While the pandemic presented obstacles for many students during the 2020–21 school year, the federal General Accounting Office’s (GAO’s) nationwide survey of public K–12 teachers showed that teachers with certain vulnerable student populations were more likely to have students who faced significant obstacles to learning and an increased risk of falling behind academically. GAO estimates that teachers who taught in a virtual environment for the majority of the year with mostly high-poverty students were about six to 23 times more likely to have students who lacked an appropriate workspace, compared to all other teachers in their grade-level band. Regarding strategies to address learning loss, GAO found, with one exception, no differences between teachers of high- and low-poverty students.
Estimated Likelihood That Teachers with High-Poverty Students Had More Students Who Regularly Lacked an Appropriate Workspace
Teachers in a virtual environment with high-poverty students compared to all other teachers in their grade-level band, 2020–21 school year
GAO also estimates that teachers in a virtual environment with a high percentage of English learners (at least 20%) were more likely than their peers to have students who regularly faced a variety of significant obstacles. These teachers were more likely to have students who regularly struggled with understanding lessons, completing assignments, having an appropriate workspace, accessing school meals, and getting adult assistance. Regarding strategies to address learning loss, teachers with a high percentage of English learners reported (1) small-group work in person and (2) one-on-one check-ins between teachers and students mitigated learning loss for at least half of their students.
Several strategies helped the youngest students make some academic progress despite obstacles presented by the pandemic learning environment. Specifically, K–2 teachers reported that their students had difficulty getting support, lacked appropriate workspaces, and lacked tools for learning virtually. K–2 teachers found that movement breaks, small-group work in person, and tutoring during the school day helped at least half of their students.
Students in kindergarten through second grade could be at increased risk of compounded negative effects of disrupted learning over time. GAO’s prior work has raised concerns about educational disparities for students from high-poverty schools and for English learners. The 2020–21 school year offered useful insights that may help schools, educators, and parents in the future.
The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing COVID-19 monitoring and oversight efforts. This second report in a series of three examines obstacles to learning and strategies to mitigate learning loss for high-poverty students, English learners, and students in grades K–2.
To view the first report, see www.gao.gov/products/GAO-22-104487.