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Pandemic Learning Loss Is a National Crisis

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Just in time for the start of the new school year, America’s public-education system has received a damning report card.

The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveal historically large drops in math and reading scores for US public-school students. The findings are an indictment of school closures that went on for far too long, pushed by teachers unions and some of their political allies. They also show why recovering the ground students have lost is a national emergency.

The NAEP compared the performance of 9-year-olds who took the assessment in 2022 with data from early 2020, before the start of pandemic school closures. In two years, the average reading score fell by five points, the largest drop since 1990. In math, scores dropped seven points, the first decline of any kind in the 50-year history of the test. Based on these results, the pandemic wiped out 20 years of student gains in both subjects.

A closer look at the data reveals even greater reasons for alarm. Although White students performed five points worse in math than in 2020, scores fell by eight points among Latinos and by 13 for Black students. The gap between the best and worst scores also widened. The decline in math scores among the bottom 10% of students was quadruple that of those in the top 10%; in reading, the losses for low performers were five times as large. Put simply, the pandemic did the most harm to the children who could least afford it.

None of this should be surprising. A study published in May found that poor students in districts that remained remote in 2020–2021 suffered twice as much academic erosion as their peers in richer schools. Among those evaluated in the 2022 NAEP, 70% said they learned remotely during at least part of the previous year; students who performed poorly reported having far less access to computers and broadband internet. Worse, barely one-quarter of academically struggling students had a teacher “available to help with schoolwork every day or almost every day.”

Blame for these dismal results lies mostly with poorly designed and implemented remote instruction programs that stretched on far too long — and long after vaccines became available — largely because leaders of public-school teachers unions wrongly insisted that requiring teachers to return to work endangered their safety. It didn’t help that many progressive politicians sided with unions over the well-being of students. Public-health officials, meanwhile, provided confusing and conflicted guidance about keeping schools open — despite low rates of severe illness among children and evidence that the risks of in-school transmission were minimal.

So what to do now?

While most — though not all — public-school students have returned to the classroom, the scale of learning loss revealed by the NAEP calls for deeper and more aggressive interventions. President Joe Biden can be doing far more to call public attention to the crisis and mobilize all levels of government to address it, including accelerating efforts to recruit and train tutors focused on highly vulnerable students. It’s also imperative that all students spend more time in class to help make up the lost ground, which is why earlier this year, I launched an initiative to support summer learning for thousands of public charter school students in New York City. School districts should use federal relief funds to increase instructional time, lengthen the academic year, expand summer-school slots, and launch more “Saturday academies” — preferably all of the above.

Schools should provide bonuses for teachers willing to work during the summer and on weekends. Establishing policies that evaluate and reward principals and teachers based on how much they improve student achievement — as districts such as Dallas and Washington, D.C., have done — is also essential. The Biden administration also needs to encourage more innovation in the public-school system by funding high-quality public charter schools, which would especially benefit Black, Latino and low-income students and their families.

Needless to say, all this won’t come cheap. Yet much of the more than $100 billion in Covid aid provided to school districts remains unspent. The US has the resources to help students recover from the pandemic. What it needs is the will.

Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, UN Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions, and chair of the Defense Innovation Board.

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