Pandemic learning loss is a national crisis

Just in time for the start of the new school year, America’s public education system received a damning report card.

The latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveal historically large declines in math and reading scores for students in US public schools. The conclusions are a condemnation of school closures that have gone on for too long, pushed by teachers’ unions and some of their political allies. They also show why recovering the ground students have lost is a national emergency.

The NAEP compared the performance of 9-year-olds who took the assessment in 2022 with data from early 2020, before pandemic school closures began. In two years, the average reading score fell five points, the biggest drop since 1990. In math, scores fell seven points, the first drop of any kind in the test’s 50-year history . Based on these results, the pandemic has wiped out 20 years of student progress in both subjects.

A closer look at the data reveals even bigger reasons for alarm. Although white students scored five points lower in math than in 2020, scores fell eight points among Latinos and 13 among black students. The gap between the best and the worst scores has also widened. The drop in math scores among the poorest 10% of students was four times that of the richest 10%; in reading, losses for low performers were five times greater. Simply put, the pandemic has hurt the most children who could least afford it.

None of this should be surprising. A study released in May found that poor students in districts that remained remote in 2020-21 suffered twice as much academic erosion as their peers in wealthier schools. Of those assessed in the NAEP 2022, 70% report having learned remotely for at least part of the previous year; students who performed poorly reported having significantly less access to computers and high-speed internet. Worse, barely a quarter of students with learning difficulties had a teacher “available to help with school work almost every day”.

The blame for these dismal results lies primarily with poorly designed and poorly implemented distance learning programs that have gone on far too long – and long after vaccines became available – largely because union leaders in public school teachers wrongly insisted that returning teachers to work put their safety at risk. . It didn’t help that many progressive politicians sided with the unions for student welfare. Public health officials, meanwhile, have provided confusing and conflicting advice on keeping schools open – despite low rates of serious illness among children and evidence that the risks of transmission at school were minimal.

While most — but not all — public school students have returned to the classroom, the scale of learning loss revealed by the NAEP calls for deeper and more aggressive interventions. President Joe Biden can do much more to draw public attention to the crisis and mobilize all levels of government to address it, including accelerating efforts to recruit and train tutors focused on highly vulnerable students. It is also imperative that all students spend more time in the classroom to help make up for lost ground, which is why earlier this year I launched an initiative to support summer learning for thousands of public charter school students in New York. School districts should use federal relief funds to increase instruction time, lengthen the school year, expand summer school slots and launch more “Saturday Academies” — preferably all of the above.

Schools should offer bonuses to teachers willing to work during the summer and on weekends. It is also essential to establish policies that evaluate and reward principals and teachers based on their degree of improvement in student outcomes – as districts such as Dallas and Washington, DC have done. The Biden administration must also encourage more innovation in the public school system by funding high-quality public charter schools, which would particularly benefit black, Latino, and low-income students and their families.

Needless to say, all of this won’t come cheap. Yet much of the more than $100 billion in Covid aid provided to school districts remains unspent. The United States has the resources to help students recover from the pandemic. What he needs is the will.

Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, the United Nations Special Envoy for Ambition and Climate Solutions, and Chairman of the Defense Innovation Board.

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