The “educational damage” caused by the coronavirus pandemic is “devastating,” according to a recent survey of 26 million K-8 students by researchers at Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth and Harvard. The researchers also found that the pandemic “exacerbated economic and racial educational inequality,” as lead authors Tom Kane of Harvard and Sean Reardon of Stanford wrote in a New York Times essay last week accompanying the publication of their findings.
Standardized test results have also shown that American students are losing ground in math, reading, history and social studies. But the new findings, part of the Educational Recovery Scorecard, add important – and disturbing – context and also call for urgent action.
The top line
In a study of 7,800 communities in 40 states and Washington, D.C., Kane, Reardon and their colleagues found that between 2019 and 2022, the average “U.S. public school student in grades 3-8 lost the equivalent of half a year learning math and a reading for a quarter of a year.”
Longstanding inequities in education also played a role: the less affluent and white a community was, the more likely it was to suffer pandemic losses. This means that the so-called education gap that policymakers are so eager to close is only getting bigger.
The impact of school closures
By the fall of 2020, it had become clear that children did not appear to be contracting serious or fatal cases of COVID-19. Nor did schools become the sites of mass outbreaks that some feared. But in many districts, especially those controlled by Democrats, schools remained closed for face-to-face instruction well into 2021.
In late 2022, researchers found that distance learning had caused a pronounced learning loss. In a brief summary of their findings, the authors of the Education Recovery Scorecard reinforce the evidence for that correlation.
“Districts that spent more time on remote instruction in 2020-2021 suffered greater losses,” they write.
And those losses, they found, were especially pronounced in communities where parents worked in “essential” positions that took them away from home. as a result of work obligations.”
Kane, Reardon and their colleagues don’t blame remote learning for all the learning loss they’ve recorded. They take a more nuanced view, stating that community-level factors have also played a role.
In communities with higher COVID death rates, losses in math were more pronounced. Especially in the early stages of the pandemic, deaths were concentrated in communities of color with multi-generational households and scarce access to green space.
Unsurprisingly, children fared better when they had access to broadband internet. Asian and white households are more likely to have such fast connections, other studies conclude.
Similarly, communities where adults voted and households responded to the U.S. Census generally saw less learning loss.
In general, institutional trust also made a difference. Communities where most residents trusted institutions “may have been more willing to cooperate with their local schools and reduce disruptions in student learning,” the researchers write.
Distrust may have arisen from a variety of factors, including the spread of pandemic-related political disinformation and suspicion stemming from deep-seated prejudice.
Overall, the research suggested that communities with some degree of cohesion and institutional participation tended to provide some kind of safety net for children. “Communities with more social capital, more civic and voluntary participation, and more connectedness among residents may have been better able to maintain social connections between residents and better support schools and households,” write the authors of the Education Recovery Scorecard.
Teachers across the country are desperate to catch up with students with intensive tutoring and other forms of remediation. But it may not be enough. The authors of the sobering Education Recovery Scorecard say more high-quality instruction is needed. And they point to a proposition that may not be particularly popular with students: summer school.
“It seems clear that we should approach recovery as an ongoing effort,” they write. “To fully recover, districts will need to continue to collectively invest in student learning in the coming years.”