Arrested Development: Costs of Distance Learning on the Future

With schools around the country examining their options on how to educate despite the ongoing pandemic, it is critical to take a clear look at the potential impact of moving to distance learning. The effects of distance learning on the local community will be measured in decades not years. The returns on education are cumulative over the course of a person’s lifetime and impact far more than the individual alone. One might suspect that the sudden reorganization of our schooling infrastructure into distance learning will not yield the same level of quality as years previous. But what can current research tell us about this achievement gap between the students who will distance learn this year and the counterfactual brick-and-mortar schooling they would otherwise receive?

A 2011 paper by Raj Chetty suggests a good elementary teacher can increase a student’s lifetime earnings by up to 1% each year, because good teachers help students strengthen their social skills and character traits, in addition to teaching the material. Over the course of a career, that difference can spiral into hundreds of thousands of dollars of lifetime earnings, which in turn can be the difference between a community attracting investment or stagnating and backsliding.

Can these non-cognitive skills be passed on remotely? Can a teacher bring two students together to resolve conflict when there is extraordinarily little social interaction happening under her eye? Can a remote school provide good examples and a sense of belonging through civil rites? The answer seems obviously to be no. So, the value of good elementary teachers as leaders of civic virtue will be lost for distance learners this year, and 2020 will initiate the first catastrophic step backward in education in this country’s history.

Socialization effects are one thing, but what can we expect from academics? Unfortunately, the picture there inspires little hope. Graduation rates at virtual charter schools hover around 50% compared to the public-school average of 84%, according to a 2019 analysis from the National Education Policy Center. While the defenders of virtual charter schools say they are helping disadvantaged students, their detractors point out that virtual schools are enrolling a lower rate of low-income students than national brick-and-mortar schools. There is no reason to adjudicate this dispute now, but it is possible that students who enroll in virtual charters for some reason were having a hard time “making it” in a brick and mortar environment, regardless of their socioeconomic status, say because of behavioral issues or a teen pregnancy. Perhaps, but this defense still points to the importance of the social dynamics of school which coerce otherwise failed students to hand in those three missing assignments that will allow them to skirt by with a ‘D.’ Maybe the difference between these two hypothetical students is only social, not academic. But the academic and communal aspects of school are linked, and having the right social environment makes learning Algebra possible.

Consequently, we should expect distance learners to have achievement levels closer to virtual charter schools than to the public-school average. And hence the academic losses will be severe. The National Education Policy Center’s 2019 report on virtual schools cites a half-dozen statewide reports each revealing lower achievement on statewide tests for reading and especially mathematics. A similar deficit seems highly likely for 2020-2021, a year in which Spring quarter came to a screeching halt, summer offered few remedial educational programs, and Fall will return many students to distance learning without all the added benefits of three quarters of rapport and camaraderie within the classroom as happened last year. Digital truancy and absenteeism have already proven hard to stop and remedial help harder to provide.

If these deficiencies are not addressed before graduation, graduation rates will fall. According to Lochner and Moretti’s 2004 study the societal benefit of a 1% increase in male graduation rates is worth more than $2 billion. With graduation rates poised to go other direction, we may see devastating long-term effects on the local community. Opportunities for continued education and better jobs will shrivel up as the achievement gap among students becomes palpable. The second order effects will include poorer families, increased criminality, and a decrease in ability to adapt and contribute to our complex society.

However, this gloomy picture is not our fate. Online charters typically have high student-teacher ratios and low engagement. Since teachers are teaching their normal group of students, teacher-student ratios will not become worse. Schools still have many resources to bring to students’ neighborhoods. Remedial help might be offered in person. Perhaps, some social capital from years previous will carry over and mitigate the losses. And many of the students in these classes will know each other and will certainly be spending their afternoons playing together. Already many schools, like Macomb Illinois Public School, are bussing food to families twice a day. All these things could help, but parents will be stressed, supervision scarce, and the many cracks in our systems threaten to become fateful chasms.

There is still hope that schools will find ways to test and trace, that lockdowns will become dynamic and based on community spread of the virus, that a daily testing regime will surface allowing us to measure whether individuals are infectious, and that districts will support remedial help for those who quite literally need their hands held. For years, staunch public-school advocates have declared the irreplaceability of the traditional model, given its better educational outcomes than distance learning, especially for disadvantaged students, and teachers have been building their pedagogies on social-emotional learning which requires in-person interaction to be most effective. Now is a good time to try to maximize the public schools’ capacity to provide quality education, despite necessary restrictions.

At the same time, this unfortunate disruption opens new opportunities for us as a society to experiment and build better educational models (in the full sense of that word: ‘educational’) and to work with our local communities to make systems which suit them. In the future, we will see far more hybrid schools which blend brick-and-mortar instruction with at-home practice, microschools which gather students into small educational groups with a professional facilitator, homeschooling pods and co-ops as thousands of people have already joined Facebook groups with the intent to homeschool in the past few months. Both parents and educators will be iterating over these models, fashioning them from the ground up to rebuild civil society, improve academic accomplishment, and prepare the way for greater social flourishing. The wreckage in education might be severe, but resolute communities who find a way to educate anyway will become the new leaders in America.