19 was widening the digital divide that existed before the pandemic. Students of color, students from lower-income households, and students from households with lower education levels were already less likely to have reliable internet or computer access at home. In a remote learning environment, a lack of either connectivity or technology made participating in learning impossible.

“What was previously considered private extracurricular resources has become essential tools for core schooling activities. A lack of meaningful and full access to a computer or the internet translates into missed lessons, inability to access materials, and difficulties completing assignments.”
Covid-19 and the Digital Divide in Virtual Learning

Challenges affecting home life

The inequality affecting education reflects the pandemic’s impact on American society, notes Natasha K. Warikoo, professor of sociology at Tufts University, who points out that economic hardship, food insecurity, and access to technology have all worsened for families who are disadvantaged. In households where caregivers and siblings had other responsibilities, or without adults who are fluent in English or have computer skills, students may not have been able to access the additional support they needed for remote learning.

The loss of school safety nets

For many students, school provides access to food, shelter, healthcare, technology, and mental health support. The loss of this safety net during the pandemic has disproportionately affected students with learning differences and those from low-income backgrounds. As these students return to school, they may also be carrying new traumas formed during the pandemic from loss or grief that require additional support.

“The problem of resources extends beyond teachers, aides, equipment, and supplies, as schools have been tasked with an increasing number of responsibilities, from the basics of education to feeding and caring for the mental health of both students and their families.”
How COVID taught America about inequity in education

Lack of supplemental instruction

A lack of resources for additional academic support may further marginalize students from lower-income or single-parent households. Students from higher-income backgrounds may have to access private tutoring to keep up, but without similar support, lower-income students face losing their connection to learning altogether. 

A potential path to addressing unfinished learning

In addition to the everyday work that teachers, schools, districts, and communities do to address the structural issues that drive inequality, many studies point to a solution that can be implemented now: intensive tutoring

To help students recover lost ground, the McKinsey report outlines a multi-pronged approach that includes high-dosage tutoring to aid students in meeting academic benchmarks. Because the success of any plan depends on student engagement, these programs need to be both attractive and usable for students as well as low-lift for parents or guardians.

The good news is that funding is flowing into schools, much of which will be dedicated to catching students up on their unfinished learning. There’s also an opportunity to deploy these funds to address historical gaps among students of different races and income levels.

Learn more about funding options for tutoring with our COVID-19 funding guide

Tutoring interventions so far: Signs of success

Evidence shows that high-frequency tutoring is the most effective way to help learners catch up. So far, larger-scale tutoring programs have shown promising results in Europe as well.

In the early stages of the pandemic, Italy rushed to develop a response and created the Tutoring Online Program (TOP) to address learning disruptions. TOP saw strong results: Students who received twice as much tutoring as their peers saw nearly double the academic gains. 

The UK’s National Online Tuition Pilot program engaged 1425 disadvantaged students in 65 schools in an intensive online tutoring program during the summer of 2020. Their report concluded that this type of intervention was both feasible and beneficial for students, with positive relationships—both within the school community and between tutors and students—as a key driver of success.

Now, states across the U.S. are beginning to require districts to implement tutoring interventions and programs to support learning recovery. While the challenge that lies ahead isn’t simple—and the inequities that were exacerbated by the pandemic still need to be addressed—tutoring represents one promising path forward for our students.

Remind Tutoring is now available for schools and districts, so you can match students with experienced, engaging tutors for one-on-one online tutoring sessions. Find out how you can partner with us to customize a tutoring intervention for the learners who need it most.