Public K-12 schools in the United States experienced a loss of roughly 1.1 million students in the fall of 2020, research finds.
Districts that began the school year with remote-only schooling had significantly larger enrollment declines than those that offered face-to-face schooling, report the researchers from Stanford University and the New York Times.
Many families switched to private schools where classes were still held in person, took up homeschooling, or—especially those with kindergartners—just skipping a formal school year entirely.
In a new study, researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) and Big Local News, a project of the Stanford Computational Journalism Lab, examine the extent to which the enrollment decline was influenced by school districts’ decisions to hold classes in person or go remote.
The team at Stanford worked with journalists at the New York Times on a major report published August 7, which analyzed the enrollment drop at 70,000 public schools across the United States. EdSource, a nonprofit media organization covering education in California, and the nonprofit Colorado News Collaborative (COLab) also participated in the project.
Here, Thomas S. Dee, professor at the GSE and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, shares more about how the collaboration came about, what the team discovered, and why the findings are important as districts prepare for the beginning of a new school year:
Q: How did you get involved in this project?
So my doctoral advisee Elizabeth Huffaker and I got involved, thinking initially that we’d just have more comprehensive data to do a descriptive look at disenrollment. Federal data on school enrollment typically lags far behind the state-level data, so we all scoured state websites and reached out to state officials to get the data they report to the feds.
Then we realized that a private company called Burbio was tracking data on school reopening plans for a sample of school districts. The company generously shared those data, and we put it together with the disenrollment data we’d collected from the states.
Q: In a nutshell, what did you find?
All of the districts experienced declines last year; even those in our sample that were face-to-face saw a 2.6% enrollment decline. But those that chose remote-only had a 3.7% decline. In other words, going remote-only actually increased the enrollment decline by about 40%. The decline was particularly sharp in kindergarten.
Q: Were you surprised?
The enrollment declines attributable to schools going remote-only were also particularly large in rural areas, which is a little enigmatic to me. To the extent that parents were turning to other schooling options, my supposition is that there are fewer of these options in more rural areas. So there’s still a lot to be learned about this. For example, access to high-speed broadband and digital devices may influence how parents in rural communities judged the appeal of remote instruction.
Q: What would you want school leaders to take from your findings?
But I think this study has at least three important implications for school leaders. One is that our results provide objective evidence on the character of parents’ preferences—specifically that some parents, particularly those with the youngest children, held the offer of remote instruction in such disdain that they were willing to go so far as to disenroll.
Second, these results provide leading indicators of the challenges educators will face in the wake of the pandemic. For example, children who skipped kindergarten last year and enter first grade this fall will have their first experience with more formal schooling and may present different “readiness to learn” profiles to their teachers. Alternatively, if the children who skipped kindergarten “redshirt” into kindergarten this year, teachers may confront unusually large class sizes and a more mixed group of older and younger students. Meanwhile, some older children are navigating the educational consequences of switching schools or even sustained truancy.
Third, these results also suggest an imminent fiscal challenge to public schools if student enrollment doesn’t rebound. My best guess is that many of these students aren’t returning. As parents confront the uncertainty of the coming year and what their local public schools will offer, they may view their new accommodations as a safe harbor.
Because the students who disenrolled are disproportionately younger, this effect may be long-lasting. These are all areas where we should direct continued attention as new data become available.
Source: Stanford University