Analysis: COVID Learning & Earning Losses Could Be Huge. But There Are Remedies Inside and Outside Our Schools. Here are 7 of Them

COVID-19 school closings have harmful learning and earnings effects on the welfare of students and the nation. But effective educational approaches are available to help young people overcome these negative effects.

What follows explains two ways to understand COVID-19 learning and earnings losses, with seven effective learning opportunities useful to young people for overcoming these losses — an approach I call student-focused opportunity pluralism.

Assessing Learning and Earnings Losses

A McKinsey and Co. analysis that focuses on the nation’s current total U.S. K-12 student cohort offers three estimates for learning and earning losses stemming from school shutdowns between March 2020 and the end of the 2020-21 academic year. The middle estimate assumes an average student learning loss of seven months, though it would likely be greater for young people from disadvantaged households.

It projects an increase in the high school dropout rate of about 232,000 students in grades 9 to 11, particularly among low-income and minority students. Its projected overall learning loss leads to an estimated annual earnings deficit of $110 billion across today’s K-12 student cohort.

Economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann analyze these learning and earnings losses in an international context. Their report has been released by the 37-member international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In their estimate, the average U.S. K-12 student affected by school closures has an early 2020 learning loss of one-third to over half a year of schooling. Assuming a one-third year learning loss — lower than the McKinsey assumption — the report’s authors calculate that on average, today’s students can expect at least 3 percent lower lifetime earnings. But a two-thirds year learning loss leads to at least 6 percent lower lifetime earnings. Again, the situation is more severe for students from disadvantaged households.

Additionally, lower individual skill levels and reduced incomes negatively impact the U.S. economy’s Gross Domestic Product, since learning loss lowers the skill levels of the nation’s workforce. School closures are estimated to result in a 1.5 percent loss in the nation’s future GDP. This one-third year learning loss is equivalent to a total economic loss of $14.2 trillion in current dollars over the next 80 years.

Parents know COVID-19 has changed schools forever. They want something different for their children. A poll of public school parents by Echelon for the National Parents Union found 63 percent of parents, regardless of income, race and political affiliation, believe that in response to the pandemic, schools “should be focused on rethinking how we educate students.” A Gallup poll of parents shows that satisfaction with their child’s education dropped 10 percentage points from 2019, and Civis found almost two in five parents changed their plans for their children’s schooling for the 2020-21 academic year.

Student-Focused Opportunity Pluralism

These awful projected learning and earnings results for young people and the nation are not inevitable. Parents, educators and others can work together to reimagine education and improve schools, creating student- and family-focused opportunity pluralism. This approach identifies multiple, practical remedies from both inside and outside the current system.

Here are seven remedies.

1 Offer support programs

Parents are looking for quality education support programs during this time of online learning. These Parent Organized Discovery Sites — aka pods — offer tutoring, child care and afterschool programs so students can safely socialize with friends, pursue academics or engage in extracurricular activities. Governments, nonprofits, parents and corporations, among others, operate these types of programs. Families pay out of pocket or receive services as employee benefits. Some pods provide scholarships for families. Other payment approaches include grants to families using state or local dollars or support from nonprofits and philanthropic organizations.

2 Individualize instruction

Different students need varying amounts of time to learn the same subject matter. Giving it to them in a mastery learning approach to teaching, developed by Benjamin Bloom in 1968, is aided today by digital learning technologies that track student work and progress. This creates a school environment that challenges students at a level appropriate to their needs.

3 Employ diagnostic testing

Genuine accountability is less about penalizing students (and teachers) than it is about having an accurate assessment of what a student knows — or doesn’t know — so a teacher can help that student learn more. Placing diagnostic testing at the center of assessment in these unusual times will allow educators to gauge what students know and are able to do. This helps them determine how much additional support their students need to master course content.

4 Use teachers differently

Some teachers are effective with video instruction, some with in-person instruction, some with large groups, some one-on-one, etc. Teachers’ assignments should more effectively match their skills with instructional roles and approaches. McKinsey calls this unbundling the role of the educator and anchoring specific assignments in the teaching value chain — aligning learning experiences and methods to in person, online and hybrid learning modes.

5 Recruit new teachers

Soaring unemployment rates in economic crises like COVID-19 bring individuals into the teaching profession from other occupations. Research spanning six recessions from 1969 to 2009 of over 30,000 Florida teachers and students shows that these recruits are significantly more effective at raising student test scores, especially in mathematics, than those who start teaching when the economy is strong. So weaker job markets are an opportunity to hire individuals from non-teaching occupations who on average improve overall teacher quality, effectiveness and student learning.

6 Expand charter schools

A recent analysis tracks changes in reading and math performance among a nationally representative student sample at charter and district schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the Nation’s Report Card. This first-ever trend line research shows charter students making greater achievement gains from 2005 to 2017 than those in district schools, gaining nearly an additional half-year’s learning. The biggest gains are for African Americans and students of low socioeconomic status. So, a viable avenue for accelerating learning involves creating more successful charter schools.

7 Create catchup programs

Enterprising individuals are creating effective learning loss catchup programs. South Carolina offered four-week academic recovery camps this summer, providing 25,000 students in kindergarten to third grade with literacy and mathematics instruction, including support in social-emotional learning. This model can be adapted for use during the academic year.

Another approach is the National Summer School Initiative, a nonprofit online learning program that began with a one-week institute for over 500 teachers who wanted to become better online instructors, pairing them with mentor teachers. The program was supported by philanthropy and free to participants, serving about 12,000 students in English, math and the arts. Renamed Cadence Learning, it is now a full-fledged online learning program for districts, community groups and charter networks. It’s free for organizations with under 5,000 students and low-cost for larger ones, supported by $4 million from philanthropy.

COVID-19 has thrown K-12 education into disarray, threatening severe long-term learning and earnings losses to young people and the nation. But it has also catalyzed creative and determined parents and other community members to reimagine education, thereby improving young people’s financial futures and that of the nation.

These efforts are characteristically American and impressive — even if they are driven by urgency and exasperation — led by individuals who are working tirelessly to ensure that learning and earning can continue.

Bruno V. Manno is senior adviser for K-12 education reform with the Walton Family Foundation. Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to The 74.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today