Blog post

Back to school after the pandemic and recovering lost learning

A new school year is about to begin, but this year is unique. This may be the most unusual return to school in over a century as the United States finally returns fully to in-person and unmasked education.

While we can all celebrate this opportunity for our children to go back to school, be with their peers and learn “normally”, the residual effects of the Covid mitigation create real challenges to catch up educational “lost ground” among too many students starting school in 2022.

A UNICEF report is brutally honest about what happened to student learning and achievement during the Covid lockdown.1 The data speaks for itself:

March 2022 marked two years of COVID-19 related disruptions in global education. “Quite simply, we are seeing an almost insurmountable scale of loss to children’s education,” said Robert Jenkins, head of education at UNICEF.

While the disruptions to learning must end, simply reopening schools is not enough. Students need intensive support to recover lost education. Schools must also go beyond places of learning to rebuild the mental and physical health, social development and nutrition of children.

The details of educational losses are even more devastating – and the impact on children living in poverty and in single parent homes where capacity is stretched even further has been even more devastating:

In low- and middle-income countries, learning losses due to school closures have prevented up to 70% of 10-year-olds from reading or understanding simple text, up from 53% before the pandemic.

And of course, these results are also observed in the United States:

In the United States, learning loss has been observed in many states, including Texas, California, Colorado, Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Maryland. In Texas, for example, two-thirds of third-grade children were tested below grade level in math in 2021, up from half of children in 2019.

It was a national embarrassment that half of our children are testing below grade level before the pandemic, but Covid has made things much worse.

The impacts were not limited to learning. Student mental health has also been affected, particularly among teens and tweens:

A growing body of evidence shows that COVID-19 has caused high rates of anxiety and depression in children and young people, with some studies showing that girls, adolescents and people living in rural areas are most susceptible to encounter these problems.

Worse, it has translated into outcomes like higher rates of suicide attempts among teens in the United States.2

Leaving aside the important question of whether these negative impacts were justified by reductions in Covid deaths among students, teachers and school staff, if so, see, for example, a meta-analysis by Herby et al. (2002) showing “An analysis of each of these three groups supports the conclusion that lockdowns had little or no effect on COVID-19 mortality;”3 the point is that the lockdowns – for better or for worse – have been put in place and the results must now be taken into account.

There is no shortage of potential solutions, but it is crucial that everything remedial efforts focus on measuring each student’s current levels of achievement (individually) and teaching about current performance levels. In my book, The Intuitive Parent,4 a developmental framework is provided that argues for education based on knowledge rather than age.

In other words, education is most effective when delivered at levels of development slightly above current levels of knowledge and skills. In practice, it makes no sense to teach arithmetic to someone who is just learning multiplication and division, regardless of age. Likewise, it is indeed very foolish to attribute Moby-Dick to someone with a second-grade reading level, regardless of age.

At this time, it is of vital importance that a national adjustment of educational practices and content be initiated that responds directly to children where they are in terms of current knowledge levels rather than assigning materials depending on the age of the child. Teaching materials – and tutoring – must then be aligned with current levels of knowledge and skills – and with learning needs.

Parents and guardians should be active participants in this process. Honest conversations need to take place about whether – and how much – their child’s learning is falling behind due to Covid restrictions. Most importantly, family members should have the opportunity to contribute to their child’s learning and receive specific tutoring materials that are individualized based on their child’s current levels of achievement in math, reading, and science.

There is no doubt that the pandemic and its response have created an education crisis that will have lasting, if not permanent, negative effects on learning and achievement. Carrying out educational activities “as usual” with educational materials by age and grade level without taking into account the current level of function, knowledge and skills – and meeting the educational needs of each child will really condemn this generation of students to even worse academic results than before the pandemic students. And it will be even more devastating for children living in poverty as the “learning gap” widens even further.

It’s time to get back to school and ensure that there is a concerted effort at the local, state and national level for families, teachers and education administrators to work together to reclaim the knowledge and skills lost during the pandemic. There is no more time to lose, the future of our children (and grandchildren) is at stake.