The Coronavirus Will Explode Achievement Gaps in Education

gap in book stacks
‘Full vs. Empty.’ Photo credit: Richard Yuan, CC BY-NC 2.0.

The COVID-19 pandemic will take existing academic achievement differences between middle-class and low-income students and explode them.

The academic achievement gap has bedeviled educators for years. In math and reading, children of college-educated parents score on average at about the 60th percentile, while children whose parents have only a high school degree score, on average, at the 35th percentile.* The academic advantages of children whose parents have master’s degrees and beyond are even greater. 

To a significant extent, this is a neighborhood issue—schools are more segregated today than at any time in the last 50 years, mostly because the neighborhoods in which they are located are so segregated. Schools with concentrated populations of children affected by serious socioeconomic problems are able to devote less time and attention to academic instruction.

In 2001 we adopted the “No Child Left Behind Act,” assuming that these disparities mostly stemmed from schools’ failure to take seriously a responsibility to educate African-American, Hispanic, and lower-income students. Supporters claimed that holding educators accountable for test results would soon eliminate the achievement gap. Promoted by liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, the theory was ludicrous, and the law failed to fulfill its promise. The achievement gap mostly results from social-class based advantages that some children bring to school and that others lack, as well as disadvantages stemming from racial discrimination that only some children have to face.

The coronavirus, unfortunately, will only exacerbate the effects of these advantages.

With schools shut, white-collar professionals with college degrees operate homeschools, sometimes with superior curricular enhancements. My own children, with post-graduate degrees, are introducing my young grandchildren to Shakespeare and algebra, topics they would ordinarily encounter only in later grades. A friend, a biologist in normal times, now staying home from work, is taking her pre-school, kindergarten, and 2nd grade children for walks in the woods where they learn the names of birds, why goldfinches get their bright yellow wings, about sexual selection in birds and their funny displays to attract a mate, and how moss reproduces with spores. They found some of that moss in the woods and saw that when you touch the red part, it lets out a puff of tiny spores; this was a huge hit with the children.

In neighborhoods that are socioeconomically segregated, friends and classmates of children like these have similar experiences. Parents with full-time professional jobs never before had the opportunity to be full-time instructors, and many make the most of it.

Meanwhile, many parents with less education have jobs that even during the coronavirus crisis cannot be performed at home – supermarket clerks, warehouse workers, delivery truck drivers. Even with distance learning being established by schools and teachers—many of whom are now busy with their own children at home—too many students in low-income and rural communities don’t have internet access: 35 percent of low-income households with school-aged children don’t have high-speed internet; for moderate-income families it is 17 percent, and only 6 percent for middle-class and affluent families. When measured by race and ethnicity, the gap is greater for African-American and Hispanic families.

In New York City, 300,000 students live in homes with no computer. The Philadelphia school system, a majority of whose students are from low-income families, initially chose not to conduct online classes during the coronavirus shutdown because it would be so inequitable: “If that’s not available to all children, we cannot make it available to some,” the schools superintendent announced. He has since relented and announced that the district would purchase Chromebooks and lend them to students without computers. This did not, however, solve the problem for students who have no high-speed internet service at home, something the district is trying to address, but only with great difficulty and not in time to bridge the current digital divide.

For students in some states, the shutdown could last for almost half the school year. The achievement gap between low-income and other children is already equivalent to at least two years of schooling. Might the coronavirus shutdown expand that by another half year?

We have evidence that tells us what to expect. Increased reliance on homework, for example, widens achievement gaps. Children whose parents can more effectively help with homework gain more than children whose parents can do so less well.

We also know that the educational gap is wider when children return after summer vacation than it was in the spring, because middle-class children frequently have summer enrichment that reinforces knowledge and experience. The larger gap shows up in test scores, but also in less easily quantifiable areas that are particularly valued in higher education, professional workplaces, and civic life, such as cooperative skills in group activities, possibly due to enrichment from things like summer camp and family travel.

Children living in low-income, disinvested, overcrowded, or less-safe neighborhoods are more likely to experience toxic stress from exposure to violence, homelessness, and economic insecurity that interfere with emotional health and learning, as well as leading to behavior challenges that affect the classroom environment for others.

For some, school is the safest place. Teachers report that when children in low-income neighborhoods who are living in overcrowded and highly stressed homes return to school after breaks, evidence of physical abuse is more noticeable. (Two examples of research on this can be found here and here). It is frightening to consider the consequences of a three- or four-month break when some children and parents will be isolated and frustrated in overcrowded conditions.

Congressional consideration of a massive economic program to minimize a virus-induced depression has properly focused on immediate needs to save small businesses, enhance and extend unemployment insurance, and guarantee sick leave. But when schools reopen, the expanded achievement gap will be in urgent need of intervention. 

We can’t (and in a free society, probably shouldn’t) try to reduce the resources that advantaged parents can give children (although Philadelphia’s attempt to forgo online instruction on equity grounds offers a contrary ideal). But we can increase resources for other children to provide more equity. Federal law now provides added support for schools serving low-income children. It enables, for example, the hire of additional teacher aides or reading specialists, the purchase of some additional curriculum materials, reduced class sizes in schools serving concentrations of low-income students, or a truncated summer school program focused on basic skills. The stubborn persistence of the achievement gap shows it is not nearly enough.

We should do much more. Not only should we substantially increase teacher pay, but also finance nurses, social workers, art and music teachers, instructional librarians, and after school and summer programs that not only provide homework help but clubs that develop collaborative skills, organized athletics, and citizenship preparation—like the expansive education that middle class children typically receive at parents’ expense.

Most important, all children should have publicly funded, high-quality early childhood education, including preschool for three and four year olds with evidence-based programs. If a research consensus exists on anything in education, it is that the socioeconomic gap in cognitive performance is well-established by age 3.

The continued segregation of children by income and race, however, will dilute the impact of even these reforms. In the long run, redressing this segregation has the potential for a much bigger impact. That redress should include both opening up middle-class and affluent neighborhoods to diverse residents, and improving the quality of existing disadvantaged neighborhoods, not only with better resourced schools, but with mixed-income housing, transportation access to good jobs, markets that sell fresh food, and walkable options.

Americans have become dramatically more divided by income and wealth. Upward mobility has declined; inequality is increasingly transmitted inter-generationally. We can act to prevent the coronavirus from accelerating these trends.


*The estimates of achievement differences by parental educational attainment, and of how achievement gap can be expressed in “years of schooling” are based on an average of fourth and eighth grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The estimates were developed for this article by economists at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), using the online NAEP Data Tool. Martin Carnoy is a professor of education at Stanford University and an EPI research associate, and Emma Garcia is an EPI staff economist. I am grateful to them for their assistance.

Richard Rothstein is a distinguished fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.


  1. Already a century ago, Albert Einstein denounced the public school system for being oppressive, dull, monotonous, and for its stifling, suffocating effects on intellectual curiosity.
    Einstein writes in his memoirs he was very nearly put off intellectual pursuits for good after his dreadful public school experience. Only after a decent interval away from the public school did his natural curiosity and sense of wonder about the world begin to return. People rightly tend to suppose that the public school system must be modeled on the penitentiary. In fact the reverse is the case. The penitentiary precedes the public school. The progressive reformers of the 19th century supposed that they could corral together the criminal element from every strata of society and rework them into docile, obedient subjects compliant with progressive’s diktats. Later reformers had the same dream for nation’s young. The public school is actually modeled on the penitentiary. It follow its fixed periods of rotation from place to place at precise times throughout the day. The student must at all times defer to authority. He must have special permission to deviate from prescribed schedule of activities. A dossier is kept on him assessing his performance and compliance – his ‘examination’ marks and his citizenship score. As well attendance is compulsory. Declining to attend public school can subject kids to arrest and imprisonment as well as his parents. The public schools are staffed by unionized government education workers paid on the basis of seniority rather than merit. In short, unionized monopoly government education detention centers are so tedious and oppressive, in many places most students simply eventually stop going entirely. The solution to all this is so simple: Abolish the public school system and allow parents and their kids to decide for themselves the sort of education arrangements which accord with their interests, aptitudes, personalities, and sensibilities. The solution to the education ‘crisis’ is not more belligerence, more expropriation of resources from one group for the benefit of another. The solution is freedom from such belligerence, domination and subjugation.

  2. Thank you for the article. We have chosen to live with inequality. Before COVID- 19 we went comfortably to bed every night with astounding academic achievement gaps, under supported schools and educators, known school to prison pipelines, unequal teaching and learning and more. While we write much about this and point out places and instances of greater equity and academic success for our most vulnerable students, we have lived with and almost accepted that the children of some citizens (black and brown, economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, English Language Learners) get less and will therefore have more constrained futures.

    As an educator I have spent my career focusing on students, teachers and schools. However, if we don’t provide fair and adequate jobs, housing and access to food for families, just focusing on our schools will help a few, sometimes more than a few but certainly not all. At a conference at UC Berkeley focused on 50 years since the Kenner Report, it was clearly pointed out that in 1969 the conclusion was that jobs needed to be provided, made available for African-Americans and that now fifty years later the same condition exists. We know the research about what can happen to young men living in situations of uncertain futures yet we have tolerated a 20% unemployment rate among black youth, offering prison as the solution.

    So, in addition to doing a better job at providing an equitable education, all of the time and in times of crisis for all of our children, – jobs, decent homes, food (no more food deserts), parks etc. are equally important. COVID-19 is pointing out and uncovering the grave consequences of inequality. Let’s make sure that being a citizen means the best education for all with the technology needed, but also the best economic, social and environmental opportunities and conditions so that children can thrive at school, at home and in their neighborhoods.

  3. While it is appropriate to focus attention on IT issues and the digital divide, there are measures that can be taken to deliver education in addition to using the Internet for laptops and desktops. These include maximizing education over mobile devices and gamification, especially since that’s how a great many young people today receive and transmit information and spend time, and since almost all households today have cellphones; using good old educational TV, since almost all households have TVs; using traditional homeschooling methods; and using old-fashioned lessons by mail. A problem that hasn’t been solved, and which technology isn’t going to solve, is the fact that about a third of K-12 students aren’t even bothering to log on to their school sites to participate in distance learning. This figure far exceeds the gap caused by the digital divide.

  4. How can we desegregate affluent neighborhoods? That is one key question here, and raising it can be incriminating. But really, we share a single pool of resources and for some to gain, others need to give. Can you convince the increasingly successful to make sacrifices equivalent to the increasingly left behind? Everyone must make sacrifices to make a better society, and we need the haves to step up, because the have nots are giving up 100x what they can afford to.

  5. New research shows that the difference in educational attainment between students from higher and lower socioeconomic backgrounds has not changed over the past 50 years. This achievement gap has persisted even though inflation-adjusted spending per student has quadrupled. To help narrow the achievement gap, the United States needs to reconsider its existing course and be open to new directions in education policy.


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