Analysis: Pandemic Learning Loss Could Cost U.S. Students $2 Trillion in Lifetime Earnings. What States & Schools Can Do to Avert This Crisis

December 14, 2021

Over the past two years, virtually every American has suffered loss. Many have lost loved ones. Others have lost jobs or homes. In most instances, the only option is to accept fate and try to return to a sense of normalcy.

However, when it comes to addressing students’ learning loss, we must resist the temptation to try to get back to normal. Returning to a normal school routine, without addressing lost learning opportunities, would leave millions of students permanently behind. Doing what’s right by kids will require a massive national effort — over and above what’s considered normal —  to provide additional instructional time over the next two years. 

It’s difficult to convey the magnitude of students’ learning loss in a manner that galvanizes action. This week, the nonprofit testing company NWEA reported that the median student in grades 3 to 8 returned to school this fall 9 to 11 percentile points behind in math and 3 to 7 percentile points behind in reading. For most people, such numbers fail to convey the magnitude of the loss and the scale of the effort needed to address it. It’s like hearing that the price of gas is rising, denominated in Albanian leks or Algerian dinars.   

One way to make the magnitude more tangible is to restate the loss in terms of students’ future earnings. Using the relationship between achievement test scores and earnings among those already in the workforce, a 9 to 11 percentile point decline in math achievement (if allowed to become permanent) would represent a $43,800 loss in expected lifetime earnings. Spread across the 50 million public school students currently enrolled in grades K to 12, that would be over $2 trillion — about 10 times more than the $200 billion Congress set aside last year to help schools respond to the pandemic.  

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See also: In the News, 2021