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Why is it that some states, like Alabama, have more than $1,000 to spend on each student for each week of pandemic learning loss, and other states, such as Massachusetts have only $165?

The answer, according to a January 2023 report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, is that $122 billion in federal pandemic recovery money has been allocated to schools based on the percentages of children from low-income families even though there’s not a tight correlation between the level of academic disruption and poverty. In some states, students are only six weeks behind where they were before the pandemic. In other states, children are almost a year behind. But the amount of catch-up money each state gets doesn’t reflect this disparity.

Understanding why pandemic learning loss varies so much around the nation is admittedly a “head scratcher,” said Emma Dorn, a co-author of the McKinsey report. Some states that resumed in-person schooling quickly, such as Florida, are behind states that relied more on remote schooling, such as Illinois. Minnesota, historically one of the higher performing states in the nation (it ranked first in fourth grade math in 2019) is now one of the furthest behind its pre-pandemic achievement levels with 24 weeks of learning loss. Meanwhile, students in Alabama, which ranked 50th in fourth grade math before the pandemic, are only three weeks off of their 2019 achievement level.

Nationally, the 2022 NAEP assessments showed an average drop of four points compared with 2019. McKinsey & Company estimates that four-point drop is the equivalent of 12 weeks of learning delay, or about a third of a typical school year. Source: “COVID-19 learning delay and recovery: Where do US states stand?” McKinsey & Company (2023).

“It’s not the chart you’re used to seeing,” said Dorn. “When you look at the leading U.S. states in education, everything is kind of a little bit upside down. Many of the states who are historically really strong performers have really suffered in the pandemic.”

Time spent in remote learning, Dorn said, is only part of the puzzle. Remote learning itself varied wildly. Some schools set up effective Zoom instruction within days while others struggled for months to distribute computers. Even among schools that resumed in-person learning quickly, strict quarantine policies often sent students and teachers back home again. Other communities allowed classmates to remain in school. Many families chose not to send their kids back into school buildings even when the option was available. Finally, absenteeism has doubled and many students haven’t been in school regularly. All of these factors led to different learning outcomes.

Other educational reforms – such as teacher training and curriculum changes – may have tamped learning loss in some states. “You didn’t see as much learning delay in Louisiana,” said Dorn. “In fact, fourth grade reading continued to improve there. They were following what I call the Mississippi playbook of high-quality instructional materials aligned to the science of reading with professional development and teacher coaches. So when schools did go remote, there was still a playbook.” 

Learning loss also varies within states. In Virginia, for example, the average learning loss was about 23 weeks, but there’s an extremely wide range between the highest and lowest performing students. The top quartile of students lost only 13 weeks of learning while the bottom quartile lost almost a year. New Mexico also racked up 23 weeks of learning loss, but both top and bottom performing students suffered similarly. There wasn’t a big discrepancy.

Different learning loss problems require different solutions, Dorn said. “In somewhere like Virginia, you might want to be thinking about high dosage tutoring targeting the kids who need it most,” she said. “In somewhere like in New Mexico, where all students have a similar kind of delay, maybe you want to double down on interventions that can be rolled out across all students:  high-quality instructional materials with really effective professional development and teacher coaching.” (High dosage tutoring refers to a particular version of tutoring that has successfully helped struggling students catch up in rigorous research studies conducted before the pandemic; it involves daily tutoring with trained tutors using a set curriculum.)  

McKinsey’s calculations are based on the 2022 scores from a federal test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. Math and reading assessments were administered to a representative sample of fourth and eighth graders in all 50 states. Biden administration officials described the test score drops from 2019, which ranged from three to eight points, as “appalling” and “troubling.” 

What does the loss of a point mean in the real world? That’s also still not clear. McKinsey consulted with Harvard University professor Andrew Ho, an expert on education testing, and settled upon a calculation that equated each NAEP point with three weeks of learning. Then McKinsey averaged the results for fourth graders and eighth graders in both subjects, reading and math. That added up to an average of 12 weeks of learning loss across the nation. In other words, students in 2022 were three months behind students in 2019 at each grade level.

“We’re trying to get this message out to a broad audience so people understand what’s really happening,” said Dorn.

Three months might not sound gargantuan, but Ho warned that it will take much longer than three months to recover. “The key misconception to combat is that ‘time’ represents the time it takes to catch up,” said Ho. “If you’re three months behind a pre-pandemic cohort, it will take much longer than three months and at unprecedented rates of learning to catch up. If you’re running a race and you’re 10 seconds behind your friend, you can’t catch up in 10 seconds unless the other friend is standing still. You need to accelerate to catch up.”

Indeed, McKinsey calculated that it would take 28 years for eighth graders to return to pre- pandemic achievement levels based on the actual pace of academic progress in the previous 20 years.

McKinsey is hoping to persuade parents to pay attention.“As a parent, I have no idea if my kids are at grade level or not,” said Dorn. “I don’t know if they are ahead or behind from the pandemic. I can tell the impact on their emotions. I can tell the impact on their well-being. That is really obvious as a parent, and it was pretty hard. But with academics, it’s really hard to know.”

Even students with A’s and B’s on their report cards may have significant learning gaps.  “I think the message is, be aware that there may be hidden learning delays,” Dorn said. “Your kids might have gaps. Listen to the school district, listen to the data that they’re sending, listen to the interventions that they’re suggesting.”

Understanding the extent of learning loss is just the first step. Schools have to decide which interventions to invest in and then embark upon the difficult task of building new programs. Spending recovery money is slow because even the process of obtaining bids and selecting outside vendors is highly regulated and complex. Hiring trained tutors and social workers can take many months. And millions of children are still waiting for help.

This story about learning loss funding was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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