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Covid Learning Loss Could Cost American Kids $900 Billion In Lost Income

A series of new studies demonstrate exactly how much school shutdowns could cost the next generation of American students.


Shortly after the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing results showed dramatic learning loss by American youth during the coronavirus pandemic, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten attempted to grant herself absolution for the lengthy Covid lockdowns of schools. But a series of new studies demonstrate exactly how much those lockdowns could cost the next generation of American students.

The studies use both current NAEP data and studies from prior years to show that the learning loss associated with the pandemic, if not remedied, could lead to approximately $900 billion in lower earnings for public school students. Worse yet, the effects will likely hit low-income families hardest — a perfect example of how seemingly well-intentioned leftist policies have the effect of keeping poor families poor.

Long-Term Effects of Learning Loss

One of the papers by the Center for Education Policy Research used data from the Census Bureau and prior rounds of NAEP test scores taken between 1990 and 2019 to analyze the connection between test results and long-term life outcomes. Because different states’ scores on the NAEP test for eighth-grade math rose by different amounts over the past several decades, the researchers could analyze how those differences affected cohorts of students as they went through life.

The researchers examined factors such as changes in income, the likelihood of enrolling in college, teen motherhood, and incarceration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, higher test scores were associated with higher income and college enrollment, along with lower rates of teen motherhood and incarceration.

Using the results they obtained from analyzing pre-pandemic data, the researchers then extrapolated what would happen if the learning losses from the pandemic era do not get reversed. They calculated the learning loss would lead to a 1.6 percent decline in lifetime earnings.

A 1.6 percent income loss may not sound like much, but it amounts to an $800 pay cut at a $50,000 per year job — real money to most Americans. Over the course of a lifetime, the income loss would total $19,400, or enough to buy a modest car. Multiply the $19,400 by the 48 million American children attending public schools during the pandemic, and the nationwide loss of income due to learning loss could amount to a staggering $900 billion.

The harmful effects don’t end there, however, as learning loss will have other long-lasting and equally harmful effects. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal quotes one of the researchers observing that, for eighth-grade students:

College enrollment would fall 2.4%. Meantime, the number of high school dropouts would increase 3.6%, of teen mothers by 3.2%, of the unemployed by 6.6%, and of young men incarcerated by 14.2%.

These data provide all the evidence in the world why American parents should not so easily forgive, or forget, the way in which Weingarten and her allies lobbied to keep schools closed indefinitely during the pandemic.

Poor Students Worst Off

Another study analyzing this year’s NAEP results proved what many observers might intuit: The poorest areas suffered worst from learning loss. While more than 97 percent of districts lost ground in math, for instance, the extent of the learning loss varied by income. While districts with the fewest number of poor students (as measured by the percentage of students receiving federal school lunch subsidies) lost less than half a grade level of learning (0.45), districts with the most poor students lost two-thirds of a grade level of learning (0.66).

The researchers also find evidence to suggest that “achievement losses were greater in districts that spent more time in remote instruction in 2020-21.” However, they do caveat that conclusion with a finding that “achievement losses varied widely among districts that spent the same share of 2020-21 in remote learning.” Apparently, in some instances, other factors can help overcome the ill effects of remote learning — but overall, millions of students struggled during the pandemic.

Keeping Americans in Poverty

During the pandemic, we heard much about how “structural racism” has kept African Americans and individuals of color from achieving their full potential. The Center for Educational Policy Research studies prove such a phenomenon exists — just in a different place than many leftist activists might think.

For well over a year, Weingarten and her fellow union bosses acted in ways reminiscent of George Wallace, standing in the proverbial schoolhouse door to prevent young children from getting the in-person education they needed to learn. The studies show that the effects of their actions will not soon disappear — and neither should our memory of them.

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