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To Get Kids Back on Track After COVID: Shoot for the Moon

It will take a Herculean effort to make up for learning loss during the pandemic
Young student looking up

In 1962 President John F. Kennedy famously declared that the United States would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. At the time, there was not a rocket that was powerful enough to send astronauts and their supplies to the moon and back. The first step, before the much-anticipated giant leap for mankind, was for NASA engineers to calculate the magnitude of thrust needed to propel a lunar spacecraft and its crew.

Economist Thomas Kane likes to recall the space race when he considers the enormity of the task that public schools currently face, making up for all the learning that children missed during the pandemic. Kane, the faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, paints a striking picture of the problem in the recently released Education Recovery Scorecard, produced in collaboration with researchers at Stanford.

The district-level analysis, which compares math and reading test scores across the country between 2019 and 2022, where data is available, has some sobering findings:

  • On average, students in grades 3–8 lost half a school year of math learning and a quarter of a year of reading. Six percent of students lost more than a year of math.
  • The pandemic exacerbated achievement gaps that had long existed between low and high-poverty schools. Schools with the greatest poverty saw the biggest achievement losses.
  • Without sufficient efforts to help students catch up, particularly in poorer districts, the pandemic could create the largest increase in educational inequity ever seen.

“The greatest challenge right now is that normal is not enough, but normal is what everyone has been seeking. Normal will solidify these losses.”

After the Education Recovery Scorecard was released, Kane addressed some of the concerns that educators and parents may have about pandemic learning loss.

What do school district leaders need to do to get students back on track?

First, do the math:

Districts are aware of declines in student achievement and may have identified interventions that could help, including intensive tutoring, doubling up on math classes, and expanding instruction over the summer and other vacation weeks, according to Kane. However, he says few are “doing the math” to truly understand how much intervention is really needed. District leaders should be comparing the magnitude of their losses to the expected size of the impacts for each of the interventions they are fielding. Instead, Kane says many districts are “shooting bottle rockets at the moon” with their recovery efforts which, while “directionally correct,” are far from adequate.

Once the true scale of the problem and the research on the impact of available remedies is understood, leaders may see the need for “less politically popular interventions” such as extending the school year. After they have done the math themselves, they will be better prepared to make the case to parents.

Second, don’t wait and see, think big and scale up:

K–12 schools have received $190 billion in federal relief aid, which they can use to help students catch up on learning, but only for a limited time. “It’s really important that districts get started now, planning more ambitious efforts,” Kane says. He urges district leaders to “re-visit their plans and start planning much larger interventions for this coming summer and for the fall,” for K–8 and high school students.

What can parents do?

The scorecard has interactive maps that can help parents see how their own child’s school district has been impacted and compare those impacts with others, locally and nationally. However, it can still be challenging for parents to appreciate how far their student has slipped behind when it comes to grasping key math and literacy concepts. Kane urges them to ask teachers, during parent-teacher conferences, to compare where students are now to where they would have been at this point in the school year in 2019.  

How long will it take?

Results will vary. In wealthier school districts, assessments will likely show students returning to 2019 achievement levels by this spring or next, Kane predicts, but in districts that saw greater disruptions and learning loss, it could be a four-to-five-year effort, and there are no guarantees that everyone will catch up, without much more work, he says. “The greatest challenge right now is that normal is not enough, but normal is what everyone has been seeking. Normal will solidify these losses.”

What’s next?

The researchers acknowledge that the cost of the pandemic extends well beyond math and reading scores, especially for the nation’s poorest children. They are currently examining the impact of school closures and other factors including COVID death rates, the occupations of parents, and access to broadband internet at home.

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