Experts say schools could recover pandemic losses by 2028. What then?

Doing better than before the pandemic would require more effort than we seem capable of giving

Perspective by Jay Mathews  Washington Post Oct 2nd 2022

When will the U.S. education system return to the learning levels of 2019? One headline summed up the problem this way: “Two Decades of Growth Wiped Out by Two Years of Pandemic.”

People who have been studying our schools for decades are cautious when answering my question. Some say reading and math averages could rebound by 2028, but they admit many children will never get everything they missed.

The experts have their own question: How willing are we to invest the effort and money needed to improve the learning of children whose families are at the bottom of the income scale? Giving students more time to learn and better-trained teachers appears to work. But many students didn’t have such help before the pandemic. How can we expect them to get it now?

Diane Ravitch is our best education historian and best-known writer about schools. She said: “My hunch is that the downward slide in test scores can be overcome, not quickly, but in less time than the time stolen by the pandemic. … My hope is that students will make up for lost time in a year or two if they have experienced teachers and stability — no school closures or disruptions.”

Perspective | Disadvantaged kids hurt by keeping pandemic’s relaxed teaching style

That’s a big if. Education policy guru Chester E. Finn Jr.’s latest book assesses the national tests we use to measure progress in learning. He, too, offers a mix of hope and fear about the future. “Based on what we know today, history suggests that gains equivalent to the pandemic losses could be seen in as little as four or six years after 2022, but the more common pace of change in both directions is glacial,” he said. “I worry especially about reading, which has seen the fewest gains over the long haul.”

Some experts are optimistic. “This year’s NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] scores should be the bottom in terms of pandemic effects,” said Tom Loveless, author and former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Barring another pandemic or Great Recession, I expect NAEP scores to return to 2019 levels within two NAEP cycles, by 2026.”

Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, noted that focusing on exam results ignores harm to children too young to be tested. “Not only do we have to consider the serious negative consequences of the pandemic and school closures on kids who were school-age during 2020-22, but also how the crisis impacted children ages 0 to 5,” he said. “There’s some evidence that many of those kids suffered developmental delays and missed out on high-quality child care and preschool experiences, meaning they will come into school further behind as well.”

Tying shoes, opening bottles: Pandemic kids lack basic life skills

Harvard University education expert Paul E. Peterson said the best studies of school closings in the past reveal lasting damage. In Austria and Switzerland, little touched by World War II except for the closing of schools, researchers found that “those who lost years of schooling never recovered, judging by earnings received in adulthood,” Peterson said.

Karin Chenoweth, author of the books “Schools That Succeed” and “Districts That Succeed,” mentioned an important fact left out of the debate: “The ironic part of all the doomsaying panic about how the pandemic erased two decades of progress is that hardly anyone noticed that we had made such progress while we were making it.”

Recovering from the catastrophe, she said, requires recognition that progress in the recent past came “in large part because for the first time, schools were expected to teach all children, not just some. Many educators took that charge seriously and really ramped up the amount children in their charge learned.” Will that happen now?

Some experts emphasized that huge gaps in the public education system existed before the pandemic hit. “In 2019, just 15 percent of Black eighth-graders were at or above reading proficiency,” said Eva Moskowitz, founder and chief executive of the Success Academy charter schools in New York City. “Low-income children of color deserve better, much better. First, schools should stop lowering standards and dumbing down curriculum.”

Successful programs train teachers to encourage students and earn their trust, rather than just make demands. Thuan Nguyen, chief executive of the nation’s largest college preparatory program, Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), said that “we can collectively decide how long it will take to recover from the impact of the pandemic” by embracing the fact that “the best way … to accelerate learning is through relationships.” Nguyen said the bond between students and teachers is crucial: “There is nothing as powerful as having someone who believes in you and cares about you.”

Public education is facing a crisis of epic proportions

Kinnari Patel-Smyth is acting chief executive and president of the KIPP Foundation, which oversees the nation’s largest charter school network. “Moving forward in this recovery means that federal and state politicians need to prioritize educational spending, at least for another decade,” she said. “It means we need to work harder to ensure every child is a strong reader. It means we need to address the trauma caused by this pandemic and the inequities in this country.”

There are many other suggestions for reform. Unfortunately we did not get very far with most of them before the pandemic. It is unlikely we will do better when our principal emphasis is just getting back to where we were.