Do Schools Exist for Students or Teachers?

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A student attends a virtual class as limited in-person learning resumes at Wilson Primary School, Phoenix, Ariz., August 17, 2020. (Cheney Orr/Reuters)

Here’s a question I have had about the decision of some school districts to shut down during the pandemic:

What explains these vast differences in how districts responded to the pandemic? For instance, why does the response of the average district in New Jersey look quite similar to that of the average district in Kentucky (42.5-44.6 percent in-person) but entirely different from that of D.C. (0 percent in-person) or Florida (100 percent in-person)? A natural explanation is that Covid rates were higher — and therefore the risks from in-person instruction where greater — in the states and districts that chose virtual instruction.

Harvard Business School professor Joshua D. Coval — from whose recent paper the above paragraph is drawn — has a startling finding: “Cumulative Covid rates at the start of the academic year as well as those at the end of the year were significantly lower in states that chose virtual learning.”

Coval observes that in some instances the interests of students and teachers diverge. It was arguably in students’ interests to receive in-person instruction, but many teachers preferred remote learning. Coval asks: “Which schools chose to favor teacher interests over those of their students?”

The answer turns out to be quite simple: it was those schools that had demonstrated a willingness to do so in the past. Schools that chose virtual instruction during the 2020-2021 school year were schools that, prior to the pandemic, had a history of favoring teachers over students. During the 2018-2019 year, students at schools that would later opt for online instruction had school days that were 18 minutes (4 percent) shorter. Their teachers spent 30 fewer minutes at school each day and 1.5 fewer non-teaching days at school each year.

Taken together, these numbers mean that at the schools that chose to be online the average teacher works 100 fewer hours per year than the average teacher in the schools that chose to educate their students in person. For the K-12 student in an online school, this difference in hours cumulates to over a half-year less instruction by the time they graduate relative to their peer at an in-person school.


In districts that prioritize teachers over students, student outcomes are significantly worse. Prior to the pandemic, elementary students in teacher-favoring districts tested at a level that that was over a year behind their counterparts at student-favoring schools in math and reading. Teacher-favoring districts also had 26 percent more students failing to graduate from high school. These achievement gaps are only somewhat smaller when we control for geographic and demographic characteristics of school districts.

Check out the full paper for additional findings and analysis.