The High Cost of School Lockdowns

Last month the nation’s schools received their report card, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. The news wasn’t pretty. The nation’s schools recorded the largest drop in math scores ever this year, with fourth and eighth grade students in nearly every state showing significant declines, according to the Education Department data.

Academic achievement has been in decline for many years, but the Covid pandemic lockdowns accentuated this trend. Low-performing fourth-grade students saw larger declines in both math and reading scores compared with high-performing ones. Black and Hispanic students in the fourth grade saw larger score drops in math than white students.

Now that we know how bad the report card looks, how does this impact the future earning capacity of these same students? A recent study from researchers at Harvard and Dartmouth attempts to answer this question. Using census data and historical changes in performance on the NAEP, the authors say if the recent learning loss can’t be reversed, it would equate to a 1.6% drop in lifetime earnings for the average K-12 student.

That sounds like no big deal. But if you calculate the nationwide impact, the total comes to about $900 billion in lost earnings. The Wall Street Journal editorial board says, “The most recent NAEP results showed a record drop in learning. Not a single state or large school district managed to improve math performance among fourth and eighth graders between 2019 and 2022. It’s an average loss, in present value, of $19,400 per student. Then multiply by the public K-12 enrollment of 48 million.”

They go on to note Harvard economist Thomas Kane used the same method to forecast other outcomes if eighth-grade students fail to recover from this year’s abysmal math scores. For this cohort, he anticipates college enrollment would fall 2.4%, high school dropouts would increase 3.6%, the number of teen mothers by 3.2%, the unemployed by 6.6%, and young men incarcerated by 14.2%. Now you get a feel for the severity of this impact.

Naturally, the impact is disparate, affecting the poor much more than the rich. In districts where 69% or more of students received lunch subsidies, children lost the equivalent of two-thirds of a year of math between 2019 and 2022. To compare, in districts where only 39% or fewer got free or reduced lunch, students fell less than half a year behind.

In North Branford, Conn., where only 21.8% are low-income, students fell a tenth of a year behind in math. Less than 12 miles away in New Haven, where 72.9% receive subsidized lunch, students fell 1.55 years behind. In Massachusetts, students lost slightly over a grade level in Holyoke and 1.3 grade levels in Lynn, two districts where more than 80% of students qualify for subsidized lunch. Fewer than 10% do in Andover and Wellesley, where students fell a little more than a third of a grade level behind.

The personal-finance website WalletHub reports that Falls Church City Public Schools is the second-most affluent district in Virginia, with an average household income of nearly $147,000. There students fell less than 0.3 of a grade level behind in math, according to the Harvard-Stanford data. Compare that to Richmond City Public Schools, where 93% of students qualify for free or reduce lunch, and where children fell 1.96 grade levels behind.

The reason for this disparity is that affluent parents could afford to hire tutors or yank their kids from failing public schools. Poor children too often remained trapped, and that tragedy will continue for years to come unless parents are given the option of choosing the best schools for their children. The solution to this disparity is to give parents the option of choosing the best schools for their children, regardless of their income. This is what School Choice is all about. The future education of our children, and their earning potential, is at stake.

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