By now, it’s well-known that the school shutdowns during the Covid pandemic have resulted in noticeable learning loss. According to the most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (a.k.a., “the Nation’s Report Card”), math and reading levels across the country have dropped to their lowest point in decades. Evidently, remote learning, where kids attend classes through Zoom and submit their work online, wasn’t remotely effective.
Of course, such news is easy to shrug off when so many Americans generally have a low view of public education and assume the worst anyway. However, the Hoover Institution has recently done the service of putting this learning loss in terms people can understand: dollars and cents.
In “The Economic Consequence of the Pandemic: State by State,” the Hoover Institute forecasts the negative financial impact of having American students miss a year or more of in-person instruction. According to the report, “Students on average face 2-9 percent lower lifetime incomes depending on the state in which they live,” and “states themselves are estimated to face a GDP that is 0.6 to 2.9 percent lower each year for the remainder of the 21st Century.” Because fewer students graduating from schools will have the requisite learning to qualify for more lucrative high-skill jobs, their income and state economies will shrink.
Taken further, this problem could easily spill into American political culture. Not only will adults earning less vote for politicians and policies that offer them more social entitlements, but students with mediocre reading and math instruction are less likely to major in useful subjects such as science, technology, engineering, or math, or to continue their studies in professional fields such as medicine or law. Rather, they will take on massive debt to major in an easier discipline that consists chiefly of leftist activism, thus maximizing their uselessness to society.
To make matters worse, the financial and political repercussions of Covid learning loss will affect poorer children far more than rich children. As Malcolm Gladwell illustrates in his classic “Outliers,” poorer students suffer much more from summer learning loss than rich students whose parents can pay for learning enrichment and extracurricular programs when school’s out. Similarly, in the case of the Covid shutdown, most rich students had access to tutors and supplemental instruction while poor students spent most of their days playing games and watching movies on their tablets and computers.
Proposals to Fix Learning Loss
As bad as this all sounds, the writers of the Hoover Institution report leave open the possibility of fixing the situation by reforming the public education system and making up for the loss. Presumably, this could be done by lengthening the school day or school year — which would probably be a good idea anyway, since the school year in America is shorter than the rest of the developed world — or instruction could be intensified by raising levels of rigor and covering content faster.
Unfortunately, from what I can observe as a public school teacher myself, schools haven’t taken either course of action. Instead of making up for lost time and buckling down, there is still a pervasive feeling that we’re all still recovering from the Covid restrictions and that we should just take it easy. Granted, in contrast to the school year prior, this feeling has diminished significantly for the 2022-2023 school year so that the standards and expectations of many classes have returned to where they were before Covid.
Nevertheless, simply returning to pre-Covid norms isn’t enough to remediate the learning loss, nor does it address the mass tech addiction and mental health problems that were a consequence of school shutdowns. Most of us teachers can see that the Covid response has taken a toll on the students, but unless we want to fail half of our classes, the most we can do is meet the students where they are by relaxing standards and lowering expectations.
For his part, President Joe Biden has responded to this crisis by allocating “$122 billion in funds from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan COVID-relief package to bolster tutoring, summer learning and after-school programs and increase staff.” While this sounds nice on paper, the lack of details and recent experience of such spending indicate that this money is simply going to some of Biden’s cronies while the situation at schools remains the same — maybe it’s because I live in a red state, but I have yet to see any special programs despite the billions spent in Covid relief for public schools.
What Can Parents Do?
So where does this leave parents who want to minimize the damage done to their children because of the school shutdowns? Ironically, it mostly leaves them where they were before the shutdowns. It has never been enough to trust schools to prepare their children for adulthood. Even if they remained open during Covid, students would still need to have their learning supplemented with more instruction outside of school, and they would still need to be vigilantly kept off screens.
Otherwise, we can expect what has already happened with today’s high school and college graduates to happen even more so to today’s K-12 students who have suffered Covid learning loss. In a revealing interview for The Wall Street Journal, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt expressed a deep alarm at the mental health crisis now ruining members of Generation Z who grew up with social media and smartphones. Not only has this boosted anxiety and depression levels, but this in turn jeopardizes children’s opportunities in the future. They won’t be able to realize their potential and take on the responsibilities of adulthood, nor will they want to.
As Haidt relates, these emotional and academic setbacks have widened the typical gap between generations into a chasm. The things that today’s millennials and older generations take for granted cannot be expected of younger people, and this will have profound implications for everyone. Besides the decline in education and yearly salaries for younger generations, we can expect to see a continued decline in religiosity, marriages, families, friendships, and civic engagement.
However, this decline is not inevitable, and parents and children themselves can take note and change course before it’s too late. On a collective level, they can push for higher standards at their schools and support educators and politicians who feel the same way. On an individual level, they can do more at home to practice reading and math as they build up their social circle by going screen-free.
None of this is exactly easy or popular — the temptations of a quick fix and cheap gimmick will always be around — but this is the only way forward. And at this point, if we care about the well-being of today’s students or the long-term health of our economy, there’s really no other choice.