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Study: COVID-19’s impact on learning varied widely

Researchers suggest communities’ varying levels of resilience may explain some of the differences

A new report by a team led by UNC School of Education researchers found that the impact on student learning from the COVID-19 pandemic varied widely among schools and school districts. The extent of community resilience may explain some of the variation, the researchers said.

“We wanted to find out if we could determine the causes for this variation and then ask what can be done to help schools and students better endure a crisis such as a pandemic.”
Thurston 'Thad' Domina

The report, published by the Urban Institute and funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, examined third-grade mathematics test score data from North Carolina public schools to evaluate the pandemic’s impact on student learning.

The data show that the pandemic’s impact varied considerably from district to district, and from school to school.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on many students, slowing their academic achievement significantly,” said Thurston “Thad” Domina, Ph.D., the lead author of the study. “But the impacts have varied widely. We wanted to find out if we could determine the causes for this variation and then ask what can be done to help schools and students better endure a crisis such as a pandemic.”

The authors are Domina, the Robert Wendell Eaves Sr. Distinguished Professor in Educational Leadership; Ayesha Hashim, Ph.D., assistant professor in Policy, Leadership, and School Improvement; Caitlin Kearney, a Ph.D. student at the UNC School of Education; Lam Pham, an assistant professor in Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at N.C. State University; and, Cole Smith, a Ph.D. student at the UNC School of Education.

The authors suggest that the idea of “system resilience” — the collective capacity of schools, districts, and communities to respond to crises — can help explain some of the variation in learning outcomes.

“Some of these differences can be explained by readily measurable local characteristics, such as student demographics, unemployment rates, school funding, and the use of in-person versus online learning. But many of the differences across seemingly similar districts remain unexplained,” the authors said.

They continue: “Although we cannot make definitive claims about this unexplained variation, we suspect that some portion is the result of unequal distribution of trust, social connection, leadership, organizational coherence and capacity, and other hard-to-measure characteristics of communities that, together, shape a system’s resilience in the face of a crisis.”

Some key findings:

    • In spring 2021, 44% of tested third graders in North Carolina public schools reached the proficiency benchmark in mathematics, compared with 65% in spring 2019.

    • The districts students attended — rather than just their school — accounted for 43% of the total variation in learning lag between spring 2019 and spring 2021, compared with 6% between spring 2018 and spring 2019.

    • The data show that remote learning explains only a fraction of the pandemic’s impact on student learning. Some fully remote school districts demonstrated better test score performance relative to the state average, while some in-person school districts underperformed relative to other districts.

The authors conclude that more research is needed to understand the role of resilience and how to build it in schools, districts, and communities.

They recommend policymakers and researchers could pursue a set of steps to build or strengthen resilience and to further understand its role:

    • Invest in physical infrastructure, such as broadband services and school facilities.
    • Develop organizational conditions, such as structures, policies, practices, and routines that have been shown to support student learning during crises.
    • Researchers should analyze the role schools’ mental health services, well-being supports, and access to social services play in building educational resilience.

Download the full report here.