Math Knowledge Is Another Casualty of the Pandemic




Shalinee Sharma can track the impact of Covid-19 on students’ math achievement on a daily basis by checking the website of Zearn, the nonprofit company of which she is chief executive and co-founder. Students go to Zearn to take math lessons and to earn badges, which they get for a perfect score on a unit quiz. Early in the pandemic she and her staff noticed that high-income students were using Zearn more than ever, but the low-income students that Zearn is most concerned about were dropping off. The gap seemed to narrow at the start of this school year, but lately it has widened again.

“The spring was a catastrophe,” Sharma says, with the rich/poor gap briefly reaching 50 percentage points. “We were traumatized by what we were seeing in the data.” When the gap shrank to 5.5 percentage points in September, she says, “My team was really happy. We were over the moon.” In the latest weekly data, the gap reached almost 17 percentage points. “It’s not on a good trend line. It’s trending apart again.”

Zearn shares its data with Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit based at Harvard that collects data on the barriers that prevent people from rising out of poverty and then tries to develop solutions. Getting good at math can be a good way to escape poverty, so it’s disappointing that low-income students are falling behind. 

Overall usage of Zearn has risen sharply since the pandemic. The reported numbers come from 800,000 heavy users of Zearn who have been tracked by Opportunity Insights since January. Their income figures are based on demographic data for the ZIP codes of their schools.

Sharma says she can only guess as to why the gap narrowed and then began to widen again. A possible explanation for the narrowing, she says, is that teachers and parents “tried really, really, really hard” to get low-income students on track. A possible explanation for the recent widening, she says, is that low-income students are more likely than high-income students to take classes remotely, so they’re less engaged with Zearn, both in the classroom and at home. 

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