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Blog Post · February 14, 2024

Learning Recovery Is Uneven for Urban and Rural School Districts

photo - Mothers Meeting Their Kids and Walking Them Home from the School Bus in Rural Neighborhood

Four years since the onset of the pandemic, progress in closing learning gaps for K–12 students is limited. Urban and rural districts have seen the slowest progress, with math and English proficiency falling for both in California. Furthermore, Latino students and low-income students in rural areas are being left further behind.

Since 2020, Congress has allocated nearly $190 billion to help K­­–12 schools recover from pandemic learning loss, and California districts received over $40 billion in state stimulus funding, but implementing research-based recovery strategies has been challenging. While math proficiency went up 1.2 percentage points across the state in 2023, English proficiency remained unchanged. National test scores are similar.

In California, half of K–12 students are enrolled in urban or rural districts. Urban districts, which make up 15% of districts and are home to 45% of students, are bigger, more racially diverse, and enroll higher shares of English learners. Rural districts account for 37% of districts and enroll 5% of students. Roughly half of students in both urban and rural districts are low income.

Urban districts lost more ground in math while rural districts lost more in reading between 2019 and 2022. Average math proficiency fell by 6.2 percentage points (pp) in 2022 for urban districts, compared to 5.6 pp among rural ones. But rural districts saw a steeper drop in English: average proficiency fell by nearly 5pp, compared to 4pp among urban districts. In both urban and rural areas, low-income students saw a smaller decline in reading proficiency, but both low-income and Latino students faced a larger drop in math proficiency compared to the overall student population in each area.

Across locations, learning losses were bigger for low-income students and Latino students in urban areas than in rural areas in both math and English. This urban-rural divide is puzzling, but consistent with national findings. It is not entirely clear what may contribute to the divide; it may be a consequence of staff shortages and urban districts reopening much later than rural districts.

While the pace of recovery has been slower among urban and rural districts than statewide in 2022–23, rural districts are catching up in math faster than urban ones relative to their lost learning. For both, average math proficiency improved at a slightly lower rate than the rest of the state; English proficiency fell slightly for both urban and rural districts, but somewhat less for rural districts.

In terms of recovery, low-income students and Latino students in rural districts are worse off compared to their urban counterparts. Both groups saw smaller gains in math proficiency and both lost ground in reading.

This interactive map offers a district-by-district look at the differences around learning loss and recovery for urban and rural schools.

By examining how geography may influence learning recovery strategies, we can help districts identify strategies that support an equitable recovery.

The research reported here is supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through grant R305X220028 to the Public Policy Institute of California. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education, or the California Department of Education.


coronavirus COVID-19 English language learners K–12 Education learning loss Poverty & Inequality racial disparities reopening rural communities school districts test scores