Survey finds remote learning gaps in U.S. elementary schools

Special Education and Communication Disorders

Haley Apel, August 31, 2020

Survey finds remote learning gaps in U.S. elementary schools

As back-to-school season ramps up, across the country teachers, parents and students are still reeling from the effects of the unexpected and abrupt shift to remote learning that occurred in the spring. A recent study conducted by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln found that elementary teachers nationwide believe on average just three out of five of their students were prepared to advance to the next grade level when schools shut down.

Prior studies have found that the most effective instruction and student learning occurs in-person. When the coronavirus pandemic disrupted daily life, schools nationwide were forced to shut their doors and make the unprecedented and rapid transition to delivering remote instruction. In an effort to understand and describe the remote educational experiences implemented across the U.S. during this time, Michael Hebert, Marc Goodrich and Jessica Namkung, all faculty in the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders in the College of Education and Human Sciences at Nebraska, organized a survey of teachers.

According to preliminary results, 69% of teachers surveyed report that they either do not believe remote instruction was effective or are unsure about its effectiveness. Furthermore, many teachers surveyed did not provide direct instruction in academic skills more than once per week, with more than 20% reporting never providing direct instruction in academic skills.

Based on these findings, the research team estimates that 7.2 million to 11.6 million elementary school students in grades K-5 received no instruction for between four and 22 weeks out of the school year, based upon when the school closures occurred.

“While there were tremendous efforts by schools and teachers to provide instructional opportunities for students, in general our survey results indicate that remote learning restricts access to high-quality education, especially for the most vulnerable students” Hebert said.

Lack of access to daily, direct instruction in academic skills is likely to widen achievement gaps, such as those that exist with low-income students, students with disabilities and English language learners, Hebert said.

Researchers found a significant, negative link between whether teachers held live meetings and the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch, indicating that teachers who served larger numbers of students from low-income backgrounds were less likely to hold live meetings with their students.

Additionally, 85% of teachers surveyed reported having English language learners in their classroom, but 43% indicated providing no instructional accommodations for those students during school closure.

“Students who have the highest educational need, including students from vulnerable populations and students with low academic achievement, are those students who will need the most targeted supports to catch up to their peers this school year,” Hebert said.

For the students who did receive instruction, more than 70% of teachers surveyed noted that the assignments they gave were often not graded or were graded as pass/fail, which leads to challenges when trying to evaluate the effectiveness of the quality of instruction provided.

“We suspect that the lack of grading may have contributed to uncertainty about the impacts of remote instruction,” Hebert said.

Survey results are still in the peer-review process. To conduct the survey, the team worked with a company focused exclusively on data services related to education. The survey was emailed to a random sample of teachers in July. There were 428 responses from teachers in 49 states. The team is now planning multiple follow-up surveys to continue to track how COVID-19 is impacting education throughout the current school year.

Special Education and Communication Disorders