Pandemic Learning Loss and Absence Threaten Economy and Young People's Futures

Posted June 10, 2024
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Two white dads site on either side of their daughter. A book open and pencils in hand, they help her study at their home.

The fail­ure of the Unit­ed States to pre­pare our kids to learn is set­ting up mil­lions of young peo­ple to strug­gle through adult­hood. If lead­ers don’t make sure stu­dents learn what they missed out on dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, it could cost our chil­dren hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars in future earn­ings and the U.S. econ­o­my tril­lions in lost activ­i­ty. The 2024 KIDS COUNT® Data Book, released today by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, uses 50-state data to call atten­tion to the fac­tors that cause these chal­lenges, from pover­ty to phys­i­cal and men­tal health, trau­ma and others.

Down­load the 2024 KIDS COUNT Data Book

In its 35th year of pub­li­ca­tion, the KIDS COUNT® Data Book focus­es on stu­dents’ lack of basic read­ing and math skills, a prob­lem decades in the mak­ing but brought to light by the focus on learn­ing loss dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. Unprece­dent­ed drops in learn­ing from 2019 to 2022 amount­ed to decades of lost progress. Chron­ic absence has soared, with chil­dren liv­ing in pover­ty espe­cial­ly unable to resume their school day rou­tines on a reg­u­lar basis.

Key Find­ings on Learn­ing Loss

Key find­ings from the most recent school year avail­able (202122) include:

  • In 2022, only 26% of eighth graders were at or above pro­fi­cient in math, much worse than before the pan­dem­ic (33% in 2019).
  • Less than a third of fourth graders (32%) were at or above pro­fi­cient in read­ing, two per­cent­age points low­er than right before the pan­dem­ic (34% in 2019).
  • Thir­ty per­cent of all stu­dents (14.7 mil­lion stu­dents) were chron­i­cal­ly absent, near­ly dou­ble pre-pan­dem­ic rates (16% in 201819, the final school year ful­ly unaf­fect­ed by COVID). Two out of three stu­dents attend­ed schools plagued by chron­ic absence.
  • Four out of 10 (40%) had under­gone at least one adverse child­hood expe­ri­ence (ACE), such as fam­i­ly eco­nom­ic hard­ship or their par­ents hav­ing divorced, sep­a­rat­ed or served time in jail.

These aver­ages mask even worse edu­ca­tion­al out­comes for stu­dents of col­or, kids in immi­grant fam­i­lies and chil­dren from low-income fam­i­lies or attend­ing low-income schools. The gaps they face can affect their abil­i­ty to suc­ceed and thrive as adults.

Vis­it the 2024 KIDS COUNT Data Book Interactive

Kids of all ages and grades must have what they need to learn each day, such as enough food and sleep and a safe way to get to school, as well as the addi­tion­al resources they might need to per­form at their high­est poten­tial and thrive, like tutor­ing and men­tal health ser­vices,” said Lisa Hamil­ton, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion. Our poli­cies and pri­or­i­ties have not focused on these fac­tors in prepar­ing young peo­ple for the econ­o­my, short-chang­ing a whole generation.”

Iden­ti­fy­ing Root Caus­es for Edu­ca­tion­al Outcomes

The Casey Foun­da­tion report con­tends that the pan­dem­ic is not sole­ly to blame for the country’s wors­en­ing edu­ca­tion­al out­comes. Edu­ca­tors, researchers, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and employ­ers who track stu­dents’ aca­d­e­m­ic readi­ness have been ring­ing alarm bells for a long time. U.S. scores in read­ing and math have bare­ly budged in decades. Com­pared to peer nations, the Unit­ed States is not equip­ping its chil­dren with the high-lev­el read­ing, math and dig­i­tal prob­lem-solv­ing skills need­ed for many of today’s fastest-grow­ing occu­pa­tions in a high­ly com­pet­i­tive glob­al economy.

This lack of readi­ness will result in major harm to our econ­o­my and to our youth as they join the work­force. Up to $31 tril­lion in U.S. eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty hinges on help­ing young peo­ple com­plete learn­ing delayed by the pan­dem­ic. Research indi­cates that stu­dents who don’t advance beyond low­er lev­els of math may be 50% more like­ly to be unem­ployed after high school. One analy­sis cal­cu­lates that the drop in math scores between 2019 and 2022 will reduce life­time earn­ings by 1.6% for our 48 mil­lion pan­dem­ic-era stu­dents, for a total of $900 bil­lion in lost income.

How­ev­er, some states have delayed spend­ing their share of the $190 bil­lion in crit­i­cal fed­er­al pan­dem­ic fund­ing (Ele­men­tary and Sec­ondary School Emer­gency Relief, or ESS­ER) that could help boost achieve­ment. The dead­line to allo­cate – not spend – this fund­ing is Sep­tem­ber 30, 2024. Tens of bil­lions of dol­lars set aside for schools will van­ish for­ev­er if states do not act immediately.

Rec­om­men­da­tions to Improve Learning

The Casey Foun­da­tion rec­om­mends the following:

  • To get kids back on track, we must ensure access to low- or no-cost meals, a reli­able inter­net con­nec­tion, a place to study and time with friends, teach­ers and counselors.
  • Expand access to inten­sive tutor­ing for stu­dents who are behind in their class­es and miss­ing aca­d­e­m­ic mile­stones. Research has shown the most effec­tive tutor­ing is in per­son, high dosage and tied direct­ly to the school.
  • States should take advan­tage of all their allo­cat­ed pan­dem­ic relief fund­ing to pri­or­i­tize the social, emo­tion­al, aca­d­e­m­ic and phys­i­cal well-being of stu­dents. As long as funds are oblig­at­ed by the Sept. 30 dead­line, states should have two more full years to spend them.
  • States and school sys­tems should address chron­ic absence, so more stu­dents return to learn. While few states gath­er and report chron­ic absence data by grade, all of them should. Improv­ing atten­dance track­ing and data will inform future deci­sion-mak­ing. Law­mak­ers should embrace pos­i­tive approach­es rather than crim­i­nal­iz­ing stu­dents or par­ents due to atten­dance chal­lenges, because they may not under­stand the con­se­quences of even a few days missed.
  • Pol­i­cy­mak­ers should invest in com­mu­ni­ty schools, pub­lic schools that pro­vide wrap­around sup­port to kids and fam­i­lies. Nat­ur­al homes for tutor­ing, men­tal health sup­port, nutri­tion­al aid and oth­er ser­vices, com­mu­ni­ty schools use inno­v­a­tive and cre­ative pro­grams to sup­port young learn­ers and encour­age par­ent engage­ment, which leads to bet­ter out­comes for kids.

Down­load the Data Book

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