Aug 15, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The COVID-19 learning cliff

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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Perhaps the most jarring reality of the COVID-19 pandemic for families has been the sudden and dramatic disruption to all levels of education, which is expected to have deep social and economic repercussions for years — if not decades — to come.

Why it matters: As millions of students are about to start the school year virtually, at least in part, experts fear students may fall off an educational cliff — missing key academic milestones, falling behind grade level and in some cases dropping out of the educational system altogether.

  • They're also missing out on crucial social development that only comes from interactions with peers.

The economic impact could be staggering: McKinsey estimates the average K-12 student in the U.S. could lose $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings — or the equivalent of a year of full-time work, as a result of learning losses related to COVID-19.

  • Losses are expected to be even greater for Black, Hispanic and low-income students, widening the existing achievement gaps by 15%-20%, per McKinsey.
  • All in all, this translates to an estimated loss of $110 billion in annual earnings across current K-12 students.
  • The World Bank estimates that close to 7 million students worldwide could drop out of school due to the income shock of the pandemic alone. Globally, a school shutdown of five months could cause learning losses amounting to $10 trillion.

What's happening: As many schools transition to online learning this fall, some students will be able to log on consistently and attend classes with help from family and hired caregivers, in the biggest test of remote learning yet.

Yes, but: Other students will have limited access to computers, internet and adult help to support their learning, likely exacerbating the stark divide in this pandemic's disproportionate effects.

  • A clear trend emerged from decades of studies on summer slide: students from lower-income families are more likely to fall behind than students who live in higher-income homes, RAND’s Jennifer McCombs told Harvard EdCast in March.

The spring school closures gave a window into potential losses. A June NWEA study of "COVID slide" suggested students would return to school this fall with about 70% of the learning gains in reading compared to a typical school year.

  • In math, students were likely to return with less than 50% of the previous school year's learning gains, and in some grades nearly a whole year behind what would be expected under normal circumstances.

Gauging where students are academically when they resume classes will be a challenge. Educators are more focused on tending to safety, food security and other pandemic-related trauma students are facing.

  • "People aren't rushing to get a kid in front of a test, and I think that's probably a healthy thing," said Beth Tarasawa, executive vice president of research at NWEA, a nonprofit that creates academic assessments for students pre-K-12. Eventually, though, those data points will be needed to plan interventions and support.

Despite the difficulties, experts agree that lowering academic standards is not the answer.

  • "What we can't get comfortable with is that kids aren't going to learn if they are at home. The reality is kids are at home and kids must learn. What do we need to put in place to make sure that is happening for every child?" says Susan Schaeffler, CEO of KIPP DC, which operates 18 public charter schools in Washington, D.C.

What's next: Some learning loss can be addressed with basic, tried-and-true strategies, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.

  • One-on-one tutoring and small-group lessons can help, even though they are more tricky in a virtual setting and require resources.
  • "What we know from research is that it matters how quickly educators address learning losses because they cascade and students disengage when they don't think they can do the work in front of them," Lake said.
  • She added: "We have to limit the learning loss curve as quickly as possible because, otherwise, educators will be overwhelmed both by the enormity of the need plus all the other stuff they're dealing with, like health and public safety and budget crunches."

Parents — juggling work and caring for families while making sure their children are set up to learn — already feel the pressure.

  • "Now we have this continual conversation about how this is going to devastate our children," particularly children of color, said Keri Rodrigues, co-founder and president of the National Parents Union.
  • "That puts everyone in the mindset that our children are broken. It is our job as the adult to push on and persevere to figure this out for them."

The bottom line: Keeping kids on track will require much more communication and teamwork between parents and educators.

  • One positive "is that [the pandemic] has forced parents and schools to lean on each other in a way that I hope continues when we are back face-to-face," says Schaeffler.

Go deeper... Podcast: Cap podcast on the loss of learning

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