Children lost about 35% of a normal school year’s worth of learning during the pandemic, study suggests
A new paper adds to the mounting evidence that school-age children across the globe experienced significant setbacks in their learning progress during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Students “lost out on about 35% of a normal school year’s worth of learning” when in-person learning stopped during the public health crisis, according to a paper published Monday in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. The school closures were intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but the new paper suggests that learning deficits emerged and persisted over time. The paper included data from 15 different countries.
“Schoolchildren’s learning progress slowed down substantially during the pandemic. So on average, children lost out on about one-third of what they would have usually learned in a normal school year, and these learning deficits arose quite early in the pandemic,” said Bastian Betthäuser, an author of the paper and researcher at the Sciences Po Centre for Research on Social Inequalities in France and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
“Children still have not recovered the learning that they lost out on at the start of the pandemic,” he said. Also, “education inequality between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds increased during the pandemic. So the learning crisis is an equality crisis. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds were disproportionately affected by school closures.”
The researchers reviewed and analyzed data from 42 studies on learning progress during the pandemic across 15 countries: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the United States. The studies were published between March 2020 and August 2022. The researchers conducted an initial search for the studies in April 2021 and additional searches in February and August 2022.
“We systematically reviewed all of the existing research on school children’s learning progress during the Covid-19 pandemic,” Betthäuser said. “And it’s important to note that most of the existing research comes from high- and middle-income countries, whereas there’s a few studies from low-income countries.”
The data showed that learning deficits during school closures and lockdowns in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic were likely to have been “particularly pronounced” for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and learning progress slowed more for mathematics than for reading skills.
Data specifically from the United States and the United Kingdom was “pretty similar,” Betthäuser said, and translated to slightly more than a third of a school year worth of learning progress lost, on average.
The paper reveals that the international evidence of learning loss during the early days of the pandemic mirrors the US experience, Thomas Kane, faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, said in an email.
“One important difference is that remote schooling had a disproportionately negative effect on high-poverty students in the U.S. It was not just the pandemic. Gaps widened less in school districts that returned to in-person learning more quickly,” wrote Kane, who was not involved in the new research. “If we do not act decisively now, learning loss will be the longest-lasting and most inequitable consequence of the pandemic.”
Kane suggested that school districts take steps such as adding tutoring and learning time through expanded summer programs or longer school years.
Although this data on learning loss during the pandemic is not itself new, the new paper shows how the findings have been consistent, Susanna Loeb, professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, said in an email.
“Students, on average, are far behind where they would have been without the pandemic and this reduced learning is much greater for groups of students who were already more likely to be struggling in school,” wrote Loeb, who also was not involved with the paper.
In October, results from the 2022 US National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, often called the “Nation’s Report Card,” showed that fourth- and eighth-graders fell behind in reading and had the largest ever decline in math in the United States. It was the first national assessment of student achievement in three years since Covid-19 emerged, and revealed the devastating effect of the pandemic on learning.
Results from a Pew Research Center survey, published in October, suggest that about 61% of parents of K-12 students say the first year of the pandemic had a negative effect on their children’s education; 7% say it had a positive effect, and 28% say it had neither a positive nor negative effect.
Among those who say the pandemic had a negative effect on their children’s education, 44% said that was still the case, while 56% said the impact was only temporary. The survey included 3,251 parents.
“I do believe that parents should be concerned about their children’s missed learning as a result of the pandemic,” Loeb said. “We have tons of evidence that what students learn in school contributes markedly to their later success — high school graduation, college going, even labor market opportunities and their long-term well-being. Parents can help by encouraging their children to reengage with classmates and teachers and with positive learning habits.”
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