COVID-19 and Education: The Lingering Effects of Unfinished Learning


As the most challenging school year in our nation’s history came to a close in the summer of 2021, McKinsey & Company analyzed the lingering impacts of school closures. Their research shows that for K-12 students, the pandemic increased preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps. On average, students ended the school year five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading.


Historically disadvantaged students suffered the greatest impact. When compared to historical data, students in majority black schools finished the school year with six months of unfinished learning, with students in low-income schools ending with seven months of unfinished learning. Students testing in 2021 were about ten points behind in math and nine points behind in reading, compared to students in previous years.


High school students have been more likely to drop out of schools and high school seniors have been less likely to enroll in universities, colleges, and trade or vocational schools. This crisis not only impacted students academically, but also had a significant impact on their physical and mental health.


The lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic threaten the future educational and economic prospects of this generation of students, potentially hurting their chances of attending college and finding fulfilling and well-paying jobs that will enable them to support a family.


The term “unfinished learning” refers to the fact that students did not have an opportunity to complete all the learning they would have completed in a typical school year. Students who advance to the next grade unprepared risk missing key building blocks of knowledge that are necessary for success. Students who repeat a year are less likely to complete high school or enroll in college. Students also run the risk of completing school without the skills, behaviors, and mindsets necessary for success in college and the workforce.


The link between educational attainment and higher earnings, better health, reduced incarceration rates, and greater political participation shows the potential long-term impact of the pandemic, with black students suffering the greatest reduction in earnings over their lifetime.


To address this, the federal government has passed legislation committing over $200 billion in funding for K-12 education over the next three years. A coalition has formed to outline priorities to ensure the effective and equitable use of federal funds for the advancement of student success, including the implementation of evidence-based initiatives, while piloting and tracking the impact of innovative new approaches.


To read more about challenges faced by K-12 students and early actions that states can take to meet their changing needs, read: COVID-19 and education: The lingering effects of unfinished learning.

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