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The widening US education gap: Educators discuss how to address inequities caused by school shutdowns

McKinsey convened a panel of teachers and administrators to discuss ways of addressing challenges that school shutdowns have created for K–12 students.

Existing gaps in educational opportunity and achievement in the United States have widened since coronavirus outbreaks caused schools to shut down and move to remote teaching in the spring. According to McKinsey analysis, about 30 percent of US students received high-quality or average remote instruction in the spring, 50 percent received low-quality remote instruction, and 20 percent (30 to 40 percent in some districts) never even logged on. Just as people of color have contracted COVID-19 disproportionately, black and Hispanic students were less likely to receive high-quality instruction. Assuming that in-classroom instruction resumes in January 2021, the average US student will lose about seven months of learning, black students may lose ten months, and Hispanic students nine months.

The implications for the current generation of schoolchildren will be long-lasting. Solely as a result of pandemic-related learning losses, the average US student could lose $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings (more for black and Hispanic students, less for white ones.) The impact on future GDP will be even larger: McKinsey estimates an annual GDP loss of between $173 billion and $271 billion until 2040. Minimizing the damage will require an enormous effort to ensure that every student is able to access effective and equitable learning starting this fall. If health conditions continue to make it unsafe for getting students back into classrooms, then the priority must be expanding student access to, and improving the quality of online learning, and its quality.

To catch up, even partially, students need some combination of more learning time (extended school day or extended year); more dedicated attention, perhaps through tutoring programs; and compressed content, focusing on what students need to get to the next level. All of this also depends on meeting students’ broader physical, social, and emotional needs: children can’t learn without technology or if they're unsafe or hungry.

During a McKinsey webinar held in July, educators from around the United States outlined their concerns, priorities, and suggestions for the coming school year. Highlights from their discussion follow.

Gather the data

“The very first step is to find out what students need,” said Denesha Thompson, a teacher leader and family engagement liaison with KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools. “For example, at my school, we had a technology survey: Do you have internet access? Is there a place where you can sit and set up your laptop and view the teaching and lessons? From the survey results, our region made sure that every scholar received a laptop.” The school where she works also worked with the local cable company on providing Internet access to students.

“The state needs to invest in figuring out why some students aren’t showing up. And that shouldn't just be on the teacher,” said Emilio Solano, executive director of the Willamette Academy, Willamette University's college-access program in Salem, Oregon. “The [school] districts need to have people who are capable of doing that, who speak the language and are getting paid to do that work. . . . Hopefully, we can [get students to] reinvest in the school experience—or at least identify why they're not invested in the first place and then get resources to them.”

Engage students

Neema Avashia, a civics teacher in Boston public schools, said that highly engaging content and instruction are what will bring students back. Expanding on the point, Thompson said, “I think that it would be a real mistake to move into a drill-and-repeat-and-practice environment where it's all about catching up. What we really need to think about is how to use student interests as a lever for reengaging kids with learning. . . . It may mean taking a step back from our ideas about standards and accountability to say: What's going to make you want to learn? What's going get you into a conversation and a learning dialogue with me and with your peers, so that you feel a connection to learning and feel that richness and the stimulation and desire to be here?”

Allan Madrid, a teacher and school leader in New York City, views the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to rethink teaching. “COVID kind of exposed all of the endemic inequality that was happening, especially in communities of color, and schools are not immune to these inequalities. So I think reimagining how we teach is going to be super-critical,” he said.

“It's important to note that blacks and Latinos are disproportionately affected by COVID, and the kids saw a lot. My community in the Bronx was the most-affected by COVID, so the kids come in with trauma. And George Floyd's death was captured in the news. Kids saw the unrest. . . . So I think the first step to knowing how to relate to students is [teachers] understanding [students’] racial barriers and feelings, understanding how families have historically been held back by racist institutions, and questioning their own biases and ensuring that they’re talking to students about topics in ways that are empowering.”

Put relationships first

After noting that traditionally students are taught the same thing at the same time and move forward simultaneously, Avashia said, “I'm not actually sure that's true right now. I think that we have to put relationships first—and only first. Not first while we're doing something else, but fully first. . . . If that means that I take my folding chair and drive to your house and sit on the sidewalk in the chair and you sit on your stoop, and we have an hour-long conversation about how remote learning went for you and the challenges your family’s been facing, then that's what needs to happen. We can't just expect that we're going to restart learning in September, acting like nothing happened has for the past six months. Things have happened in our country that have radically shifted the ground. . . . And if we build those relationships in a way that they've never been built before, I think learning will go at an exponential rate. But if we don't do respect to the relationship building first, then any learning that happens will be stilted by the fact that we didn't do that work.”

For more on this topic, please watch the two videos of the panel discussion and read the McKinsey article “COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime.”

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