The Awful Economic Impact of School Closings

The Awful Economic Impact of School Closings
(AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Most COVID-19 school closing discussions focus on how closures affect students academically, socially, and emotionally. But there’s another big issue to consider: the economic effect closures have on an individual’s lifetime income and the nation’s long-term economic growth.

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Economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann analyze these effects in a new report released by the 37 member international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The average U.S. K-12 student affected by COVID-19 school closures has a learning loss of one-third to over half a year of schooling. Assuming a one-third year learning loss, the report authors estimate that on average today’s students can expect at least 3% lower lifetime earnings. Longer learning loss makes matters worse. The situation is more severe for students from disadvantaged households.   

Additionally, lower individual skill levels and reduced incomes negatively impact the U.S. economy—it’s Gross Domestic Product, or GDP—since learning loss lowers the skill levels of the nation’s workforce. School closures are estimated to result in a 1.5% loss in the nation’s future GDP. This is equivalent to a total economic loss of $14.2 trillion in current dollars over the next 80 years.

These dire results for individuals and the nation are not inevitable if schools do things to offset this learning loss. The OECD analysts have two immediate recommendations. 

First, individualize student instruction—i.e., different students need varying amounts of time to learn the same subject matter. This mastery learning approach, developed by Benjamin Bloom in 1968, is aided today by digital learning technologies that track student work and progress.

Second, use teachers differently—i.e., some teachers are effective with video instruction, some with in-person instruction, some with large groups, some one-on-one, etc. Teacher assignments must more effectively match teacher skills with instructional roles and approaches. 

Other analyses and program innovations offer additional ways to overcome student learning losses. Here are four examples.

• Soaring unemployment rates in economic crises like COVID-19 bring individuals into the teaching profession from non-teaching occupations. Research spanning six recessions from 1969 to 2009 of over 30,000 Florida teachers and students shows that these new recruits are significantly more effective at raising student test scores, especially in mathematics. So weaker job markets are an opportunity to hire new individuals from non-teaching occupations who on average improve overall teacher quality, effectiveness, and student learning. 

• Another analysis focuses on charter schools. It tracks changes in student academic performance at charter and district schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the Nation’s Report Card), testing the reading and mathematics skills of a nationally representative student sample.

This first-ever trend line research shows charter students making greater achievement gains from 2005 to 2017 than students in the district sector, gaining nearly an additional half-year’s learning. The biggest gains are for African Americans and students of low socioeconomic status. So, a viable avenue for accelerating learning involves creating more successful charter schools.

• Enterprising individuals are creating innovative learning loss “catch up” programs for students that can be modified and replicated. For example, South Carolina’s state department of education offered four-week academic recovery camps this summer, providing 25,000 kindergarten-to-3rd-grade students with literacy and mathematics instruction, including support in social-emotional learning. This model can be adapted for use during the traditional academic year.

• Another innovative approach is the nonprofit National Summer School Initiative, an online learning program. It began with a one-week training institute for more than 500 teachers who wanted to become better online instructors, pairing them with mentor teachers. The program was free to participants, supported by philanthropy, and served about 12,000 students, teaching English and math classes along with the arts.

Now called Cadence Learning, it is a full-fledged online learning program for school districts, community groups, and charter networks. It is free for organizations with under 5,000 students, and low-cost for larger ones, supported by $4 million from philanthropy.

Student learning losses from COVID-19 school closings are projected to have severe negative economic effects on students’ lifetime income and the nation’s long-term economic growth. But there are ways for individuals and organizations to help young people recoup at least some of these learning losses, thereby improving their financial futures and that of the nation.

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