Pandemic learning loss could cost students $70,000 in lifetime earnings

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The startling prediction is based on an analysis of the steep decline in eighth-grader scores on national math tests taken between 2019 and 2022.

If learning losses are not reversed, K-12 students will on average become less educated, less-skilled and less productive adults and earn 5.6% less over their lifetimes than educated students just before the pandemic, said Eric A. Hanushek, a Stanford University economist specializing in education. He said losses could total $28 trillion over the rest of this century.

“The economic cost of education losses will swamp business cycle losses,” Dr. Hanushek said.

Scores from the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, fell across the board. Dr. Hanushek’s analysis is based on eighth-grade math test scores that dropped an average of eight points from 2019 before the pandemic. That’s the biggest drop recorded in the 32-year-old test and translates to 0.6 to 0.8 years of missed school, Dr. According to Hanushek

Students in Oklahoma, Delaware and West Virginia were among the worst with declines of about 12 points. Students in Idaho, Alabama and Alaska showed some of the smallest declines — four points — and Utah did not register a statistically significant decline.

These reductions can result in a lifetime income loss of between 3% and 9%, depending on the state, Dr. Hanushek said.

Dr. Hanushek’s analysis echoes a study published in October by researchers at Harvard and Dartmouth University, which estimated that if learning losses were not reversed, it would equate to a 1.6% drop in the lifetime earnings of the average K-12 student.

That study also found that learning disabilities lower high school graduation rates and college enrollment, as well as teenage motherhood, arrests, and incarceration.

Nationwide, the percentage of eighth-graders who failed to achieve basic levels of math proficiency on the test rose from 31% to 38% before the pandemic. That means these students typically struggle to solve simple algebra and geometry equations, such as solving for the angles of a triangle, said Daniel McGrath, acting associate commissioner for evaluation at the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the test.

“I think these eighth-graders are really, potentially, in a tough spot,” Dr. McGrath said.

During the remote learning period during the pandemic, the quality of math education suffered, often relying on memorization and imitation rather than a deeper understanding of concepts, said Kevin J. Dykema, an eighth-grade math teacher in Matawan, Mich., and president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “It’s because they’re used to just sitting in front of a computer screen,” he said.

Students are taking longer to learn concepts this year, needing more tutoring and struggling to engage in group activities, she said.

Of the nearly 2 billion school-age children in the world, 1.6 billion have missed a significant amount of classroom time during the pandemic, according to a UNICEF report published in December 2021. Previous disruptions offer some insight into what that damage might be, and education indicates damage can be sustained during a pandemic.

Economists around the world have studied the loss of learning after natural disasters and political disruptions following similar income declines. In Argentina, where regional teacher strikes were common between 1988 and 2014, elementary students in some regions of the country missed an average of 88 days of school during their primary-school education, according to a 2019 paper published by the Journal of Labor Economics and the Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen, Norway. Co-authored by Alexander Willen, professor of economics.

These students had less education, fewer skills, and, as adults, higher unemployment rates than students in districts without school disruptions due to teacher strikes. The impact was greater on younger students and poor families.

By the time they reached ages 30 to 40, men earned 3.2% less and women earned 1.9% less than those not affected by the strike during their school years, the study found.




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