Chicago Fed Insights

Measuring Learning Loss from School Closures During the Pandemic and Beyond

August 19, 2021

Learning Loss and Renewal after the Pandemic (August 10, 2021) was the latest in a series of Project Hometown virtual events hosted by the Chicago Fed. The latest event featured a panel of experts in the field of education and aimed to raise awareness of the consequences of school closures and remote learning on academic achievement and economic opportunities, particularly for students in economically disadvantaged communities.

Universal school closures beginning in March 2020 led many students into virtual or hybrid learning, leading to widespread concerns about learning loss among students. Though there is uncertainty in terms of the long-run effects of these closures, Eric Hanushek, fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, noted that fully remote learning is not as effective as in-person learning, and hybrid learning falls in between by most estimates. Many students in large urban districts have not shown up in school post-pandemic, he added, suggesting that opportunities for learning are not as widespread as before. Large drops in enrollment at community colleges also occurred last year, said Betheny Gross, research director at WGU Labs. Ann Whalen, policy director at Advance Illinois, reported that community college enrollment in Illinois was down 13% in spring 2021 over the prior year, and the number of students entering pre-k and kindergarten dropped by almost 8%.

As another indication of learning loss, available scholastic achievement tests show that students are lagging in learning gains during the pandemic. Megan Kuhfeld, senior research scientist with NWEA, described estimates of learning loss across 50 states from testing 5.5 million K-8 public school students on a voluntary basis during the 2020–21 school year. The test results from grade-level cohorts in 2020–21 were compared to those in 2018–19, a more normal school year than 2019–20. She found that in the fall of 2020, learners kept close to the pace of those tested in 2018–19, but by the spring of 2021, students were making smaller gains than in previous years, especially in math. Her assessments revealed larger learning losses for Black, Brown, and Native American students, particularly in the younger grades, and for schools in areas with high levels of poverty. Kuhfeld concluded that in general “students were making gains this last year, however, they are not as steep as a typical year,” yet she noted one important caveat: Her results may understate the extent and nature of the learning loss as many of those not tested were probably the most impacted by the pandemic.

Hanushek and his colleague Ludger Woessmann estimated the potential impact of learning loss in the U.S. In terms of earnings, they estimated an approximate 6% to 9% reduction in lifetime earnings for the average student in K-12 impacted by the pandemic, and these impacts are disproportionately large for kids in disadvantaged communities. Robin Newberger, policy advisor in the Community Development and Policy Studies Division at the Chicago Fed and moderator of the event reiterated that “inequality and inequities are perpetrating and deepening this learning loss problem.” Because overall economic growth is tied to the skills of the workforce, Hanushek expects the lower learning levels to decrease U.S. GDP by roughly 3% to 4% over the remainder of this century. He emphasized that “if we just returned to where we were before the pandemic, we will not erase these losses.”

To support students most effectively going forward, many administrators, teachers, parents, and even students want to see a shift towards individualized learning, Gross said. The interest in this new approach reflects the growing divergence in skills among students that occurred during the pandemic, with the skill gap widening the most for students in low-income and minority communities, Hanushek said. There is also a new emphasis on curriculum advancement and developing new ways to be flexible and accommodating, Gross explained. To support students going forward, “we want to take this moment and put everyone on a new path” to respond to historical gaps and underperformance that is evident across the system, she added. Whalen concurred, stating that in the case of Illinois, our goal is to “to build back better.”

Whalen reported that Illinois serves a majority of Black and Brown students in its 852 district system, and 49% of these students’ families are at the low end of the income scale. Funding from various sources currently amounts to $8 billion, of which 90% is to be spent at the district level through September 2024. The State of Illinois has developed a resource guide for districts—“a roadmap of what learning renewal should look like in our state”—to target the use of the funds, she said. Twelve different priority areas have been identified, including an emphasis on individualized learning and culturally responsive practices, and plans for the 10% allocated to the state include high-impact tutoring and training and mental health support, Whalen added.

Hanushek stressed that data from various studies confirm that the best way to help students in Illinois and across states is to have effective teachers, stating that “we knew this beforehand, but now it becomes imperative if we’re going to make up for these learning losses.” Gross reported that teachers have experienced fatigue and burnout, with some considering leaving the profession (at the height of the pandemic, one in four teachers considered leaving their jobs after the 2021 school year, according to a Rand study), highlighting the urgency to support teachers and their professional development.

Looking ahead to the 2021–22 school year, “the delta variant is definitely throwing everyone for a loop” and school district leaders in Illinois keep having to change plans, Whalen said. This variant is particularly problematic given low vaccination rates among school-age children nationally (only 30% among 12- to 15-year-olds, 41% among 16- to 17-year-olds, and none for those under age 12), adding uncertainly as we enter the new school year, Gross said.

In summary, Hanushek remarked, “this is not a normal recession. It is a learning crisis.” Kuhfeld stressed, “we need to take action to help students catch up,” and “it takes collective action to support schools.” It is important for community partners to support students, Whalen added, and local stakeholders can help inform how districts use funds such as those provided under the American Rescue Plan Act. Support may include providing internship opportunities to facilitate educational transitions, partnerships with after-school programs, and reinforcements in health and social-emotional learning, Newberger said. Beyond the massive distribution of resources (especially technology) that has already been provided by our communities during the pandemic, we still need help with expanding broadband access and more community-based learning initiatives, Gross added. Whalen emphasized that the data are still coming in and the path of the pandemic is still unfolding, so we should be prepared to adapt and pivot as needed to help to reverse our students’ learning loss.

The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.

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