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The pandemic has left many students months behind in school subjects


Let's go to a subject that we know concerns many parents and teachers. After more than a year of distance learning, teachers are beginning to notice the results of students having been out of the regular school environment for so long. Many students have not made much educational progress at all. Some studies are beginning to quantify this missed learning, which you might also see referred to as learning loss, that occurred during this period.

Jill Barshay is a writer at The Hechinger Report, an independent newsroom based at Teachers College at Columbia University. She writes the Proof Points column about education, research and data, and she's with us now to tell us more about it. Jill Barshay, thank you so much for joining us.

JILL BARSHAY: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: It's still early in the new school year, but so far, what did the study say about where students are after about 18 months of distance learning?

BARSHAY: We have more than a dozen studies that have come out, and most of them track student progress through the spring of 2021. We don't have any fresh data yet from this fall. But what we know from last year - all the studies are pointing in the same direction - that children and older students didn't learn as much as they usually do during a school year. The estimates range. Some say they are behind five months. Others say they're behind two months. Some won't put any months on it. And they say, oh, an average student who would have been 50th percentile, now maybe they're 40th percentile. And what we're seeing is that the students are far more behind in math than they are in reading.

MARTIN: Are some students more affected by this than others?

BARSHAY: Absolutely. Students who go to schools where the majority of students are low income are seeing far steeper achievement declines than students, say, in suburban schools or high-income schools. We're also seeing English language learners are behind. We're seeing that Black students, Latino students, they're falling far more behind than white students.

MARTIN: And why do you think it's more math than English? That's interesting, too.

BARSHAY: I think it's because we primarily get our math instruction at school. We don't naturally do algebra at home or calculate ratios and percents at home at the dinner table. But a lot of us are always reading, whether it's on our cell phones or comic books. There's always some kind of reading going on at home.

MARTIN: So let's talk about what might be the best way to help students catch up. So does the research offer us any clues there?

BARSHAY: The most beneficial way to help kids catch up is something very old fashioned - tutoring. It happens every day, the kind of effective tutoring that researchers have found. It's not once-a-week homework help. And it's working very closely with the classroom teachers to understand where the student's gaps are and to fill those particular gaps in so that they can follow along every day in class.

MARTIN: We hear anecdotally from teachers and parents all the time about this, but it would seem that people are in all different kinds of places on this. Maybe one student's - you know, it's - this is not, like, a generalized situation where everybody's missed the same things, right?

BARSHAY: Correct.

MARTIN: So do you sense any sort of national strategy to address these gaps?

BARSHAY: I think a national strategy is the wrong way to think about it. You want to think about targeted strategies for particular students. There were some students that didn't have computers and didn't log in and didn't get any education for over a year. These students really need tutoring to help them catch up. There are other students who mostly got a lot of the lessons that they were supposed to get. Maybe they're a little rusty on some topics, but they're going to be fine in their classrooms. And in those cases, what the teachers need to do when they open up a lesson on a new topic is just give them a little mini-lesson on some foundational concepts. I can give you an example.

Say a teacher is about to introduce division. The teacher can say, listen, you already know multiplication - and can draw a picture on the whiteboard. Here's five rows of desks, each with four desks in them - and show them how five times four equals 20. And then as soon as you do that mini-lesson, you can say, OK, now let's learn division. What if a teacher has 21 papers and needs to divide them among three students? - and can sort of draw it out the same way.

MARTIN: See, I can tell you're returning to your former high school math teacher roots...

BARSHAY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Which you once were. There's one other issue I want to raise, though, which is that a lot of families have been through a lot over the last 18 months. I mean, we know that COVID has devastated some families. Some families have been left without one caregiver. Some families have been left without both caregivers. Some families have lost grandparents who were very actively involved in their care - not to mention the fact that the isolation was really hard on people, whether they lost somebody or not. And I find myself wondering whether there's any way to capture what effect students' emotional state may have on their learning, even if they're back in school.

BARSHAY: I have not yet seen really good studies that try to measure the emotional differences. I've seen some surveys, but they don't compare what people's emotional states were well before the pandemic, so I don't know how much worse they are. What I am hearing is from school leaders all across the country about lots of emotional problems that they're seeing. Richard Bowman, administrator in Albuquerque, N.M., says he's seeing an epidemic of conflict, of misbehavior and of violence, and that must have at its roots a lot of emotional trauma among the students who've lost parents and family members. And it's clear that school administrators need to address students' emotional needs first before they can even think about catching up.

MARTIN: So before we let you go - this may be obvious to you, but I'm going to ask it anyway. Why does this matter? What are the stakes here?

BARSHAY: The stakes are enormous because for - a child who's quite behind in math or reading might get discouraged and then stop trying. And then before you know it, they've dropped out of school. Or maybe they haven't dropped out, but they're just not interested in school. And they don't learn as much, and so when they graduate from high school, maybe they don't go to college. And the McKinsey Group even tried to estimate this - that if you pass through the declines in achievement and if you extend them out into the future, that could be $150 billion less a year to the U.S. economy and a lot more money that we have to pay in social services to adults who don't have the training to be productive workers.

MARTIN: That is Jill Barshay. She writes the Proof Points column about education, research and data in the Hechinger Report. That's an independent newsroom based at Teachers College at Columbia University. Jill Barshay, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing these insights.

BARSHAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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