Covid and Learning Loss

Covid and Learning Loss

image via Harvard Graduate School of Education

It’s taken a while, but data crunchers are finally quantifying how the Covid-19 pandemic affected student learning.  The results are detailed in a recent article from NPR ,  which offers 6 takeaways about pandemic learning loss.

Debating Terms

One of the points made by the article is that what students experienced as a result of the pandemic can’t really be called ‘learning loss’ because, as one person put it, “You can’t lose what you never got.”  They contend that the phenomenon should more properly be called ‘missed learning.’ Certainly it’s true that some learning may have been overlooked or deliberately sidelined to focus on other priorities.  Through our auditing work we’ve encountered multiple districts across the U.S. that put social studies and science curricula on hold and focused solely on math and ELA during remote instruction. However, there are documented learning losses for children in traumatic situations where education was paused, even for a short period of time.  Hurricane Katrina showed us that students lost significant ground — meaning they had gotten the learning and then lost those concepts and had to be retaught — when schools were closed for a period of  7 weeks in the hurricane’s aftermath.  This isn’t exactly like the pandemic because children affected by Katrina had no schooling at all during the closure, but it’s the closest thing we’ve got. On average, students came back to school 2 years below grade level with the greatest losses in math.  So sometimes ‘learning loss’ is the correct term. I’m not sure anyone has fully parsed what’s missed versus lost in the pandemic.

Remote Learning = Less Learning

The first finding — that kids learned less when they learned remotely — is a sweeping assertion that needs a caveat because the finding was in math only (BUT, note how this dovetails with the data from Katrina; why is math learning so fragile in this country?). It may also be true of other content areas, but no one has examined those yet.  Another necessary caveat is how they arrived at this conclusion: they used state tests.  This needs a little breakdown to understand it better. First, state tests vary considerably both in difficulty and in the content they cover, and a number of states have transitioned to different tests in the last 4 years, so it’s hard to compare apples to apples.  Tests also only represent a fraction of the total curriculum and not necessarily the most critical parts.  Additionally, most schools aren’t deeply aligned to the demands of their state tests across all three dimensions (content, context, and cognition).  As a measure of missed learning, state tests have some severe limitations. Second, the finding is actually that the students didn’t make as much growth during the pandemic years as they did in the two years prior to the pandemic. So they did learn, just not as much.  Third, and the article acknowledges this, it’s hard to sort out what bits of online instruction were the problem. The initial school shutdown in 2020 left schools scrambling to educate kids remotely with next to no infrastructure in place to do so; this was obviously much worse than instruction the following fall when they’d had time to put some systems in place. How much of the missing/lost learning was due to that initial, chaotic period is unclear but that it had an impact is “likely.”

Losses Are Worse for Poor Kids

The second finding was that high-poverty schools saw more learning loss than wealthier schools, in part because poor kids didn’t always have the workspace or the tech to make remote learning work well, they spent more time in remote learning than wealthier schools, and in general, students in poverty experienced more pandemic-related trauma — family job loss, income loss, homelessness, food insecurity, and death or chronic illness because of Covid.  We also have to acknowledge that many kids in high-poverty schools were already behind their wealthier peers; the conditions of the pandemic just exacerbated a pre-existing problem.  The real takeaway here is that those who were already marginalized pre-Covid are now even more marginalized.

Finding Ways to Rebuild

The article finishes by exploring some solutions for addressing these losses and by profiling one intensive tutoring program in Tennessee. This program offers a research-based approach in which they tutor very small groups of kids to help them keep up with grade-level material.  This is encouraging because one of the big lessons from Katrina was that remediation — sometimes called skill recovery — doesn’t work nearly as well as acceleration.  Kids made more gains toward grade-level competency when they were placed in the grade level course and supported intensively to succeed.  This bears repeating: they aren’t just thrown into the deep end of the pool to sink or swim, they are given extensive, focused support through tutoring so they can stay on grade level.

The other encouraging thing is that Tennessee has permanently funded this program rather than making it just a Covid recovery strategy. This is important for two reasons. First, resolving losses like this isn’t a quick process. As one expert put it: “A big trauma like Katrina can have effects for decades. Learning losses don’t just disappear with one course or in one academic year. For schools, the need to keep track of where every child is, and to work constantly on helping everyone move along, is permanent, not short-term.” The second reason was put succinctly by Tennessee’s Education Commissioner:

“This is just good practice for kids.”


It’s possible that some of the Covid learning loss resolved during the 2021-22 school year, though it’s hard to say for sure because while both the Harvard Study and the study conducted by NWEA itself used the same data, they came to rather different conclusions.  NWEA framed their findings as “hopeful,” which, although comforting, isn’t the same as saying that everyone is fine now. It also looks like the two studies looked for different things, so both sets of conclusions may be true. It’s certainly true that some groups have a much longer road to resolving learning loss than others and therefore may not be as far along in the process. 

If your district or would like help measuring and addressing learning loss, contact us to discuss a CMSi Curriculum Audit or a CMSi Program Audit. We would love to partner with you to help improve learning for your students!


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