As the school year winds down, and with the World Health Organization officially declaring the emergency phase of the Covid-19 pandemic over earlier this month, many students, parents, and educators are feeling optimistic and ready to put the difficult, darkest days of the pandemic behind us. One recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of U.S. parents of K–12 students say they are now “extremely” or “very satisfied” with the quality of education their children are receiving, reflecting a marked rebound from the major dip in satisfaction with schools documented during the pandemic.
But as eager as we are to close the pandemic’s awful chapter in our collective lives, it’s a good time to take stock of the true extent to which the pandemic upended public education over the past three years. New research from the Education Recovery Scorecard Project, a collaboration with researchers from the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University and Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project, does just that, providing a comprehensive—and very bleak—picture of just how dramatically the pandemic affected student learning across the nation.
The team of researchers reviewed a slew of test scores, public health data, the duration of school closures, voting records and patterns of social activity, employment data, and survey data on family activities and mental health during the pandemic from nearly 8,000 communities in forty states and Washington, D.C. (representing roughly 80 percent of the public K–8 students in the country).
They found that the educational harm to students due to the pandemic is widespread and alarming, but in the hardest-hit districts and communities, it has been nothing short of devastating.
As the researchers summarized in a recent New York Times opinion piece, “Math, reading, and history scores from the past three years show that students learned far less during the pandemic than was typical in previous years. By the spring of 2022, according to our calculations, the average student was half a year behind in math and a third of a year behind in reading.” What’s more, “The pandemic exacerbated economic and racial educational inequality.... By 2022, the typical student in the poorest districts had lost three-quarters of a year in math, more than double the decline of students in the richest districts. The declines in reading scores were half as large as in math and were similarly much larger in poor districts than rich districts.” Heartbreakingly, in some of the hardest-hit communities, such as New Haven, Connecticut; Richmond, Virginia; and St. Louis, Missouri, students fell behind by over a year and a half in math.
So what contributed to these trends, and are they reversable?
The researchers found that test scores declined more in districts where schools were closed longer, and that “the extent to which schools were closed appears to have affected all students in a community equally, regardless of income or race.” In short, where children lived during the pandemic mattered hugely, and they found more variation between districts than within them.
But they also found that the educational impacts of the pandemic were due to out-of-school factors, as well; local conditions and disruptions had large impacts. Specifically, “test scores declined more in places where the Covid death rate was high, in communities where adults reported feeling more depression and anxiety during the pandemic and where daily routines of children and families were most significantly restricted. In combination, these factors put enormous strain on parents, teachers and kids—making it unlikely that adults could help kids focus on school.” Researchers also found that test score declines were smaller in communities with higher voting rates and Census response rates.
Given that most parents believe their child is at or above grade level in math and reading, and say they’re confident that their child’s school is well-preparing him or her for success in college, this latest research is a sobering, but much-needed, reality check for parents, educators, and policymakers, underscoring the urgent need to accelerate our national learning recovery efforts.
To catch students up, the researchers argue, schools can’t just return to business as usual. They stress, “In the hardest-hit communities...schools would have had to teach 150 percent of a typical year’s worth of material for three years in a row just to catch up. It is magical thinking to expect they will make this happen without a major increase in instructional time.” While federal relief money runs out in 2024, efforts might include widespread summer learning opportunities, expanded instructional time in the coming school years, more and better tutoring programs, more mental health supports for students, and new ways of engaging parents.
There is so much at stake. As the researchers conclude, “If we fail to replace what our children lost, we—not the coronavirus—will be responsible for the most inequitable and longest-lasting legacy of the pandemic. But if we succeed, that broader and more responsive system of learning can be our gift to America’s schoolchildren.”