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Nobody is lobbying for children: “Kids are far, far behind in school”

“Enormous learning losses” have taken place

… Covid left little children far behind

Covid was costly in so many ways. By refusing to acknowledge the problem for months, schools and the rest of the country had to shut down, causing irreparable harm to so many.

The challenge for schools was simple: Keep the schools open and risk many children coming down with Covid, allowing them to carry it home to their parents, grandparents, and siblings. Or, close them down and go to remote education, a process for which they were terribly unprepared.

The losers on the educational front were the children from Kindergarten to those on the college level. For K to 12, I have seen the problems first hand as I tutor students from across the country and Canada. Many of them said simply that they did not learn much, particularly in the area of writing.

However, on the lower scale, those in the primary grades and could not benefit much from remote education were hurt in many ways. Today, educational researchers are understanding that the damage is simply terrible fundamentally, to say nothing about the mental health damage to children.

Children should not have to pay for this

A Harvard research has been leading the effort to assess the damage and then try to rectify them. Schools across the country have been given large amounts of money from President Biden’s bill to aid them, but rather than pass that on to helping the students, they are doing tone-deaf things like trying to lower taxes.

How intense is the problem?

Starting in the spring of 2020, school boards and superintendents across the country faced a dreadful choice: Keep classrooms open and risk more COVID-19 deaths, or close schools and sacrifice children’s learning. In the name of safety, many districts shut down for long periods. But researchers are now learning that the closures came at a stiff price—a large decline in children’s achievement overall and a historic widening in achievement gaps by race and economic status.

The achievement loss is far greater than most educators and parents seem to realize. The only question now is whether state and local governments will recognize the magnitude of the educational damage and make students whole. Adults are free to disagree about whether school closures were justified or a mistake. But either way, children should not be stuck with the bill for a public-health measure taken on everyone’s behalf.

Thomas Kane, “Kids are Far, Far Behind in School,” The Atlantic, May 22, 2022

Kane is part of a team from the American Institutes for Research, Dartmouth College, Harvard, and the educational-assessment nonprofit NWEA that is assessing the effect of the remote and hybrid instruction that children were forced into by Covid.

The Research

Here is what they have found, in part,

We have assembled testing results from 2.1 million elementary- and middle-school students in 10,000 schools in 49 states and Washington, D.C., and combined those with data on the number of weeks schools were in-person, remote, or hybrid during 2020–21. Our team compared student-achievement growth in the period before the pandemic, from fall 2017 to fall 2019, with the period from fall 2019 to fall 2021. For years, districts have regularly been using NWEA tests to measure how students’ performance in reading and math changes during a school year; in a typical week of in-person instruction before the pandemic, the average student improved 0.3 points in math (on the NWEA’s scale) and 0.2 points in reading.

During the spring semester of 2020, though, nearly all schools went remote. Distractions, technical glitches, and the many other pitfalls of online education made it far less effective than in-person school.

One-fifth of American students, by our calculations, were enrolled in districts that remained remote for the majority of the 2020–21 school year. For these students, the effects were severe. Growth in student achievement slowed to the point that, even in low-poverty schools, students in fall 2021 had fallen well behind what pre-pandemic patterns would have predicted; in effect, students at low-poverty schools that stayed remote had lost the equivalent of 13 weeks of in-person instruction. At high-poverty schools that stayed remote, students lost the equivalent of 22 weeks. Racial gaps widened too: In the districts that stayed remote for most of last year, the outcome was as if Black and Hispanic students had lost four to five more weeks of instruction than white students had.

By our calculations, about 50 percent of students nationally returned in person in the fall and spent less than a month remote during the 2020–21 school year. In these districts where classrooms reopened relatively quickly, student-achievement gaps by race and socioeconomic status widened a bit in reading but, fortunately, not in math. And overall student achievement fell only modestly.

Thomas Kane, The Atlantic, Mary 22, 2022

Tutoring can help the problem, but it is not a panacea, and it is not cheap.


Kane said that he watched his own child dozing in front of a computer during the pandemic, but he realizes that recovering that lost learning time is going to be difficult,

High-dosage tutoring—which educators define as involving a trained tutor working with one to four students at a time, three times a week for a whole year—is one of the few interventions with a demonstrated benefit that comes close, producing an average gain equivalent to 19 weeks of instruction …

The obvious challenge with tutoring is how to offer it to students on an enormous scale. To eliminate a 22-week instruction loss would require providing a tutor to every single student in a school. Yet Tennessee’s plan would serve just one out of 12 Tennessee students in the targeted grades.

Given the magnitude and breadth of the losses, educators should not see tutoring as the sole answer to the problem. School systems need a patch big enough to cover the hole.

Thomas Kane, The Atlantic, May 22, 2022

The alternatives

In addition to tutoring, which will cost a great deal, Kane has looked at other alternatives,

[S]ummer school has historically struggled with low student attendance. In a typical pre-pandemic year, only about 6 percent of students attended summer school. Even if districts managed to triple that number, enrollment would still fall far short of the magnitude required to eliminate learning loss.

A third alternative would be lengthening the school year for the next two years. Of course, districts would have to pay teachers, janitors, and bus drivers more, perhaps at time and a half, to work the extra weeks. But unlike with tutoring or double-dose math, districts already have the personnel, the buildings, the buses, the schedules. As long as educators, parents, and students view the extra instructional time as just an extension of the school year—like days added to make up for snow closures—the power of family and school routine will deliver higher attendance than summer school.

The primary problem with a longer school year is political, not logistical. After opposition from the local teachers’ union and some parents, the Los Angeles Unified School District was able to add only four optional days of school next year.

Thomas Kane, The Atlantic, May 22, 2022

Kane notes that state and local school agencies received $190 billion in federal pandemic relief, and that much of it has not yet been spent. Some local districts are using it for summer school, and they have two years in which they can spend the money.

In addition, the federal bill required districts to spend only 20 percent of their money on academic aid, an obvious reaction to the resistance of Republican legislators to the bill.

However, the need right now is immediate from the children’s perspective — and no one is lobbying for them.

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