There’s an App for That: How Louisiana Students Bounced Back from a Nation-leading Drop in Math Performance — and Kept Going
Ever since COVID-19 forced schools to close last spring, a team of economists from Harvard University has been monitoring the educational progress of students across the country using the online learning platform developed by the nonprofit organization Zearn Math. Due to the unique nature of Zearn being an app, it provides detailed and immediate data, allowing researchers to observe the progress in real-time.
After six weeks of school closure last spring, it was observed that the most significant academic decline occurred in Louisiana, where overall student progress fell by over 50 percent, and for low-income students, it dropped by more than 70 percent.
However, when Zearn co-founder and CEO Shalinee Sharma examined the students’ performance at the one-year mark of the pandemic, she was amazed to discover that Louisiana had reported some of the highest improvement rates in the country. Taking into account the decline experienced during the spring shutdown, Louisiana showed the most significant overall progress. In comparison to the national average of 10 percent, Louisiana students’ performance increased by 31 percent. What pleased Sharma even more was that progress had significantly increased in most parishes (equivalent to counties in the state) and across all income brackets. Unlike the national trend of widening educational inequalities during the pandemic, students in low-income schools were ahead by 11 percent, while their high-income peers were ahead by 13 percent, and middle-income students saw a 41 percent increase.
Impressed by these improvements, Sharma promptly emailed state education officials, highlighting the gains made across the board. She described Louisiana as a shining example, stating that no other state had seen such high levels of progress among as many students from May 2020 to March 2021.
Zearn is the sole academic indicator featured on Harvard’s Opportunity Insights pandemic data tracker, led by economists Raj Chetty and Jonathan Friedman. By incorporating census data, this tracker can sort participation and progress based on income. The tracker provides evidence that the pandemic has not only exposed the existing inequities among students from different demographic backgrounds but has also exacerbated them.
Meanwhile, Sharma explains that the data has unveiled "positive deviants," meaning states that have shown exceptional progress. She mentions that in other states, the progress map would have been more uneven. Louisiana’s consistent progress demonstrates what she refers to as an "equitable recovery," which is influenced by policy decisions.
Cade Brumley, who assumed the role of state superintendent of education in June, attributes the progress to three factors. Firstly, his department assisted in purchasing mobile devices for households without internet access, ensuring students could stay connected. Secondly, over 70 percent of Louisiana students continue to attend school in person, with only 20 percent attending virtually. Finally, the agency quickly issued detailed guidance to schools, covering safe reopening conditions and emphasizing effective strategies that had been successful in driving student achievement even pre-pandemic.
Before becoming superintendent, Brumley served as the head of Jefferson Parish, the state’s largest school system. Upon assuming his new position, he appointed Jenna Chiasson, one of his top administrators, as assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. They tackled many of the same challenges they had previously encountered during the early weeks of distance learning, including ensuring students had access to quality technology, even without internet connections.
Brumley proudly states, "For the first time ever, we have more devices than kids." However, he acknowledges that this is only a temporary solution, and the state Department of Education is actively participating in an initiative to bridge the connectivity gap and provide internet access to the 25 percent of residents currently without it.
During the summer, Brumley organized a weekly "reopening roundtable" with education leaders statewide. While half of the discussion centered around navigating the pandemic, the other half focused on academics. Brumley emphasizes the importance of prioritizing student learning throughout the pandemic.
Zearn had already gained widespread usage in Louisiana prior to the pandemic, being one of the top-rated programs listed by the state for high-quality curricula. Officials provide financial incentives to districts and schools that adopt educational materials classified as "Tier One," indicating evidence-based effectiveness and alignment with Louisiana’s instructional standards. Researchers from organizations like RAND Corp. have recognized the potential of this strategy.
When Sharma came across the initial research conducted by economists, which revealed a stark disparity between the participation and progress of high-income students versus low-income students, she was extremely upset, as she expressed to Laura Fay from . In the years leading up to the pandemic, the program had been equally successful for children from different demographic backgrounds.
As the one-year anniversary of the school shutdowns arrived, there was a nationwide increase of 14 percent in student progress overall. High-income students showed a remarkable 28 percent progress, while those in middle-income schools demonstrated a 20 percent increase. Unfortunately, low-income students experienced a 2 percent decline in progress.
Please note that Zearn and receive financial support from various foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Opportunity Insights and are also financially supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
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