College & Workforce Readiness

Learning Loss May Cost Students Billions in Future Earnings. How Districts Are Responding

By Mark Lieberman — March 15, 2024 6 min read
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Today’s K-12 students are poised to lose billions of dollars in future earnings after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning time and daily life, translating into trillions of dollars in lost economic activity, according to leading experts on connections between academic achievement and the economy.

Meanwhile, some district leaders are forging ahead with a balancing act that has only become trickier in recent years: helping students find lucrative career paths that suit their interests while ensuring they don’t lose ground on fundamental skills like reading, writing, and math.

The National Assessment Governing Board, a panel set up by Congress to administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), this week published a brief highlighting recent analyses that paint what the group calls a “dire” picture of the country’s economic future based on steep slides in academic achievement in the last few years that brought students’ NAEP scores back to 1990s levels.

The 25-member group, made up largely of educators, academics, and public officials, is urging policymakers and advocates for K-12 students to take the recent decline in NAEP scores more seriously as evidence of broader societal challenges to come. “The students impacted are generally not in the workforce yet, which may be the reason the economic issue hasn’t received the attention it deserves,” the brief reads.

Researchers analyzed the recent downward trends in scores on NAEP, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. They filtered those scores through established formulas that show connections between a state or country’s GDP and the skills and education level of its citizens.

Eric Hanushek, a school finance researcher at Stanford University, projects that the United States will miss out on $31 trillion in economic activity. Those losses would outpace the economic impacts of the Great Recession many times over.

Two other researchers—Tom Kane at Harvard University and Douglas Staiger at Dartmouth College—used different calculations to arrive at an estimated $600 billion in lost lifetime income for the 48 million students enrolled in public schools during the 2020-21 academic year.

States’ economies will suffer proportionally, based on how steeply their students’ NAEP scores declined between 2019 and 2022, Hanushek argues. Oklahoma, Delaware, and West Virginia will see the steepest drops in economic activity, while the decline in earnings will be smallest in Utah, Idaho, and Alabama.

On average, students nationwide will earn almost 6 percent less during their future careers than they would have without pandemic interruptions, Hanushek found. Some students will lose as much as 9 percent of their potential future earnings.

These figures should raise the volume of alarm bells for policymakers and school administrators about the long tail of the phenomena collectively known as “learning loss,” Hanushek told Education Week.

“It’d be like if the government in the city you live in puts a new 6 percent surcharge on income for everybody who went to school during the pandemic,” he said. “If the government said that, there’d be a riot.”

Schools are trying to help students pursue meaningful, lucrative careers

School districts are taking a wide range of approaches to helping students recover from the pandemic and minimize the fallout researchers warn could result without adequate action.

Many have invested an influx of federal relief money in tutors, mental health counselors, and programs that expand the school day and the school year. Kane, Staiger, and other researchers estimate that these academic recovery efforts have reversed about a third of students’ learning loss in math and a quarter of their losses in reading, although the recovery has been uneven.

Other districts have renewed their emphasis on helping older students prepare for life beyond the K-12 system. The rural Elma district in Washington state is offering a 2,000-hour apprenticeship program, certified by the U.S. Department of Labor, that allows students to explore a career and workplace of their choice while also absorbing state-mandated learning material.

The district is taking advantage of recently passed state laws, similar to policies that nearly every other state now has, that permit competency-based education models that measure student success based on mastery of skills rather than seat time.

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The pandemic underscored that students are more likely to excel when schools meet them where they are, rather than force them into an instructional model that doesn’t work for everybody, said Chris Nesmith, superintendent of the 1,700-student district in the rural western part of the state.

The initiative has a mental health component, too, added Nesmith, who also serves as the co-leader of Redefining Ready, an initiative of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, that promotes efforts to help students succeed after K-12 graduation whether in college or the working world.

“We have this system that is assembly-lining students into this hopeless environment. And then we’re like, ‘Now your mental health is bad, so let’s talk about it,’” Nesmith said. “Maybe we shouldn’t have students feeling so hopeless and sitting through classes they feel like have no purpose and value.”

Regardless of whether COVID is the culprit, students need more support

Ken Wallace, who has served as superintendent of the Maine Township district in Illinois since 2009, doubts that COVID is the primary reason why students may struggle to become strong contributors to the economy.

During the early days of the pandemic, parents in his district’s lower-poverty schools were purchasing devices for students and hiring certified teachers for impromptu learning pods. In the higher-poverty schools, however, students were sharing bedrooms and covering caretaking duties for younger siblings while parents worked jobs that they couldn’t do remotely.

“That difference in the world between who has and who hasn’t is the biggest variable that will contribute to any future economic outcomes for kids today,” he said.

Long before the pandemic, Wallace had taken a keen interest in proactively assessing students’ future earnings. Each of the district’s roughly 6,200 students has an individual career plan that includes an estimated return on investment using a calculator tool from the recruiting website Indeed.com.

This was a problem before the pandemic. It’s made us have to face the problem.

“We want to make sure that the cost of your education is less than your starting salary in year one of your work,” Wallace said.

Wallace said he was inspired to spearhead this initiative after becoming obsessed with the data point showing that student loan debt had become the second largest form of debt among Americans, after mortgage debt. Students of color and low-income students disproportionately bear the burden of student loan debt.

“We have been telling kids there’s only one thing to do. We ask juniors and seniors, ‘where are you going to school?’ not ‘what are you going to do?’” Wallace said.

However, college graduates often end up underemployed, needing additional schooling, or pursuing a career path different from the one they envisioned during their undergraduate careers.

Of course, that assumes they envisioned one at all.

The apprenticeship program in the Elma district is part of what Nesmith calls an emphasis on “depth of learning,” not just “breadth of learning.” He sees it as a critical tool in the effort to stem the worst effects of the pandemic and the broader challenges modern K-12 students navigate.

Hanushek recommends districts focus on providing bonuses and other incentives for the highest-performing teachers to continue doing great work. Other advocates for helping strengthen public schools urge increasing funding and equalizing massive gaps in revenue from state to state, district to district, and even school to school.

Whatever the approach, researchers and district leaders agree the time to take action is now.

“I think the further we get from the pandemic the more resistant we’re going to get” to meaningful efforts to help students succeed in life and maximize their potential, Nesmith said. “This was a problem before the pandemic. It’s made us have to face the problem.”

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