By Carol DeFuria
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on K-12 instruction, and there is evidence to suggest it has set learning back by several months for some students. One key takeaway from the events over the last year is the inequities that exist for students from low-income families.
As we continue to accumulate data on the so-called “COVID slide,” and the learning losses that some students have experienced while schools have remained closed during the pandemic, it becomes more evident that lower-income students are among those affected most profoundly.
For instance, a study on the extent of pandemic-induced learning loss in 18 California districts last spring found that low-income fourth- and eighth-grade students declined 7 percent in the usual rate of learning, while their wealthier peers showed a 5-percent increase in growth—amounting to a 12-percent overall learning gap.
A big reason for this disparity is the “broadband gap” caused by the lack of high-speed internet service in many low-income households. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, about a third (35 percent) of households with children ages 6 to 17 and an annual income below $30,000 lacked a high-speed internet connection at home, compared with just 6 percent of such households earning $75,000 or more a year. As learning shifted online during the pandemic, this disparity meant that students in low-income households had a harder time logging on to learn remotely.
With all the attention the broadband gap has garnered during the pandemic, several communities have taken steps to remedy the situation so that students can learn remotely while COVID-19 remains a threat. For example, many school systems and public libraries have distributed mobile hotspots to families in need.
Although these efforts are helping, there is still a lot of work to be done. A report from Common Sense Media estimates that programs to close the digital divide have reduced the number of students without home broadband access by up to 40 percent since last March—still less than half of what is needed. What’s more, many of these efforts are only temporary fixes and will leave students again underserved when they expire.
Relief could be on the way soon from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, has long advocated for letting schools use federal E-rate discounts to subsidize home broadband service for students. The agency could amend the program’s rules to allow for this shift—which could go a long way toward solving the broadband gap once and for all.
Another Key Inequity to Solve: The Curriculum Gap
While the broadband gap is naturally getting a lot of attention during the pandemic, there is another key inequity that K-12 leaders should address while they’re mindful of the need to provide equitable learning opportunities for all students: Students from high-poverty neighborhoods often lack access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses, computer science curriculum, and other courses that can set them up for success like their peers in more affluent schools.
Low-poverty high schools, in which one-fourth or less of the student population are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, are nearly twice as likely to offer a computer science course as high-poverty schools (those with at least 75-percent eligibility in the National School Lunch Program), 62 percent vs. 33 percent, according to Code.org.
Computer science isn’t the only subject where this disparity exists. Students in high-poverty high schools have less access overall to courses that can prepare them for college, according to a 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office . For instance, 85 percent of low-poverty high schools but only half of high-poverty high schools offer access to calculus. More than 80 percent of low-poverty schools offer at least one AP course, compared to 60 percent of high-poverty schools. Roughly 70 percent of low-poverty schools, but only 30 percent of high-poverty schools, offer at least 10 different AP courses to students.
Clearly, students from low-income families are less likely to have opportunities to take courses that challenge them and can lead to high-paying careers. This is because it can often be hard for high-poverty schools to attract or afford teachers with the expertise needed to develop and teach these specialty courses.
Fortunately, there is a turnkey solution to this problem—and it’s a lot easier than trying to supply home broadband access to every U.S. family: Schools can contract with an e-learning provider to instantly extend the reach of their curriculum by offering courses to students online that they can’t provide themselves.
For students to have a rich and rewarding online learning experience, the choice of provider matters. Unfortunately, not all courses delivered by online service providers are of high quality. When evaluating a solution, school leaders should look for a provider that delivers highly engaging instruction, in which students interact frequently with each other and their teacher, not just with a piece of software. Leaders should also choose a company that ensures high quality with a low student-to-teacher ratio and compliance with industry-recognized standards, and—above all—one that provides collaborative and comprehensive service and support for schools, and puts students at the center of the learning experience.
The global pandemic has raised awareness of the many inequities that exist in students’ learning opportunities. As K-12 leaders look to address these disparities in their own communities, they should keep in mind the curriculum gap that exists for many students in high-poverty schools. The good news is this gap is relatively easy to fix—and a high-quality online learning provider can help.
Carol DeFuria is the President and CEO of VHS Learning (formerly The Virtual High School), a nonprofit provider of full-time and supplemental online instruction for students in grades 6-12.
Carol DeFuria has worked to advance equity for students across the United States and around the world, for more than 20 years. She believes that through collaboration and the pooling and sharing of resources, students can have equal access to the education they need to succeed in college, careers, and life. She has devoted her education career to the use of technology as a tool to help level the playing field and bring diverse groups of students and teachers together to learn with, and from, one another.
You can read this article in the May-June edition of the American Consortium for Equity in Education Magazine: May - June 2021 Issue | Equity & Access Pre K-12 | The American Consortium for Equity in Education (ace-ed.org)