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Coronavirus will widen achievement gap

Book stacks stairs concept for primary education for

Book stacks stairs concept for primary education for children passing by. Path to success, levels of education, staff training, specialization, learning support. Vector illustration of scholarship Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Mykyta Dolmatov

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The coronavirus will explode academic achievement differences between middle-class and low-income students. The gap has bedeviled educators for years — children of college-educated parents typically surpass about 60 percent of all students in math and reading. For children whose parents have only a high school degree, it’s about 35 percent. For those whose parents never completed secondary school, it’s only about 30 percent.

In 2001 we adopted the “No Child Left Behind Act,” assuming that these disparities mostly stemmed from schools’ failure to take seriously their responsibility to educate lower-income and minority students. Supporters claimed that holding educators accountable for test results would soon eliminate the achievement gap. The theory was ludicrous, and the law failed to fulfill its promise. The achievement gap mostly results from social-class based advantages that some children bring to school and that others lack.

The coronavirus, unfortunately, will confirm this judgment.

With schools shut, well-educated college graduates operate home-schools, sometimes with superior curricula than what schools can deliver. A friend, a biologist, now must stay home from work so she can take her pre-school, kindergarten, and second-grade children for walks in the woods where they learn the names of birds, why goldfinches get their bright yellow wings, and how moss reproduces. 

Meanwhile, parents with less education must rely, if they are fortunate, on material they can find on the web or on lessons sent home by teachers on-line. But many teachers are now busy with their own children at home, and their ability to establish distance-learning for their classes is limited. Even where they attempt it, many disadvantaged students don’t have internet access: 35 percent of low-income households with school-aged children don’t have high-speed internet and the gap is greater for African-American and Hispanic families.

Evidence tells us what to expect. Whatever benefits homework assignments in the school year provide are offset by homework’s role in widening achievement gaps. Children whose parents can more effectively help with homework gain more than children whose parents can do so less well.

We also know that the educational gap is wider when children return after summer vacation than it was in the spring, because middle-class children frequently have summer enrichment that reinforces knowledge and experience. The larger gap shows up in test scores, but also in less easily quantifiable domains — including cooperative skills learned in group activities and physical health enhanced by organized sports and summer camps.

Children in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to experience toxic stress from maltreatment as well as from exposure to violence, homelessness, economic insecurity and family break-up that interferes with both learning and behavior. For some, school is the safest place. Teachers report that when low-income children in overcrowded and highly stressed homes return to school after breaks, physical evidence of abuse is more noticeable. 

We can’t realistically (and probably shouldn’t) attempt to reduce the resources that advantaged parents give children. But we can increase resources for other children to even things out just a bit. Federal law now provides added support for schools serving low-income children. It can enable the hire of additional teacher aides or a reading specialist, buy some additional curriculum materials and reduce class sizes for the most disadvantaged students. 

We should do much more. We should substantially increase compensatory funds to finance nurses, social workers, art and music teachers, and after-school and summer programs that provide homework help as well as clubs that develop collaborative skills, organized athletics, and citizenship preparation. Americans have become more divided by income and wealth. Upward mobility has declined; inequality is increasingly transmitted inter-generationally. We can act to prevent the coronavirus from accelerating these trends.

Richard Rothstein is a distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and the author of “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” This op-ed is adapted from a longer piece published by

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