Learning is not lost, yet

A Conversation with Zearn CEO Shalinee Sharma
Allan Golston
Blog Post

While the spring weather and longer days certainly make life feel a bit brighter and less dreary, I continue to be deeply concerned about the social, emotional, and academic impact this pandemic has had on students and their future trajectories. According to one McKinsey analysis, on average, students have lost the equivalent of three months of learning in mathematics (compared to one-and-a-half months of learning in reading). That same study illustrated what we already knew; that existing inequities in our education system have resulted in students of color being more acutely impacted by the pandemic. Scores in schools that predominantly serve students of color were 59 percent of the historical average in math in all schools, versus 77 percent in reading. But is the learning itself truly lost? Or do we just need to recommit ourselves to ensuring students have the interventions and support necessary to bounce back and get back on track?

I recently had the pleasure of exploring this question and other topics with Shalinee Sharma, the co-founder and CEO of Zearn, a non-profit organization whose learning platform and materials are free for teachers and students and whose highly rated K-5 math curriculum currently serves 1 in 4 children nationwide.

Last year, while COVID-19 spread and schools quickly pivoted to online learning, use of Zearn exploded, offering important data and insights into students’ access and performance. As our schools and leaders across the country examine what’s needed to combat this historic disruption, data from partners like Zearn are critical to assessing the full extent of the problem – which doesn’t necessarily look the same in all places.

I hope you’ll take a moment to read what Zearn has learned about digital learning in the U.S. over the last year, and why Shalinee continues to believe that all kids can be “math kids.”

Allan: Before we dig into data and your work, I’d love to learn about you – what brought you to education and a specific focus on math? Was it your plan all along or did anything in particular point you in this direction?

Shalinee: As you know, the big events of history echo for a long time. As little kids both of my parents became refugees. They lived on the wrong side of the border when the British hastily partitioned India, creating a catastrophic summer in 1947 in which two million lives were lost and 15 million people were displaced. It stands as the largest refugee crisis in human history. That experience defined their lives. So it has defined my life as well. 

Growing up, no one spoke much about what happened. But it loomed over everything. Once in a while, I’d hear a terrifying story from those months. I’d also hear stories of the hard work and luck required to rebuild our lives as refugees. Getting access to an excellent education was the consistent through-line in those stories. My grandmother used to say: “education is the only thing you can take with you when you have to cross the border.” So, as a young kid, I knew education was the ticket and that luck played too big of a role in the quality of education that most kids got. And in my kid mind, I knew that was deeply unjust and made our world less dynamic. 

While my childhood made working to increase access to an excellent education for all kids a calling, the math and technology parts of Zearn are just pure loves of mine. I’ve always loved math; it’s been critical to my success and enjoyment of learning. But as a girl, I quickly noticed that math was not inclusive, and even worse alienating. With technology, we have the opportunity to change that. I am a die-hard optimist and I believe that technology – when built by teachers, for teaching – can make math accessible for all kids.

Allan: I recently heard you say something along those lines, “If the right supports are in place, all kids can be ‘math kids.’” Can you say more about that? It’s such a clear and powerful statement, and it struck me as something those of us who work in education really need to put at the center of our work in mathematics.

Shalinee: Creating and building Zearn has radically changed my understanding of math and learning. I started Zearn hoping to help many kids reach algebra proficiency. But, as millions and then billions of math problems were completed on our math platform by millions of students, we learned something—I learned something—astounding, and that is that all kids are math kids. That is what our emerging evidence of impact data shows. 

I know that is a radical statement. All kids are math kids. But the most interesting and unfortunate thing is that saying this is radical. 

I know there are lots of reasons we don’t believe all kids are math kids. One-third of Americans would rather clean their toilet than do math. Math is presented in a way that scares and confuses most kids. We also allow math to be inclusive only for some kids — mainly white and Asian boys — which is ironic because math is about universal truth. But we don’t have to do any of this. Math can be for all kids. When we do that, we will change the world. Think about how we approach literacy. When a child struggles to read, we don’t think: “Huh, that’s not a reading kid.” or, “Girls don’t read; they are creative. Oh, well. Does reading even matter?” But when a kid struggles with math that is what we say.  In math, we have an adult problem, not a kid problem. And so, our mission is simple; we want to help all kids love learning math. 

Allan: Your platform reaches millions of students – I think it’s 6 million or so – across the country, and you and your team have done a truly amazing job monitoring your platform and gleaning insights since the start of the pandemic. I’ve heard you talk about this before, but can you describe the story the data is telling here? What do you want people to know about what’s happened to students during this pandemic and where we find ourselves now?

Shalinee: Thank you for your kind words. As you know Zearn is a nonprofit math platform and curriculum. And this academic year we serve 6.5M K-5 students in the country or 1 in 4. 

We are so grateful for the chance to partner with the brilliant economists Jonathan Friedman and Raj Chetty at Opportunity Insights to share our data with the country. You can see the stream of aggregated and anonymized Zearn platform data at www.tracktherecovery.org . This data shows weekly participation and progress on Zearn by income status and geography. Raj and John created this data tool to allow policymakers and leaders to have a real-time window into the effect of the pandemic. 

Over the last year of disrupted schooling, the Zearn platform data tells us a few things. The first is that the circumstances of the pandemic increased the opportunity gap, it did not simply reveal to us the inequity in our society. For every instructional week of the pandemic, we have seen low-income kids miss learning on our platform relative to their pre-pandemic baseline. In contrast, we have seen high-income kids not miss learning. 

The second equally important insight is that this data is heterogeneous by community. In some communities - counties, metros, and states - the opportunity gap increased dramatically. In others, there was no noticeable difference between how low-income and high-income kids engaged on the platform.

Here’s the national data. Here you can see that pre-school closures, there was no gap in usage among students in low-income versus high-income schools.  But in mid-March, a massive opportunity gap emerges.  Learning dropped for all kids, but that drop was more extreme in low-income schools.  By the end of the 19-20 school year, things had mostly recovered for kids in high-income areas, but participation was still down roughly 40% in low-income areas.  This fall, that gap closed somewhat, yet has persisted throughout the year. 

As mentioned, there is heterogeneity in the data; the national averages hide different stories at the state and county levels. Here’s Louisiana - which saw a major dip last spring after closures.  What I like about this picture is seeing the evidence of the work that was done over the summer to ensure things were better heading into the fall - that gap is much, much smaller - and how they’ve continued to improve over the course of the 20-21 school year.

Connecticut tells a different story, one of immediate action last spring, and continued out-performance this school year. After a slight dip immediately post-closures, participation jumped across the board, and even more so for low-income kids.  That trend has persisted through this school year, with participation among low-income students at nearly double the rates it was at pre-pandemic.


Taking these findings together, starting this summer and extending for the next few years, we need to work to find extra time for the millions of students who lost instructional time during the pandemic. Extra time can be summer school, an extended school day, or a tutoring program. All of these options will be necessary. The learning is not lost, yet. We can make it up, and we simply can’t afford as a country to do anything else.

Allan: Wow. Those contrasting examples really do underscore why it’s so important for policymakers and leaders to understand the data in their own backyards. You mentioned Opportunity Insights, which is a partner of the foundation’s in our economic mobility work as well. It has been so exciting to see partners in different strategies come together during this crisis. I’m curious how that partnership came about, and what do you hope to see happen as a result of the data being shared?

Shalinee: It’s a good question about how the partnership came about. 

In late March 2020, as our platform data started to swing wildly and we saw the opportunity gap open up on our platform for the first time, quite simply, we freaked out. When we founded Zearn, we wanted to create education technology that closed the opportunity gap. As the weeks passed, I knew I was sitting on a nationally representative data set that told the real-time story of the harm happening to low-income kids during the pandemic. I felt a moral weight to show our anonymized and aggregated data to the world in the hope that it would drive action amongst leaders and policymakers. So, I started reaching out to people I knew with a little pack of slides showing the opportunity gap opening up and the heterogeneity of the gap by geography. On a whim, I reached out to John Friedman at Opportunity Insights. He is a professor at Brown University, and I am an alumnus. He immediately responded with interest. I didn’t know that he and Raj Chetty were hatching up their tracker. 

My main hope is that our data presents a record as one nationally representative metric of what has happened and what is still happening to low-income students during the pandemic. John calls our data the “canary in the coal mine,” a warning of imminent danger. I also hope that our data supports bold and brave action to repair the harm students experienced during the pandemic and in doing so paves the way for a better and more equitable K-12 system.

Allan: That’s fantastic. I want to shift gears and talk about why math is so important to student outcomes. As we think about the critical milestones students need to reach in order to be on a path to graduation and success after high school, Algebra 1 stands out in my mind. Students who do not complete Algebra 1 have only a 20 percent chance of graduating from high school. From your perspective, why is Algebra 1 success so important for students?

Shalinee: There’s the data you cite which can’t be understated. Success with Algebra is the most predictive activity in K-12 of getting to and through college. And yet today, 2/3 of American 8th graders can’t do 8th-grade math and due to the opportunity gap, 80-90% of Black and Latinx 8th graders cannot do 8th-grade math. And yet, completion of Algebra is the highest correlating activity in K-12 to getting to and through college. 

And that’s all backward-looking. Consider the future. I am learning so much by reading Bill Gates’ new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Think about the armies of creative, numerate problem solvers we need to tackle the clear and specific challenge he presents to get to net zero carbon emissions. Think about how vital reasoning, problem-solving (in other words algebraic thinking) is to a choice-filled life.  Further, there is the intrinsic value of Algebra itself to every child. When a child grasps algebraic thinking, they have grasped reasoning. Algebra is the reasoning course we all get to take.

Allan: Let’s project into the future…when the vast majority of students are back to learning in school buildings. There is going to be a tremendous amount of ground to cover and learning loss to address. What do you think educators and school leaders need to be thinking about now to be prepared to meet the challenge of algebra proficiency?

Shalinee: As we head back into school buildings and some semblance of normal returns, we have to use acceleration strategies for students who missed learning during the pandemic. We should be using these strategies anyway for students who missed learning, not the over-remediation strategies that we know don’t work. And we have to remember that this really matters and kids' lives are at stake. I’m reminded of the stat you included in your earlier question, students who do not complete Algebra 1 only have a 20% chance of completing high school. While I have heard that statistic many times, it is always gobsmacking. 

As I mentioned earlier, this learning is missed, not lost. We can make it up. We can seize the opportunity the crisis presents to reduce the opportunity gap, and support all students to catch-up, move forward and reach grade-level proficiency. While historically the U.S. K–12 system has not successfully caught kids up who fall behind, there are lessons about how to accelerate learning in math. These lessons must be applied now: 

  • Use high-quality, coherent instructional materials during core math 
  • Provide just-in-time, purposeful interventions when the need arises and is clearly demonstrated 
  • Ensure intervention content is mathematically connected to what kids are learning during core math time.
  • Avoid over-remediation and don’t reduce student access to grade-level instruction. Over-remediating students can be harmful, not just in that it prevents students from catching up, but also in that it can lead to higher rates of struggle.
  • Provide students with extra time to do foundational work that is in addition to, not in replacement of, core math time.

Numerous extra-time strategies can be effective, including summer acceleration programs, in-school intervention intentionally connected to core math time, and high-dosage tutoring.

Allan: Those are strong, concrete steps all school leaders should consider as they continue through this school year and into recovery. Shalinee, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights. The work you are doing has never been more important and we’re so grateful for your partnership.

Shalinee: Thank you for your time and this conversation. Also, thank you for your incredible work across the globe during the pandemic.