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It’s a Somber New Year for K-12 Schools

If the recovery effort is not expanded to involve all the resources that every community has to offer, our young people, especially the most vulnerable, face a diminished future.”

With each passing year, the staggering kindergarten to 12th grade (K-12) student learning loss from pandemic school closures becomes more apparent. It haunts America’s education system—its ghost an emergency described aseducation’s long COVID.” Valiant educator-led efforts are underway to remedy the problem. With that said, an early lesson of these recovery efforts is that K-12 educators alone cannot solve the problem. As schools enter the new year of 2024, K-12 leaders and classroom educators must reboot and broaden their current problem-solving efforts to develop community-wide recovery strategies. 

If the recovery effort is not expanded to involve all the resources that every community has to offer, our young people, especially the most vulnerable, face a diminished future. For example, Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek calculates that if learning loss is not reversed, the average student’s lifetime earnings will be 6% lower, the equivalent of a 6% income tax surcharge on students’ working lives. Nor will these losses be equally distributed: The most disadvantaged will suffer the worst consequences.   

A supercharged community recovery strategy should be honest about the enormity of learning loss. It must be informed by the most promising evidence on what is working to remedy the problem. And it must include a community report card with timely and reliable accountability information on the progress being made to remedy learning loss and what work needs to be done. 

The Learning Loss Puzzle 

The assessment provider Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) reports that students in grades three to eight lost ground in reading and math during the 2022-23 school year. On average, they need four more months in school to catch up to pre-pandemic levels, though “average” hides variation across grades, subjects, and characteristics such as race and income levels. 

These results are similar to other analyses, including that of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card. During the pandemic, average NAEP test scores for 9-year-old students declined five points in reading and seven points in math compared to 2020—the largest average decline in reading scores since 1990 and the first ever decline in math scores. Additionally, NAEP’s average American history test results for eighth-grade students show the lowest scores since such history assessments began in 1994, as well as the first-ever drop in civics scores since that test was initially given in 1998.

Post-pandemic international test results comparing 15 year olds in 81 countries between 2018 and 2022 tell a similar story. Scores for students in the United States dropped 13 points in math, in line with an average 15 point decline among all countries. American reading and science scores stayed about the same, while other countries’ scores fell in both subjects. “Different test. Same story,” is how Mark Schneider, director of the federal Institute for Education Sciences, describes the situation.

Students’ learning loss has at least five culprits which, individually and compounded, make it a complicated problem to remedy.  

First, students’ mental health declined. From April, 2020 to October, 2020—the period when the pandemic first peaked and widespread closures began—the proportion of mental health–related visits to emergency departments rose by 24% over pre-pandemic levels for children aged 5 to 11 and by 31% for children aged 12–17. By April, 2022, 70% of public schools reported an increase in the percentage of children seeking school mental-health services compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Record-high numbers of suicides among the general public were reported during the pandemic, rising fastest among young people. These disturbing data are part of a decade-long trend that researchers struggle to understand: a divergence between the objective measures of children’s conditions in the United States, which have been improving, and the subjective indicators of children’s mental health—their feelings and perceptions—which are worsening.

Second, students—and teachers—are missing from the classroom. Student chronic absenteeism—defined as missing, on average, at least 10% (or 18 days) of school a year—increased in all 50 states, reaching an all-time high. It affected nearly 30% of K-12 students, or 14.7 million, nearly double the 15% of students before the pandemic. The percentage of schools with extreme chronic absentee rates of 30% or more tripled during the pandemic, going from 14% to 43%, with a fivefold increase in the percentage of elementary and middle school students with extreme rates.

While chronic absenteeism was acute in schools with large enrollments of low-income students, it was even evident in wealthy districts—rising from 3% of schools before the pandemic to 14% of schools. It affected students from all backgrounds and ethnicities. Chronically absent students are at higher risk of negative outcomes like falling behind academically, dropping out, and becoming entangled with the criminal justice system. Finally—and this is no small thing—chronic teacher absenteeism also increased in 2021-22, affecting 72% of schools compared to a typical pre-pandemic school year. 

These student and teacher absenteeism rates are frightening because they become “habit forming,” says Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works. Once the tendency has developed, it is likely to persist and deepen.

Third, “B-flation” sends the wrong signal to parents. Parents’ perceptions of what children are learning in school do not match the reality of learning loss. For example, a Gallup and Learning Heroes survey of parents found almost 9 in 10 believe their child is “at” or “above grade level” in reading (88%) and math (89%), while 8 in 10 say they are confident they have a clear understanding of how their children are achieving academically. It is impossible to square those perceptions with the reality of declining test scores and rising absenteeism.

The problem is that most parents largely rely on report card grades as the primary source of their academic information. Not coincidentally, 8 in 10 say their children receive B’s or better on report cards. This is B-flation, where report card grades send false signals to parents that inflate their confidence that their child is doing well academically. This experience of grades rising and test scores falling reflects a long-term grade inflation problem that is well documented in districts, states, and nationally. This disconnect between parents’ beliefs and the reality of learning loss is adelusion of rigor” that must be overcome if young people are to recover from the nation’s education emergency. Educators face an uphill battle if parents are not informed and motivated to help.

Fourth, community social fabric has frayed. In many ways, the pandemic disrupted social connections and important relationships for young people—such as those with family members, other students, educators, and the wider society. This broader, relational context is a crucial component of education. For example, there is a relationship between student learning loss and community disruptions. Learning loss was greater in communities with higher Coronavirus (COVID-19) death rates, higher reported adult rates of anxiety and depression, and higher reported levels of disruption to daily routines. Conversely, less learning loss occurred in communities with fewer personal strains on parents and teachers and lighter social restrictions.

Of course, young people experienced personal losses themselves. For example, as many as 283,000 young people lost one or both parents to the pandemic, with about 359,000 losing a primary or secondary caregiver, including a grandparent. Those losses hit hardest in multigenerational, low-income households where many grandparents and other relatives play caregiving roles. 

These numbers may be small when compared to the number of children the pandemic affected in other ways. But they are a significant and vulnerable segment of America’s child population. They are force multipliers of the academic challenges students face.

Lastly, schools are heading toward a fiscal cliff. Since 2020, public school enrollment declined by almost 1.3 million students (with decreasing birth rates and changes in immigration patterns accounting for some of this). Urban districts had a significant enrollment decline, especially among the youngest students, though the problem also exists in small districts. Decline came from parents moving children to private and parochial schools; homeschooling, which reached record levels; and innovative options like micro-schools and learning pods. But some students—hundreds of thousands of them—dropped off the rolls and never returned. Declining student enrollment means less school funding, which is based on enrollment. And while some states are increasing support for K-12 education, other states are decreasing support. Finally, all districts have suffered from rising costs on all fronts, from food to fuel, on account of inflation.

Additionally, while the federal government provided federal pandemic relief funds, deadlines have passed or are approaching for designating a purpose for the money. For example, recipients of the $123 billion made available to public K-12 schools through the American Rescue Plan must designate their plans for using funds by September, 2024 (though the United States Department of Education has indicated it will extend the deadline for “extraordinary circumstances”). The end of this federal support equates to a one-year reduction of $1,000 per student, with a disproportionate effect on schools serving low-income students. These factors will produce a significant revenue decrease for school systems, creating a fiscal cliff.

A Community Recovery Strategy

These five factors—struggling students, chronic absenteeism, ill-informed parents, frayed communities, and underfunded schools—in combination create major impediments to addressing pandemic learning losses and the learning loss puzzle. United States Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona calls the pace of efforts to deal with this education emergency “appalling and unacceptable. It’s like…we’ve normalized [it].” In order to reinvigorate their recovery efforts, school district and community leaders should be guided by two realities. First, the recovery effort is not only a school district problem. It is a community problem that the community needs to solve. Second, the response to the problem needs to match the magnitude of the learning losses. Here are three starting points for district leaders as they work with other community leaders to create a K–12 post-pandemic recovery strategy that matches the scale of the problem.

The first is: Start with the truth that learning loss is real. The disconnect between how well parents think their child is doing academically and the reality of the learning loss must be overcome. District and other community leaders must communicate the severity and scope of the learning loss problem to parents and other K-12 stakeholders, ensuring they understand the perils of B-flation and the pandemic’s harmful educational aftermath. They need to make certain parents receive (and understand) academic achievement information on their children that goes beyond what their report cards indicate. The counterpart to this truth-telling is to ensure that increased student learning and support for teacher development are the “north star” guiding recovery efforts. Aligning this north star with the financial, human, and other community resources that exist creates a strong foundation for a reinvigorated recovery effort. 

Next, we must develop a recovery strategy. The recovery plan must include specific ways to overcome the learning loss problem and the culprits that comprise what I have called the learning loss puzzle. It should build on the lessons learned thus far in recovery efforts and what parents have signaled they want when they vote with their feet. Fortunately, there are many successful programs from which to choose. 

For example, there are a host of strategies that provide students with additional academic support, such as intensive small-group and high-dosage tutoringcompetency-based instruction, with students advancing based on what they know and do rather than by age; and summer school. There are ways to make better use of student time on task, as well as ways to incorporate high-quality classroom instructional materials with aligned teacher professional development. There are also programs that train parents, family, and other community members to become literacy tutors; home visit programs and other interventions that address chronic absenteeism; and different strategies which can be combined to complement each other and increase effectiveness. 

Other strategies offer budgeting frameworks that help districts model fiscal choices they can make, including financial incentives they can offer to students, parents, and teachers for reading books, attending classes, or, in the case of teachers, achieving specific learning outcomes. Educators have also developed social and emotional “people-powered supports” for students that include mentors, tutors, and counselors; other programs give parents and children more educational options like microschoolslearning podspublic charter schools and other school-choice options along with education savings accounts that allow families to pay for whatever additional education and school services they need.  

Finally, we must create a community report card. To ensure that the plan’s implementation remains on track and produces the desired outcomes in combating learning loss, the community should establish a user-friendly Community Covid Recovery Report Card. This would be a tracking system that reports progress on the main parts of the strategy—for example, are students progressing academically; which ones are or are not; are students who need high dosage tutoring receiving it; is chronic absenteeism decreasing? This report card holds schools, local leaders, and other stakeholders accountable. In short, the report card would provide a transparent look into how effectively strategies are being implemented, as well as which areas may need more attention or resources. 

Education’s long COVID will not go away by wishing it away. The burden is on K–12 advocates and stakeholders to up their game. This is an opportunity for genuine leadership, for rising to the challenge and mobilizing a community recovery effort worthy of our students. If we fail, the consequence will be a COVID-19 generation of students who leave the K-12 system without having been adequately prepared to pursue opportunities or to reach their full potential.

Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for the Walton Family Foundation education program and a former United States Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy. 

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