Closeup photo of an empty classroom showing empty desks and chairs


The Digital Divide, Learning Loss, and the Future of the American Classroom

Two Arizona education leaders, Steve Seleznow and Chad Gestson, discuss short- and long-term structural challenges facing students, families, and educators

Closing the digital divide in America will take an all-out effort from government, businesses, schools, and philanthropies. Every sector has a role to play, and figuring out how to bring them together is a big part of the challenge.

That’s why I wanted to talk with Steve Seleznow, President and CEO of the Arizona Community Foundation (ACF), the largest philanthropic organization in the state and the biggest backer of private scholarships. I’ve known Steve for many years, since we worked together on U.S. education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—he on programs and I on policy. For more than a decade, Steve has built coalitions of government, business, and nonprofits in Arizona to tackle entrenched issues in housing, health, and access to education.

When I said I wanted to learn more about Arizona’s challenges connecting students with reliable broadband, Steve immediately connected me with Chad Gestson, superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District. Phoenix is the country’s fifth-largest city, and Gestson manages a district that includes 21 high schools serving 28,000 students. He’s also a brilliant thinker on what it takes to run a successful school system and has worked with ACF on a number of creative projects to promote civics education and keep students on track for college.

Steve, Chad, and I recently spoke about Arizona’s unique challenges with broadband access and why making up for learning loss will be crucial when the pandemic is over.

Headshots of Steve Seleznow, on the left, and Chad Gestson on the right

Steve Seleznow (left), Chad Gestson (right)

Tell me about the specific challenges with internet access and online learning in Arizona and in the communities you serve.

Steve Seleznow: The digital divide is really synonymous with inequality at scale. In Arizona, we have urban areas, big exurban areas, and tribal lands. While there were different challenges in each of those communities, the inequity in broadband access was clear and long-standing in all of them. So the unequal access to education played out exactly as you’d expect. Educators have been preaching about this for decades, knowing it was affecting students and parents and teachers long before we had a pandemic that focused everyone’s attention.

On some level, it’s not surprising that we haven’t prioritized broadband. You have places where broadband is competing with water and electricity, places where poverty and remoteness mean no hookups to power or running water. Those are some of the problems that tribal leaders are thinking about, which makes it hard to put internet access at the top of the list.

Chad Gestson: We have a million schoolchildren in Arizona, and even before covid, more than half of those students qualified for free and reduced lunch. Half a million children, from native communities all the way to the urban core of Phoenix, growing up in some level of poverty. In Phoenix, that rises to 90%. Nine in ten children in the fifth-largest city in the country qualify for free and reduced lunch. I think that raises some very hard questions about how much money we invest in short-term patches like hotspots or laptops, and how much we invest long-term to truly solve the digital divide.

Knowing that students have had such different levels of access to remote learning, such different levels of parental support, how do we think about making up for learning loss? We can’t just welcome everyone back to school and pick up where we left off.

Seleznow: You have to think about it in terms of triage. When I look at the continuum from pre-K to college, where do we see the best opportunity to make a difference? Where is there time to address learning loss so that you don’t see those gaps just getting wider and wider year after year?

We have built a whole system, a kind of assembly line, where kids move on a set schedule from kindergarten to first grade to second grade. Everything in our education system is geared around these annual movements. We make the assumption that you’re going to master in nine or 10 months everything you need to move ahead on schedule. You always had some outliers—students who were held back a full year or skipped ahead a full grade—but not many. Now everyone is an outlier. The new norm is everyone is behind and below grade level. That’s going to require completely rethinking the way we use learning time and how schools are ordered and structured. I think we have to reconsider the whole idea of grade levels.

Screenshot of a video conference with Steve Seleznow, Chad Gestson, and Stefanie Sanford with Seleznow in a box on the left, Sanford in a box at top right and Gestson in a box at bottom right

Gestson: This is definitely going to challenge the traditional thinking about the calendar and the curriculum. And we’ll need to tackle high school, middle school, and elementary school very differently, based on where those students are in their educational progress.

With high school, you can do some immediate triage to keep students on track for college and career. Summer school programs, evening classes—we have to find some short-term solutions for high school students to get them caught up as much as possible with the limited time they have left.

For earlier grades, you have to think bigger and really reconsider the school year and the learning calendar. I worry about the possibility of thousands of kids moving to the next grade level if they’re not where they need to be in terms of those basic skills of numeracy and literacy. The K–8 system builds literacy upon literacy; you learn to read and then you read to learn.

I think we’ll need more assessments at the elementary level to guide a rethinking of curriculum. We need to test learning loss in core areas so we can make up for it. If we’re going to maintain the same expectations and standards we have for a high school diploma, for a college degree, we have to hit these new learning gaps hard at the elementary and middle school level.

How do you convince people that we need such a huge rethinking of the school calendar? How do you prepare students, parents, and teachers for that kind of shift?

Gestson: Honestly, I don’t think we’ve really gotten to the point of considering long-term learning loss and how to fix it. Most of the public is still in triage mode, with our parents and our school systems and students still just trying to navigate this moment, get through to a vaccine, and some return to normal schooling.

But I do think people will see that solving this new learning gap is an absolute requirement if our students are going to be truly ready for high-skilled work. Our business community gets it, and I think they’re just as worried about this as teachers are. They understand that this is the future workforce, the future voters and civic leaders of our state.

And what’s the role for the business community, nonprofit groups, and the rest of civil society in helping schools tackle learning loss in the years ahead?

Seleznow: A change on this scale can’t come from schools alone. You have to have the broad support of businesses, lawmakers, nonprofits—the whole community!—to make any of these big structural changes to the school year.

One of the real barriers to innovation in schooling is that parents need their children to be in a safe place, under the care of schools and teachers, for six to eight or even more hours a day so they can go to work. That has always limited how we can think about education, how we can fully take advantage of online learning to expand the school day and make up for learning loss. A district leader like Chad can’t do it alone because it’s also a workforce problem, a family organization problem, a childcare problem.

Gestson: Absolutely, and you saw this so vividly when schools first closed in the spring. You suddenly realize that our entire economy is based on the idea of kids being in school for eight hours a day. If we’re going to rethink that expectation and be more flexible—if we’re going to ask parents to take a role in extending school into the home, using technology and remote learning to make up for learning loss—the rest of society will need to be a lot more flexible, too.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.