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Distance-Learning Data and the Equity Gap

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Distance-Learning Data Provides a Window into the Persistent Equity Gap: A View into the Digital Divide by State

By: Debbie Smith | 09/16/2020

As schools across the country have been working through early bumps of distance learning, student data is shining a new light on the digital access divide. Research into some early COVID closure distance-learning data shows that our country still has an enormous digital equity gap to close. State leaders have the opportunity to use data from the abrupt nationwide closures and focus on ways to improve our educational system for all students.

Distance-learning data shows that during the first week of closures, the use of digital learning dropped by 60 percent everywhere, compared to preclosure data. By week six, the numbers had improved, but there was still a 33 percent decrease as districts, educators, and students had a chance to set up distance-learning models and infrastructures. As we look deeper into the digital-learning data across the first six weeks of closures across the nation, it’s clear and not surprising that recovering usage differs dramatically based on community economics. Although distance-learning usage increased across all income groups as weeks passed and school buildings were closed, research found usage levels recovered to just a fraction of preclosure access in low-income zip codes.

How can state leaders use the digital divide findings when discussing ways to best support all students as we move forward?

Three main pieces of the digital divide problem are quality programs, widespread device availability, and expanded internet access. As a state education leader, this call to action spans outside of the school system and requires collaboration across community, civic, corporate, and philanthropic forces. There have already been exemplary cases in Arkansas and Texas, where Wi-Fi was deployed to students without internet via school buses and numerous foundations provided millions of dollars to immediately support the learning, health, and wellness of K–12 students. District leaders must also invest in high-quality instructional materials that are aligned to state standards and challenge students to meet grade-level expectations. A research study from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching found only 40 percent of educators are using high-quality, standards-aligned curricula, with the percentages decreasing in districts serving low-income students and students of color. The instructional materials need to be available for use in the classroom and virtually, as a mix of in-person and remote learning is expected when schools reopen.

The larger question is, how can we work together to create a long-term solution to fix a broken structure and close the equity gap? First, we can start by acknowledging that data shows our low-income students want to learn when given access. Let’s look at data from the state of New York. When New York State students from low-income zip codes gained digital access, they spent more time using digital instruction than their peers from higher-income zip codes. This is positive data that supports the importance of ensuring all students have access to digital devices and the internet at home to support their learning.

Most states agree post-COVID school will include a blend of remote and in-classroom learning. We must collect data to understand and provide an actionable framework depicting activities where students need in-class instruction and prioritize opportunities for those needing it most. Consider this: The achievement gap was first identified in the Coleman report in 1966. How is it that 54 years later we continue to expand the gap without a solution? Let’s shift the conversation from what hasn’t worked and use the pandemic as a way to shift conversations to solutioning a system change that closes our nation’s equity gap. As part of the call to action, the Education Commission of the States is working on research and resources to help close the digital divide and expects to release materials this summer.

Overcoming the Digital Divide

Students with socioeconomic disadvantages have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, but our research shows there are spots of hope that provide reason for optimism.


About the Author

Debbie Smith
Vice President, Government Relations, Curriculum Associates

Debbie Smith leads a team at Curriculum Associates that collaborates with local, state, and national stakeholders to support educational policies that best serve educators, students, and parents. Prior to this role, Debbie was a classroom teacher and served in leadership roles with several major assessment and instruction companies. In addition, she served as the Director of Standards and Assessments for the Oklahoma State Department of Education. She has served on a number of educational boards, been a peer reviewer for an education journal, and delivered numerous presentations to educators, legislators, and industry leaders as a subject-matter expert. Her passion continues to be the intersection of assessment and instruction for the benefit of all students.