HomeSchool Reform NewsAmerica’s Education Emergency (Commentary)

America’s Education Emergency (Commentary)

New test scores have confirmed what many had suspected: pandemic-era school closures resulted in a disturbing loss of learning for millions of American schoolchildren. Worse, there is scandalously little political appetite to take the steps needed to help students get back on track.

WASHINGTON, DC – In the fall of 2020, many local and state authorities in the United States decided not to reopen schools for in-person learning. This will be remembered as a shameful failure by policymakers to get their priorities straight. Absurdities abounded. In Georgia, adults could enter tattoo parlors, but fifth graders could not go to math class. In many states, adults could gather in a bar, but children were forced to sit in front of computer screens, receiving online lessons that, in many cases, were equivalent to no schooling at all.

We now know the consequences. Newly released test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress this month show a dramatic reduction in nine-year-olds’ math and reading abilities. Math scores were lower in 2022 than in 2020 – the first-ever decline in the NAEP’s five-decade history – and reading scores were down by the largest amount in over three decades. Moreover, this year’s math and reading test scores were both below their 2004 level. The pandemic erased two decades of progress.

It is no surprise that students struggled to learn. Zoom is no substitute for real classrooms, which were closed for far too long in much of the country. Worse, the lowest-performing students were hit the hardest by school closures and remote learning. Math test scores for students performing at the 10th percentile fell by four times more than did scores for students at the 90th percentile. For reading, the lowest-performing students’ scores dropped by five times as much as the highest-performing test takers.

Now that COVID-19 is being treated as endemic in the US, policymakers have an opportunity to reverse some of this damage. But there is scandalously little political appetite to do so. Pandemic learning loss will echo through many children’s lives for decades to come. My rough calculations using Bureau of Labor Statistics data suggest that losing a year of schooling will reduce the typical high-school-educated worker’s earnings by at least $40,000 per decade.

For some students, the effects could be even larger. A study published by the Brookings Institution this spring finds that the pandemic led to a 16% decline in high-school graduates attending two-year colleges and a 6% decline in four-year college enrollment. Prior to the pandemic, typical households headed by a college graduate earned roughly twice as much as those headed by earners who didn’t hold a four-year degree.

That’s a lot of lost lifetime income. But those dollar figures represent more than just lost purchasing power or material consumption. For far too many children, they also represent diminished aspirations and a diminished ability to contribute to society; and for the country more broadly, they represent needlessly lost talent and future economic growth.

Addressing pandemic learning loss should be a top priority at all levels of government. Politicians and policymakers need to get all students back in the classroom, and then increase the amount of time they spend there. It would not be unreasonable to operate schools on Saturdays, at least until math and reading scores return to their pre-pandemic trend. Moreover, the school day should be extended by an hour or two, especially for older students, and the school year should be lengthened as well. The US does not need to continue structuring children’s education based on the old agrarian calendar: let summer vacation start in July, not in June.

In addition to building skills and making up for lost classroom time, longer school days, weeks, and years would potentially increase the country’s troublingly low workforce participation rate by making it easier for parents to work without having to worry about childcare. A longer school year would also ameliorate summer learning loss, which underpinned the achievement gaps between students from higher- and lower-income families long before the pandemic.

These measures will cost money. But Congress enacted legislation in 2020 and 2021 appropriating nearly $200 billion for the explicit purpose of helping states and localities support student performance during the pandemic. Since much of that money has not been spent, why not use it to provide bonuses to teachers who are willing to work after three o’clock, on Saturdays, and in the month of June to help students make up for lost learning? In addition, funding could be used for tutoring services for students who need extra help.

Of course, teacher unions are likely to oppose such measures. But they have lost much of their credibility. After all, they have been responsible for a large share of the problem, insisting that it was unsafe for public-school teachers to return to work even after COVID-19 vaccines and treatments had become widely available. They have consistently put teachers’ desires ahead of students’ welfare and educational attainment. Their political allies need to start putting children first.

The extent of pandemic learning loss is an educational, economic, and moral failure. We now have gold-standard evidence documenting its harm. It is not too late to reverse some of the damage. Addressing this national emergency should begin immediately.

Originally published by the American Enterprise Institute. Republished with permission.

More great content from School Reform News

Michael R. Strain
Michael R. Strain
Michael R. Strain is the director of Economic Policy Studies, and the Arthur F. Burns Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he oversees the Institute’s work in economic policy, financial markets, international trade and finance, tax and budget policy, welfare economics, health care policy, and related areas. Dr. Strain is the author of “The American Dream Is Not Dead: (But Populism Could Kill It)” (Templeton Press, 2020). Before joining AEI, Dr. Strain worked in the Center for Economic Studies at the US Census Bureau and in the macroeconomics research group at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

- Advertisment -spot_img

Most Popular

Recent Comments