Public schools across the country created a learning loss crisis by closing schools for extended periods and denying students access to in-person learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. Young children, students from low-income households, and students with disabilities suffered the most. How much do you know about the learning loss that has devastated students across the country? Can you identify which of the following is the lie? 

A. School closures and remote learning did not affect students’ academic performance.

B. The most vulnerable students, the youngest students, those with learning disabilities, and the high-poverty, suffered the most.

C. School choice is a good solution to repairing learning loss.

Let’s take these statements one at a time: 

A. LIE. Lengthy school closures and deplorable remote instruction, often imposed upon students in response to teachers’ unions’ demands, resulted in two years of disrupted learning and sharp declines in reading and math scores. Students entered the pandemic with weak academic skills, with only one-third of students reading proficiently and less than one-quarter of 12th graders proficient in math in 2019. 

Covid-era education policies compounded the literacy crisis, significantly lowered math achievement, and negatively impacted students’ performance in additional subjects as well. Students didn’t just miss out on academic knowledge. According to a McKinsey and Company analysis, “They are at risk of finishing school without the skills, behaviors, and mindsets to succeed in college or in the workforce.” In the midst of this academic crisis, many school districts, unfortunately, do not appear to be addressing the learning loss crisis their policies created.

B. TRUTH. The negative impact of school closures on young students became apparent early in the pandemic. Assessment and curriculum provider, Amplify Education, found in 2021 that early readers—children in kindergarten and first grade—were struggling as compared to previous years. Test scores in 2020 already revealed that “40% of first grade students and 35% of second grade students scored ‘well below grade level’ on a reading assessment, compared with 27% and 29% the previous year.” 

Students with special needs were heavily impacted as well. Numerous media outlets, including the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, and NPR, reported throughout the pandemic that students with special needs, in particular, were falling behind due to school closures. When schools closed, students with disabilities lost their daily structure and routine; their access to speech, occupational, or physical therapy; and their classroom accommodations and assistance. 

And high-poverty students fell further behind than ever. Research has consistently found that achievement gaps between low-poverty students and high-poverty students increased significantly during the pandemic. According to analysis from The Education Recovery Scorecard, a collaboration with researchers at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University (CEPR) and Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project:

  • “The average U.S. public school student in grades 3-8 lost the equivalent of a half year of learning in math and a quarter of a year in reading.
  • The pandemic widened disparities in achievement between high and low poverty schools. The quarter of schools with highest shares of students receiving federal lunch subsides missed two-thirds of a year of math learning, while the quarter of schools with the fewest low-income students lost two-fifths of a year.

C. TRUTH. Policymakers should empower parents to leave their public schools and enroll their children in alternative educational options. State and local leaders should fund students directly by either redirecting existing K-12 education funding or using federal, state, and local fiscal recovery funds provided under the American Rescue Plan to create flexible education savings accounts (ESA). Allowing parents to access K-12 funding directly through ESAs enables them to escape the chaos of COVID-era education systems and swiftly address their children’s educational needs. States can also create Learning Recovery Grants or microgrants that provide parents with access to funds that can be used on tutoring, coaching, and afterschool and summer school programs focused on learning loss. 

Bottom Line: 

Children deserve a path out of learning loss and deteriorating mental health. Educational freedom empowers parents to find an educational environment that prioritizes academic instruction and healthy childhood experiences. Policymakers must give parents options and ensure that schools are actively addressing learning loss.

To learn more about learning loss, read IWF’s policy focus or my congressional testimony on “The Consequences of School Closures: Intended and Unintended.”