Education can’t be the great equalizer if schools are closed

As Horace Mann famously stated in 1848, “Education, then, beyond all other divides of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

What happens when the “Great Equalizer” shuts down? Long-lasting consequences on children’s education that are hard to undo, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by researchers Francesco Agostinelli, Matthias Doepke, Giuseppe Sorrenti, and Fabrizio Zilibotti.

Unlike a business that can be compensated for pandemic-induced losses, there is no magic trick for making up learning losses incurred during the crisis. This observation suggests that keeping schools open during the crisis should have a higher priority than, say, opening bars and restaurants that can be supported with other means.

The paper focuses on the impact school closures and learning losses have had on high school students’ education, taking into account parents’ role and that their ability to help their children depended on their own constraints (such as, being able to work from home or not). The main conclusion? School closures have contributed to higher educational inequality, and wider achievement gaps will persist until students finish high school, which puts students’ long-term prospects at risk.

Children from low-income families do relatively worse with virtual schooling compared to regular schooling.

Distance learning lowers total productivity in forming and accumulating skills, the authors find. This contributes to learning losses, which are “particularly acute for children from low-income families.”

And with evidence suggesting parents from a lower socio-economic background changed their parenting style to “more authoritarian during school closure periods,” this style of parenting “has a negative direct effect on the process of skill formation and reduces educational achievement.”

Children from low-income families experience a decline in positive peer spillovers when school is closed.

Separation from peers reduces children’s learnings, the authors write. When schools are closed, students’ interactions with their peers are limited to the kids in their neighborhood rather than the school, which segregates one’s peer environment. Children’s ability to form new peer connections is also limited.

Children from low-income families are more likely to have parents who are less likely able to work from home and hence can’t provide necessary support for distance learning.

Distance learning makes greater demands on parents, the authors write, because they “have to supply some inputs usually provided by teachers and take a greater role on organizing, inciting, and supporting their children’s learning.” Better educated and better financially positioned parents can more easily meet those demands and more easily access technology or tutoring than poorer parents with limited resources, less education, and lower earnings prospects.