'Devastating': Pandemic learning loss needs urgent attention in U.S., national survey finds

Researchers also found that the pandemic “exacerbated economic and racial educational inequality.”

A little boy in math class, overwhelmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, stands with his forehead against a blackboard.
A little boy in math class is overwhelmed during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Getty Images)

The “educational harm” caused by the coronavirus pandemic has been “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 accompanying the release of their findings last week.

Standardized test results have similarly shown that American students are losing ground in math, reading, history and social studies. But the new findings, which are part of the Educational Recovery Scorecard, add important — and troubling — context while also calling for urgent action.

The top line

In a survey 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 a half year of learning in math and a quarter of a year in reading.”

Long-standing inequalities in education also played a role: The less wealthy and white a community was, the more likely it was to suffer pandemic loss. That means the so-called education gap that policymakers have been desperate to close is only getting wider.

The impact of school closures

An empty playground at a public school.
An empty playground at a public school in New York in November 2020. (Wang Ying/Xinhua via Getty)

By the fall of 2020, it had become clear that children did not appear to contract serious or fatal cases of COVID-19. Nor did schools become the sites of mass outbreaks some feared. Yet in many districts, particularly those controlled by Democrats, schools stayed closed for in-person instruction well into 2021.

By late 2022, researchers were finding that remote learning had caused pronounced learning loss. In a brief that summarizes their findings, the Education Recovery Scorecard authors bolster evidence for that correlation.

“Districts that spent more time in remote instruction during 2020-21 experienced greater losses,” they write.

And those losses, they found, were especially pronounced in communities where parents were employed in “essential” positions that took them away from the home, writing: “Remote learning may have been particularly difficult when adults were less able to help students, as a result of employment obligations.”

Social capital

A young girl sits at a desk as she participates in a video call with her teacher via laptop. (Getty Images)
A child on a videoconference call with her teacher. (Getty Images)

Kane, Reardon and their colleagues do not blame remote learning for the entirety of the learning loss they chronicled. Taking a more nuanced stance, they argue that community-level factors 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 multigenerational households and sparse access to green space.

Unsurprisingly, children fared better if they had access to broadband internet. Asian and white households are more likely to have such high-speed connections, other studies have concluded.

Similarly, communities where adults voted and households responded to the U.S. census tended to see less learning loss.

Broadly, 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 to student learning,” the researchers write.

Mistrust could have been engendered by a variety of factors, including the spread of pandemic-related political misinformation and suspicion stemming from deeply ingrained prejudice.

Overall, the research suggested that communities with a measure of cohesion and institutional participation tended to provide a kind of safety net for children. “Communities with more social capital, greater civic and volunteer participation, and more connectedness among residents may have been better able to maintain social connections among residents and to better support schools and households,” the authors of the Education Recovery Scorecard write.

What’s next?

Elementary school students follow their teacher down a hallway to her classroom.
Students at Ellis Elementary School follow their teacher Megan Westmore to her classroom on Aug. 22, 2022, in Denver. (RJ Sangosti/the Denver Post via Getty Images)

Educators across the country have been desperate to catch students up with intensive tutoring and other forms of remediation. But it may not be enough. The authors of the sobering Education Recovery Scorecard say that more high-quality instruction is needed. And they point to a proposal that may not be especially popular with students: summer school.

“It seems clear that we need to approach recovery as an on-going effort,” they write. “To fully recover, districts will need to continue to make concerted investments in student learning over the coming years.”