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Expert cautions learning pods could worsen Madison's achievement gap

Expert cautions learning pods could worsen Madison's achievement gap

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Sandburg Elementary School fourth and fifth-grade teacher Christoper Rago helps his first-grade daughter, Charlotte, with her virtual learning, while his youngest child, Chloe, watches.

Almost immediately after the Madison School District joined other districts across the country in announcing a return to online instruction instead of bringing students back to the classroom for the fall semester, posts started popping up on Facebook groups, Craigslist, Reddit and the University of Wisconsin-Madison student job board seeking in-home academic help.

Parents taxed by trying to do their own jobs from home while monitoring their children's school work are looking for tutors, nannies, even retired teachers to help them navigate what could be several more months of virtual education.

“I think one of the important things that everyone needs to understand is right now, parents are in just an untenable position, all the way around, every parent,” said Madeline Hafner, executive director of the Minority Student Achievement Network Consortium at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

Many families are teaming up with neighbors to pool resources and form “learning pods” for the school year. But research indicates when families can afford to do so turn to tutoring and educational services in their homes, it can affect the academic success of all students.

Impacting all families

Even without additional in-home teaching support, children attending advantaged schools have more tools to succeed in online learning.

"If you were in a district that has a very large per pupil expenditure, you've got lower class sizes. You've got higher amounts of money to spend on tech. You've got more resources for supplemental instruction and for educational supports, before school, after school, and that all translates online very seamlessly,” Hafner said. “For some students, especially children living in poverty, I've seen statistics that show if we stay in the cycle we're in right now with unsupported online learning, they can lose up to a year of gains in growth."

For students without at-home support, it's even more crucial that they learn among fellow students. Hafner emphasized that children learn through their peers, a social-emotional piece that is crucial to understand.

The National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine (NAS) released a report on July 15 predicting long-term academic consequences from virtual-only learning, in particular for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. In a statement, Enriqueta Bond, chair of the committee that authored the report, wrote: “This pandemic has laid bare the deep, enduring inequities that afflict our country and our schools. Many of the communities hardest hit by the virus are also home to schools with the least resources and the greatest challenges.”

Parents looking to refocus on their careers by forming neighborhood learning pods and hiring tutors for their children may be exacerbating pre-existing segregation in the community.

“Where people live is generally dictated by housing markets, and demographically cities are segregated by race,” said Hafner. “Because of access to wealth, white families have more access to finances that will get them houses in 'good' neighborhoods. So we live in segregated neighborhoods, where you have, many times, segregated schools. And even when schools are racially integrated physically, they're racially segregated academically. This pattern has emerged where families are podding with families who live close by. And so that creates very real racial segregation.”

She said there is a long history in America of white families leaving integrated public schools for private schools, sometimes even forming their own.

"So that history needs to be in everyone's mind as they're making these decisions," she said.

Challenges in Madison

Mike, who asked for his last name to be withheld, was initially considering forming a learning pod with a small group of neighbors and hiring a teacher to help with virtual learning through the 2020-2021 school year.

But now he is planning to take his children out of MMSD and renting a house in Columbia County where he can send his children to in-person classes before returning to Madison next June. Otherwise, his family will adopt “some sort of home school curriculum.” 

“I don't think MMSD teachers are qualified to give online instruction, and my experience in the spring would confirm that,” he said.

Hafner said moving out of urban districts like Madison will only make matters worse for their ability to fund improvements.

"I think one thing every single parent needs to know — and I don't think every parent does — is if you choose to pull your child out of public school, your school loses funding," said Hafner. "That's the worst possible thing you could do for a school district, is to remove that funding at this moment in time when everybody needs funding for education. Understanding that has extreme ramifications financially for a school district."

Lisa Kvistad, MMSD assistant superintendent of teaching and learning,  acknowledged that the district learned from the issues surrounding virtual learning in the spring is using that knowledge to inform decisions going forward.

"We learned a lot from the surveys from parents, teachers and staff about how to make virtual learning more robust when we go back in the fall," she said.

The spread of the coronavirus itself is also disproportionately affecting students of color. As Dane County sees a rise in the community spread of COVID-19 from the actions of young people, there remains an age and racial disparity in those who are most vulnerable to complications and death from the disease. Students are witnessing first-hand the devastation in their communities.

“We have chosen not to support laws and policies that support children, and in particular, don't support Black and brown children,” said Hafner. “We have chosen as a nation not to do that. And this is what happens when families who have resources use them in ways that on the outside look benign, but have these deleterious effects for years on families and students of color and their communities."

She advised white families who are concerned about racial disparities to consider their actions carefully.

“I think white families need to be very thoughtful in how we proceed," she said. "I am a white person, and I am mother. I have two very small children. And we all need to understand our choices will have an impact.”

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

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