During the Covid pandemic, children encountered significant learning setbacks, equivalent to approximately one-third of a school year’s worth of knowledge and skills, according to a recent global analysis.
Shockingly, more than two years later, these losses remained unrecovered.
The study revealed that learning disruptions and regressions were most severe in developing countries and among students from low-income backgrounds.
These challenges exacerbated existing educational disparities and posed threats to children’s future prospects in higher education and the workforce.
Published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, this analysis drew upon data from 15 countries, providing the most comprehensive account to date of the pandemic’s academic impact.
The findings indicate that the difficulties faced during remote learning, combined with other stressors experienced by children and families, were not resolved when schools reopened.
Addressing the need for recovery, Bastian Betthauser, a researcher at the Center for Research on Social Inequalities at Sciences Po in Paris and co-author of the review, stressed the importance of going beyond a return to normal.
He called upon officials worldwide to implement intensive summer programs and tutoring initiatives specifically targeting underprivileged students who fell farthest behind.
Thomas Kane, the faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard, who reviewed the global analysis, warned that without immediate and aggressive intervention, “learning loss will be the longest-lasting and most inequitable legacy of the pandemic.”
Previous crises such as the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and persistent teacher strikes in Argentina have demonstrated the lasting effects of long-term school absenteeism.
However, none compare to the scale of the Covid pandemic. UNICEF reported that approximately 1.6 billion children worldwide missed a significant amount of classroom time during the peak of the pandemic.
To quantify the impact, researchers combined findings from 42 studies published between March 2020 and August 2022, encompassing middle- and high-income countries in the Americas, Europe, and southern Africa.
These studies revealed that global education deficits amounted to about 35 percent of a school year and remained remarkably stable in subsequent years.
Although students ceased losing ground, they also failed to catch up.
The delays were more pronounced in mathematics compared to reading, possibly due to math’s reliance on formal instruction and reading comprehension’s natural improvement with brain development.
Data indicated that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds bore the brunt of the setbacks, likely due to noisy study environments, unreliable internet connections, and economic instability.
Dr. Damon Korb, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician who founded the Center for Developing Minds, found it unsurprising that learning deficits were consistent across grade levels.
He observed that many young children he treated struggled to readjust to classrooms as they needed to relearn basic socialization skills.
Additionally, teenagers returned to schools with anxiety disorders surpassing anything he had witnessed in his career.
Dr. Korb emphasized the need for more detailed research quantifying the delays experienced by unique learners, such as students with attention disorders or autism, who were confined to computer screens and lacked access to aides.
Middle-income countries like Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa experienced more significant deficits compared to high-income countries like Australia.
Sweden, which largely avoided school closures, showed no significant deficits in academic performance, while Denmark also fared well.
Although Denmark closed schools, its robust welfare structure may have mitigated the stressors experienced elsewhere, according to Mr. Betthauser.
The analysis excluded low-income countries due to insufficient data, but Mr. Betthauser suspected that losses could be even worse in those settings, highlighting the need for further research.
In the United States, a study revealed that the average public elementary or middle school student experienced the equivalent of a half-year learning loss in math, with 6 percent of students in districts suffering a loss exceeding a full year.
Standardized math test scores in 2022, compared to those in 2019, exhibited the largest drop ever recorded in the three decades since the exam was first administered.
These findings challenge the perception of many parents, as nearly half of them stated in 2022 surveys that they did not believe their children had suffered any learning setbacks during the pandemic, while only 9 percent expressed concerns about their children catching up.
Another review of test scores from 2.1 million students in the United States emphasized the impact of economic disparities.
Students attending schools in communities with high poverty levels spent more time learning remotely during the 2020-2021 school year than those in wealthier communities.
Consequently, students in poorer schools experienced more significant declines in academic performance when engaged in remote learning.
Sean Reardon, a professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University, cautioned against attributing these deficits solely to school closures, as numerous factors were at play.
Disadvantaged students faced various distractions, including parental job losses and a higher risk of infection for essential workers.
The analysts also discovered that within districts predominantly engaged in remote learning during the 2020-2021 year, poorer schools experienced twice as much learning loss compared to wealthier schools within the same districts.
According to Mr. Reardon, a child’s ability to learn and a teacher’s ability to teach are influenced by numerous factors beyond physical presence in the classroom.
He stressed that when the effects of learning loss are uneven, it exacerbates inequality for an entire generation, potentially hindering opportunities for college admission.
This global concern raises worrisome implications. Mr. Betthauser explained that since children have a limited capacity to absorb new material, teachers cannot simply accelerate the curriculum or extend school hours.
Traditional interventions like private tutoring often neglect the most disadvantaged groups. Without innovative solutions, the labor market must prepare for serious long-term consequences.
Economist Eric Hanushek from the Hoover Institution at Stanford warned that children who were in school during the pandemic could lose approximately $70,000 in lifetime earnings if the deficits are not remedied.
In some states, students educated during the pandemic may earn nearly 10 percent less than those educated just prior to the pandemic.
The societal losses projected by Hanushek amount to $28 trillion over the remaining years of this century.
Frequently Asked Questions(FAQs)
What are the long-term consequences if immediate and aggressive intervention is not taken?
Without immediate and aggressive intervention, learning loss is expected to be the longest-lasting and most inequitable legacy of the pandemic. Children’s future prospects, including their chances of getting into college and their earning potential, are at risk. The societal losses projected over the rest of the century amount to a significant $28 trillion.
Is Student Behavior Getting Worse?
Student behavior problems have continued to rise over the past three to four years, according to a recent survey by the EdWeek Research Center.
What actions are recommended to recover the lost learning?
To recover what was lost, it is crucial to go beyond returning to normal. Officials worldwide are urged to provide intensive summer programs and tutoring initiatives specifically targeting underprivileged students who fell farthest behind.
Which countries and students were most affected by the learning setbacks after the pandemic?
The learning delays and regressions were most severe in developing countries and among students from low-income backgrounds. These challenges exacerbated existing disparities and posed threats to higher education and future employment opportunities.