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Distance Learning Is Not Equal To Drop Out

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

Shame on the New York Times for its article "When School Is Voluntary." While I understand that it's an opinion piece, this is one piece I'd use as an example to show what happens when opinions are given without caring to understand the opposing point of view or even research to make proper correlations and references. When those who know little of the world being referenced gullibly accept the opinion as law, the results can be dangerous with sweeping generalizations.

If you're low on time or access, here's a brief synopsis: He draws a line from mandatory schooling laws and the universal good they did for the country. He then says COVID has undermined the schooling system, pointing to the fact that some school districts have given students the opportunity to learn remotely. He throws in that Black and Latino families are more likely to select the remote learning option. He then went one to point to a series of studies and anecdotal evidence from a decorated high school English teacher who compared her student who came back to the classroom this year to the ones who remained remote. According to the teacher, the full-year remote students struggled. The writer of the piece says that remote schooling may be more like dropping out than attending in-person. He references that C.D.C.'s position on in-person schooling. He ends with addressing the disproportionate suffering Black and Latino communities had due to COVID and vaccine skepticism. He concludes by saying the most likely outcome for continued remote learning would be yet another force that furthers the economic disparity gap in the U.S., which often runs parallel to racial lines.

Let's take a step back and look at the areas Mr. Leonhardt chose to focus on, his reference material, and one big problem with his comparison.

One of the most substantial claims hinges on the fact that the government stepped in to require schooling because it was too important in children's lives not to be mandatory. In addition, the government's compulsory school laws did great things like increase graduation rates for high school and college and helped the economic prosperity of the generations required to attend college.

The U.S. government made these laws for particular reasons--not out of the goodness of its heart. And the government didn't enact the laws to the equal benefit of all Americans. These laws were in no way attached to graduation requirements. In fact, they weren't even connected to completing a specific grade level or achievement. The laws were attached to the age of the student. A student could attend school under these early laws until they aged out but never actually learn anything. Assumptions that compulsatory schooling laws increased the graduation rates of any group--especially minority groups that often received less attention--are misleading. The statistics related to those rated, in comparison to how many students did or didn't attend school, simply didn't exist before compulsatory rules in 1852 in Massachusetts.

As for these laws being made for the benefit of all, well, that is something history disputes. Some government and social leaders at the time weren't necessarily thinking of academic advantage. It was seen as a chance to indoctrinate immigrant and lower-class children into a religious way of thinking (Perrin 1896) or preconstructed social norms (Moore, 1902). And those social norms? According to W.E.B Du Bois, it included a caste system in which Whites and non-Whites had particular roles to play--which the school system reinforced (Pierce 2007). Du Bois argued that the disparity within the school system itself set up each person to be more likely to stick to their role in the caste system. One cannot argue that there wasn't a huge disparity between the resources, opportunities, and quality available to white students versus non-white students at the start of compulsatory schooling. To make that argument would be to say Brown vs. the Board of Education was frivolous.

It would be lovely to say that that disparity went away as the government has made rules and regulations to level the playing field of federal funding and academic quality. However, today there is still a gap. "Poor white school districts receive about $150 less per student than the national average--an injustice all to itself," a 2020 report by Edbuilder, a research and advocacy group. "Yet they are still receiving nearly $1,500 more than the poor non-white school districts." In addition, it found that black and brown neighborhoods received about $23 billion less in funding than their white counterparts.

Somehow, it doesn't sound like the experience would be the same as sending a kid back to the classroom in an affluent, predominately white area versus a predominately non-white poor one.

Yet, the New York Times op-ed piece didn't ask one parent of Black or Latino descent why they weren't sending their kids back. It was assumed it was because of COVID fears and nothing else. Instead, the author used the thoughts only of Meghan Hatch-Geary, an excellent teacher from Connecticut who said her in-person students did better. Hatch-Geary teaches at Woodland Regional High School in Connecticut. The school is ranked #55 in the state. The state is rated #6 in the nation. (U.S. News) Her classroom would make any Barnes and Nobels "chill and read" area jealous. Neither she, her school, her classroom, or her resources are typical of what most students experience. Nor is her experience typical of that of a professional online educator.

There is a whole subsection in the field of education devoted to e-learning and distance education. Many teachers and students from traditional schools were assigned, like it or not, to remote learning. They were unprepared. Districts didn't provide the teachers with the training and foundations of years of research and experience in what works and what doesn't work for distance learning. Instead, they were thrown in and told to figure it out. Some had to do so while their own children were at home trying to learn. Veteran teachers felt like newbies. Teachers who had fantastic plans that required face-to-face learning found themselves time-pressed to push through the unrelenting offers of online materials and tools, trying to figure out not just what tools to use but how to use them. Many teachers, several of whom were not willing volunteers, had terrible experiences with little to no helpful or knowledgeable support. The results in the school districts often reflected the unpreparedness in student results.

In his opinion piece, Leonhardt pointed to expert studies to show the idea that distance learning is tantamount to no education at all. One was from the Rand Corporation. The organization did a snapshot study that included a little over 2,015 parents of students in May 2021. The survey was itself was inherently event-focused, with questions about COVID concerns and vaccinations. Statistically, 2,015 isn't a large enough sample group to make conclusions. Thus, the even smaller size of 131 parents who said they weren't sending their kids back to a traditional classroom is too small to pinpoint, even according to the report itself, trending reasons for the movement. Is the Rand Corporation study wrong? No. It's just not a clear indicator of a cause or effect to be prominently cited.

The article also references Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-based group that says student achievement lagged with remote learning, especially for lower-income students. The trend, however, isn't mind-blowing news to those in the field of education. Opportunity Insights has itself noted that the number of low-income students at "high-mobility colleges" has fallen. For elites, schools the numbers have risen ill-proportionally low compared to an increase in financial packages--a trend the organization has seen for 15 years. They also noted that in 99% of neighborhoods, black boys earn less in adulthood than white boys even if both were raised in similar family situations and socio-economic classes. In other words, that lag that recent study shows existed before COVID--distance learning isn't its cause, nor is in-person classes its solution.

The article also speaks of finds of a study about students in the Netherlands. However, the U.S. and its education system and general outcomes aren't the same as the Netherlands, so comparing them, it's helpful to an argument about predicting U.S. outcomes.

The NY Times opinion piece makes the board claim that "remote schooling has failed." However, the article didn't look at longitudinal studies of distance learning. Please note, I've said "distance learning" and not "remote schooling"--they aren't the same thing. Nor did the article talk to experts in the sub-field of distance learning. Also, it didn't consider the effect of preparation and willingness of both the distance educator, students, and families.

One example of distance learning research is an efficacy study done in 2014 by the Education Research Institute of America. They took a look at Florida Virtual School's English 4 college-preparatory class. The researcher and moderator of the study were independent of the school. The study employed a cut score method where students' outcomes were compared to college readiness and fell into four categories: Needs Improvement, Novice, Capable, or Advanced. The results showed that none of the students from the course fell into the "needs improvement" category, 38% fell into the "capable" category, and 55% fell into the "advanced" category. Of the participant sample, 25% percent identified as Black or Hispanic. Interesting, Florida Virtual School is open to any style of students in Florida--including residents students who attend traditional public, private, or charter schools. In this study, 82% of the students in the virtual course were attending public school at the time but opted to take the class online. Counterparts to Mrs. Hatch-Geary, also decorated teachers who selected to teach online find joy and fulfillment in their online classroom.

Could it be that how a person approaches the online distance learning experience could affect their performance and achievement in the environment? Could it be that if teachers are given the know-how and tools and want to teach online, they might have different results? Is it possible that a student and family that elects to participate in online learning would be better prepared, more willing to adapt, and more involved than those thrown in without notice or a choice?

One thing that makes the research studies of organizations like Florida Virtual School, Stride K12, and others more applicable to the future than snapshot studies of school districts during the COVID outbreak is that these are models of the organizations most school districts are offering. Some of them are the exact organizations the school district will be offering as an option.

Unlike at the start of COVID, when many traditional teachers were given passwords to online learning platforms and told to do their job--many school districts will provide online learning opportunities through partnerships. Many of them have established or expanded their online offerings through agreements with well-established online teaching organizations which specialize in distance learning. The infrastructure, curriculum, and teaching staff of these organizations are primed for distance learning. You cannot compare the experience of students and educators from a traditional setting thrown with little to no notice online due to COVID with what a student or teacher in one of these organization's settings.

Many of the children who will enroll in distance education through their school district have a vastly different experience ahead; they will find not the time-pressed and stressed local school in charge of the classes but specialized organizations and instructors that chose to specialize in distance learning.

Unlike the sweeping generalizations that the families that chose distance learning are setting their kids up for failure that online a traditional classroom can save them from, I adopt a positive, supportive wait and see attitude. Maybe it's because, like many people worldwide, I'm a distance learner myself. How many traditional colleges have online options for busy professionals? How many adults attend college exclusively online? I wouldn't call their degrees rubbish.

Perhaps it is because I went to some of those poor non-white school districts, and my experience tells me that I couldn't rely solely on the public school classroom experience to teach me what I needed to be successful. Maybe those experiences make me think that non-white parent's hesitancy to send their kids back to a traditional setting has less to do with COVID and more to do with issues like institutionalized racism and opportunity disparity.

Maybe it's because I am a distance learning professional who takes pride in my students' accomplishments that happened long before COVID, and trust, long after it.

Finally, maybe it's because, as a minority woman, I had to buck the system a few times to get unusual results and opportunities. I tend to tell folks not to rely on a system that, as W.E.B. pointed out, puts some of us on paths that lead to destinations we simply don't want to go.

Then again, maybe I'm wrong. I won't, however, have the sweeping bravado to say the likely outcome of this trend based on short-term localized research that isn't reflective of the future potential of distance education.


Beck, M., Conner, J. M., & Cruse, K. (2014). (rep.). An Efficacy Study of the English 4: Florida College Prep Program. Educational Research Institute of America.

EdBuild. (n.d.). 23 Billion. EdBuild.

Leonhardt, D. (2021, July 12). When School Is Voluntary. New York Times.

Perrin, J. W. (1896). The history of compulsory education in New England. Meadville, PA: Flood & Vincent

Pierce, Clayton. "W.E.B. Du Bois and Caste Education: Racial Capitalist Schooling From Reconstruction to Jim Crow." American Educational Research Journal, vol. 54, no. 1_suppl, Apr. 2017, pp. 23S-47S, doi:10.3102/0002831216677796.

Policy Solutions to the American Dream. Opportunity Insights. (2021, June 14).

Moore, E. C. (1902). The effect of compulsory education upon the poor. Western Journal of Education, 7, 339–345.

Schwartz, Heather L., Melissa Kay Diliberti, and David Grant, Will Students Come Back? School Hesitancy Among Parents and Their Preferences for COVID-19 Safety Practices in Schools. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2021.

Ziegler, B. (n.d.). These U.S. States Have the Best Education Systems. U.S. News & World Report.

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