Divergent and Inequitable Teaching and Learning Pathways During (and Perhaps Beyond) the Pandemic

Key Findings from the American Educator Panels Spring 2021 COVID-19 Surveys

by Julia H. Kaufman, Melissa Kay Diliberti

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Research Questions

  1. What were schools' operational models—fully remote, fully in-person, or hybrid—during the majority of the 2020–2021 school year?
  2. What were instructional and student outcomes reported by teachers and principals for the 2020–2021 school year across schools using different operational models?
  3. What school health and safety measures did teachers and principals report implementing?
  4. What preferences and plans for remote learning in future school years did teachers and principals report?

The 2020–2021 school year has been like no other. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most kindergarten through grade 12 (K–12) schools across the United States have reduced in-person learning for students to a few days per week or have been physically closed for most of the school year. In this Data Note, researchers use surveys of teachers and principals to provide a picture of students' learning experiences in K–12 schools that have adopted a variety of operational models (e.g., fully in-person, hybrid, fully remote) during the 2020–2021 school year.

The findings consistently indicate that remote schooling was associated with fewer instructional opportunities and potentially poorer student outcomes compared with in-person schooling. These outcomes include less teacher-reported curriculum coverage, more teacher-reported student absenteeism, and lower principal-reported achievement in mathematics and English language arts (ELA). Nevertheless, teachers and principals who have been in remote settings this school year appear to be far more comfortable with the idea of providing remote instruction in some form, even after the pandemic recedes. Taken together, these findings suggest that the pandemic has set schools on diverging pathways depending on whether they were mostly remote or in person over the course of this school year.

Using these findings, the authors make several recommendations to policymakers, school and district leaders, and researchers to support K–12 teaching and learning over the next several years.

Key Findings

  • K–12 schools' operational models—fully remote, fully in-person, or hybrid—varied considerably in the 2020–2021 school year. Schools that were fully remote tended to serve higher percentages of students of color and low-income students.
  • Reported instructional time and curriculum coverage were significantly lower in schools that were fully remote.
  • Seventy-four percent of principals in fully remote schools estimated that their students' average achievement in mathematics was below grade level in spring 2021, compared with 63 percent in hybrid settings and 46 percent in fully in-person settings.
  • Remote teachers' estimates of student assignment incompletion and absenteeism were almost twice as high as those of teachers in fully in-person settings.
  • Although teachers in the highest-poverty schools and those with most students of color reported more student access to free tutoring, they were less likely to report access to reading specialists and one-on-one student-teacher meetings.
  • Nearly all schools providing any in-person instruction had at least some safety measures, such as masks, in place. However, teachers' opinions about the necessity of safety measures varied depending on their schools' operational models.
  • One-third of teachers who have taught fully remotely for the majority of the school year either indicated a preference to do some remote teaching in the future or otherwise had no preference.
  • One-third of schools reported plans to offer remote instruction to any student who wants it after the pandemic has passed. Schools that have been remote in 2020–2021 were more likely to be planning for remote options in future school years.

Recommendations

  • When making decisions about how to spend federal funds, district and school leaders should rely on multiple data points collected now and in the following school year, including those related to absenteeism, performance on formative assessments, and students' potential nonacademic needs.
  • Researchers and policymakers should keep a close eye on instruction over the next school year to ensure that districts and schools have access to the right set of expertise and supports.
  • Researchers, policymakers, and district leaders should consider the extent to which the technologies that many educators have switched to over the course of the pandemic—and plan to continue using in a postpandemic era—support teaching and learning.
  • School districts and policymakers should reflect on the variety of regulatory decisions that could support or obstruct remote learning.
  • Federal and state policymakers should provide clear and consistent health and safety guidance to support school system decisionmaking.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Additional funding was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from the operation of RAND Education and Labor. For this document, different permissions for re-use apply. Please refer to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation section on our permissions page.

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