Practice Makes Perfect Virtual Summer Learning


  • Practice Makes Perfect - New York City, New York

Focus Area

  • Education

“The impact of COVID-19 on learning: the average student is expected to fall seven months behind academically, while black and Hispanic students could experience even greater learning losses--ten months for black children and nine months for Latinos.”

Practice Makes Perfect Team

The Issue

One in six. According to a 2018 survey by the Census Bureau, that’s the number of kids who live in poverty in America. And while over 16% of children live in households with incomes well below the federal poverty guidelines, an even greater number live in families who struggle daily to make ends meet. 

Although education has long been touted as the great equalizer, it isn’t always equal among the array of American public and private schools. Children from low-income homes and children of color are are more likely to attend schools with less-experienced teachers and fewer resources. State and local governments also invest less in their education. The Education Trust finds that school districts with the highest rates of poverty receive about $1,000 (or 7%) less state and local funding per student than school districts with the lowest poverty rates. The funding difference between districts who serve the most students of color and those who serve the fewest is $1,800. 

Funding aside, even before their first day of kindergarten, children in poverty face obstacles to academic success. Many low-income students lack the supportive school environment and home resources enjoyed by their higher-income classmates. With less time for homework and fewer academic resources, the “learning gap” that exists between low- and high-income students widens with each successive year. And it only grows over the summer. The “summer slide,” or learning loss, that occurs over the summer months is more pronounced among low-income students, leaving them unprepared when it’s time to meet the challenges of a higher grade level.

Eventually, the learning gap turns into the achievement gap. A 2007 study by Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson finds that 60% of high-income youth attend a four-year college by the age of 22, while only 7% of low-income students do. Similarly, only 9% of freshmen in the nation’s top 120 tier-one colleges are from families in the bottom half of America’s income range. Because employment and earnings improve with college degrees, the achievement gap leaves students at a serious economic disadvantage—one that can persist and be passed down for generations.  

Succeeding in school, then, is already an uphill battle for low-income students. Add in a pandemic, and the challenges grow ten-fold.

On March 16, 2020, schools across New York State were closed as a result of COVID-19. Other states were quick to follow. To ensure the physical safety of students and staff, administrators transitioned classes online through the end of the academic year. But many schools—predominantly those of low-income students of color—were not equipped to make the virtual transition, which means some students lost over three months of in-person instruction. And even for schools that did make the transition, learning gaps started compounding. A 2020 report by Chetty et al. found that students in higher-income New York zip codes increased their engagement in online math coursework by 16% between January and May of 2020, while the participation of those in low-income zip codes dropped by 50%.

Parents, teachers, and students are also growing increasingly concerned about the efficacy of online instruction. A 2015 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students enrolled in online charter schools were 180 days of learning behind their peers in math and 72 days behind in reading--numbers that don’t bode well for the future of academics in the era of COVID-19.

Normally, and especially during times of pandemic, the disparity in material support and academic resources available to low- and high-income students is staggering. Many low-income students do not have access to the technology—much less to reliable internet connectivity—that’s required for their online classes. And at home, many parents of low-income households are juggling the demands of education alongside the economic instability and uncertainty brought by COVID-19. A new Urban Institute study finds that 43% of parents with children report that they or an immediate family member has lost employment as a result of the pandemic. These numbers only rise for families of color—62% of Hispanic families, 50% of Black families, and 36.5% of white families face unemployment. By income, that’s half of low-income families, compared to one-third of high-income families.

Kids who are out of school for extended periods of time are also more susceptible to hunger and health concerns. The stress and uncertainty their families face can take a severe mental toll. Without the free meals and holistic, steady support of peers and adults at school, COVID-19 puts the emotional, physical, and intellectual health of children at significant risk. 

Now more than ever, low-income families face immense barriers to their economic well-being and their children’s educational success. To combat the learning loss compounded by the summer months and the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to know what works to engage low-income students in the pandemic era. By cultivating an understanding of the logistical and material challenges they face, we can better inform and craft our nation’s schooling response to COVID-19 and other emergencies.

The Intervention

Practice Makes Perfect works to counteract the summer learning loss experienced by elementary and middle school students. It provides remediation and enrichment programming in the summer months, ensuring the most vulnerable students have access to the educational resources they need when they’re not in school. 

Traditionally, the Practice Makes Perfect summer learning program is a five-week, in-person curriculum that relies on students’ close contact with mentors and teachers. In light of COVID-19, Practice Makes Perfect adapted its summer curriculum to an eight-week, web-based program including interactive classes in math and reading. In addition to the class materials, participating students also have access to virtual one-on-one time with teachers and mentors, offered at no cost. NYC public school students in grades 3-8 are eligible to enroll. 

Research Question

Can virtual summer programming counteract the learning losses of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Intended Outcomes

  • Students who participate in the Practice Makes Perfect virtual summer learning program and who have live access to teachers and mentors will exhibit better academic progress over the eight-week program than students who only have access to the curriculum’s online course materials. 
  • Specifically, students who personally engage with teachers and mentors will have higher math and reading scores than those who do not.

Research Study Design

The Practice Makes Perfect virtual summer learning study is a randomized controlled trial. 

Because there’s more interest in the program than there are seats available, the LEO research team will randomize interested, eligible students in grades 3-8 into either the treatment or the control group. Students in the treatment group will have access to the Practice Makes Perfect online platform, as well as to mentors and teachers through virtual, one-on-one sessions. Students randomized into the control group will have access to online platforms, but not to the live, virtual sessions with teachers and mentors that are offered to the treatment group. At the conclusion of the program, LEO researchers will compare the academic outcomes of students across both groups. 

Researchers are optimistic that the results of this study will inform the current debate on the academic and social costs of the widespread school closures caused by COVID-19. This study will also help policymakers and school administrators uncover strategies that can be used to lessen those costs. 

(Photo credit: Practice Makes Perfect)

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