On Juneteenth, throngs of Washington D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) students marched to the U.S. Department of Education to protest racial disparities in the capital’s education system. The protestors pointed to differences in everything from the classes on offer to technological resources in the schools that primarily serve Black and brown communities. The protestors’ grievances were well-founded and far from new. According to data on academic disparities from the Stanford Education Data Archive, Black students in DCPS averaged 4.9 grade levels behind white students between the 2008-09 and 2014-15 school years—more than twice the gap in New York City Schools.
As we transitioned to confront the new normal of remote-learning during COVID-19, fears abounded that achievement gaps in districts like DCPS could be exacerbated. Discovering what works in remote education is essential, especially to educators at programs like the nonprofit Zearn, which I founded in 2012 to offer hands-on, immersive digital math teaching and learning for teachers and students. Today, we serve millions of K-5 students and hundreds of thousands of teachers nationally. Like every educator and education platform in the country, we want to equip teachers with the resources to do what they love: Help all students thrive.
We now have substantive data that portrays what education looks like during COVID-19. In collaboration with the Harvard and Brown-based research team led by John Friedman and Raj Chetty at Opportunity Insights (OI), Zearn offered critical anonymized and aggregated data to measure student activity and student progress on its math learning platform.
That education data is presented alongside other key economic indicators, like small business activity and employment. All the partners provide data on a weekly basis to help us understand the crisis, as well as guide our collective recovery. It gives the first of its kind picture showing how key cross-sections of our society and economy, including our education system, are performing.
The data for the Washington D.C. metro area, mostly comprising schools in the DCPS system which largely serve students of color and low-income students, offers an important example to the nation. Amidst troubling reports that attendance numbers are incredibly low in DCPS, the OI Zearn data offers a bright spot. Similar to the rest of the nation, Washington D.C. Zearn data showed a shock the week of March 16. However, District students’ Zearn lesson completion data rebounded faster than the nation and, by the end of the month, was up nearly 40% over baseline while the nation was down more than 18%.
Each week since, District students outperformed the nation by an eye-popping level, peaking at 48.6% above baseline levels the week ending April 5, 2020. While across the nation we saw participation dip as much as 30% in April, Washington D.C. metro area participation was up between 3-4%. Further, Zearn data not included in the OI Economic Tracker shows thousands more students from the District being added to the Zearn platform immediately post March 16. All of this tells us one thing: District students who are given access to online curricula are not putting their learning on pause.
While this data only covers K-5 students who use the platform, it does hold key implications and lessons for how districts like DCPS have adapted to our new era of education and what practices might stave off exacerbating disparities in the time of COVID-19, especially as distance learning looks increasingly likely to extend through fall.
- First, we need to continue to partner with teachers, offering them resources, alternative curricula, and approaches to teaching that honor both their expertise and our new landscape outside the traditional classroom space. Over the past several months, Zearn has seen a nearly threefold increase in staff and educators using the platform in Washington D.C., the majority of which is by students in lower-income ZIP codes. The takeaway is clear: When we train and offer teachers platforms like Zearn, they can help students thrive.
- Second, we must hold leaders accountable. Claims that distance learning is impossible, or that we needn’t bother, are a disservice to what millions of students on one platform alone is showing to be possible. Indeed, data from other states and districts tells us that students in some areas, especially within lower-income brackets, are not achieving at the pre-COVID-19 levels. It is the job of our policymakers to work with educators and innovators in this space to connect the dots, and figure out what resources are needed to get those numbers back on track.
While we don’t yet know if digital lessons alone outside of school will drive academic outcomes, we do know that equipping students and teachers with the resources to continue learning is a critical first step. Every parent supporting young children at home knows viscerally that some learning is better than no learning.
One good we hope can come out of this crisis is a renewed focus on our obligation to ensure every student across the country, regardless of their ZIP code or race, can access programs to help them thrive. As is evident from the OI Zearn dataset, Washington D.C. schools are taking important steps and leading the way. It is vital that we pay attention to this bright spot and others around the country. Because when we do our homework and offer everyone the opportunities they deserve, students can do theirs.