The School Year Really Ended in March

Abrupt closings have stalled the learning of millions of students. U.S. education needs a rescue, an economist says, and it won’t be cheap.

By Susan Dynarski

May 7, 2020

School-age children across America are struggling to learn under challenging conditions. Some, no doubt, have made real progress.

But it’s time to admit that, for the vast majority of students, online learning and work sheets are no substitute for trained teachers in classrooms.

For most children, the school year effectively ended in March.

If the country doesn’t recognize this fact and respond accordingly — with large federally funded programs to reverse the losses — we will do great harm to a generation of children who will learn less than those who went before them. They will read and write more poorly and be less likely to graduate from high school and college. The resulting shortage of highly trained workers will hamper the economic recovery and intensify earnings inequality.

Educators, parents, students and schools are doing what they can in a harrowing situation. But for most students it isn’t nearly enough, and the United States will need to marshal enormous resources to get education back on track.

About a third of the school year has been sacrificed to the pandemic. Consider that a year of U.S. public education costs about $400 billion. That implies that about $133 billion may be needed to make up for lost instructional time.

That’s a lot of money, roughly equivalent to the cost, in today’s dollars, of the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after the devastation of World War II. But the disruption to American society created by this pandemic has no parallel in modern history.

It has exposed and intensified enormous gaps in schools’ and families’ capacity to support children’s learning. Many families, especially in rural areas, lack access to broadband internet service. Parents and multiple siblings may share a single computer, if they have one at all. A quiet place to study may not exist in a small, crowded apartment.

Parents who must leave home to work have limited time to supervise children’s schooling. The same is true for parents who must work from home, who have infants or who are caring for the sick. As Cleveland’s schools prepared to close in late March, teachers set out to speak with every student’s family about remote learning. They were initially able to reach 60 percent of parents. After trying for a few more days, they were still unable to connect with the family of one out of 10 students.

Most children will return to school without the skills and concepts they were meant to master this spring. Many will have lost ground, and will need to relearn an entire year’s worth of material.

This is what the United States will confront as schools reopen. Fourth grade can’t start in September with the usual curriculum if students missed half of third grade. They will need to compensate with more time spent on learning.

One option is summer school, in places where it is safe to reopen by summer. Another is extended school days and weeks, with the extra hours devoted to bringing children up to speed.

Students may well need to engage in social distancing for a long while. To keep down crowding, students could rotate days spent in teacher-led classrooms. On days children are not in classrooms, they could work with tutors in small groups (online, if that’s what health officials recommend).

The federal government can tap unused energy and talent by funding a big domestic volunteer effort for our schools, in the style of AmeriCorps. There will be far too many unemployed college students — and graduates — in the coming years, because recessions always hit young workers the hardest.

Young people could be paid a stipend to tutor, troubleshoot technology for online classes, assist teachers (virtually or in person) and disinfect classrooms. High school students who typically work during the summer and after school could be paid to attend classes themselves.

Even after schools restart, there are likely to be rolling closures while the pandemic unfolds. Online instruction will still be needed and should be as effective as possible. Some schools and teachers have made the online transition successfully, but most need technical and pedagogical support.

States can’t possibly foot the bill for an effort on this scale. State tax revenue is plunging, and the states are generally barred from running deficits. Nor is this a project for a nonprofit, a foundation or a private outfit like Kickstarter. The federal government needs to step in.

The return on this investment would be substantial. First, paying for all this would stimulate the economy because teachers and young people would quickly spend what they earned. And then, the economic payoff would keep coming for decades in the form of a better-educated, more productive society.

The setbacks in education aren’t universal: There are exceptions, of course. Some lucky parents have had the time and resources to closely supervise their children’s schooling. Some gifted children are adept at independent learning and have kept up with their studies. But this is not the norm, and it should not be expected.

Society is now built around the assumption that school-age children go to school. Few families have a stay-at-home adult who can step into the shoes of a professional teacher. A recent paper by two economists at the University of Chicago estimates that just 37 percent of American jobs can be regularly done from home.

I home-schooled my kids for a few years, and it wasn’t easy. A lot of luck made it possible: a flexible work schedule, a well-paying job, a supportive spouse, a comfortable home, healthy children, and my own good health and education. Few families have the resources to pull off home schooling. Yet it is now being expected of all parents — including those who hold multiple jobs, are raising children alone, earn the minimum wage and may not have finished high school.

Unless the United States takes action to restore the education that so many children have lost, it will suffer as a society. There is likely to be rising inequality in our schools, with widening gaps in achievement and spiking dropout rates. This surging inequality will then spill into the work force, with the well educated commanding higher salaries because of their scarcity and the poorly educated earning even less because their numbers have grown.

The future I fear is one in which a privileged minority of children are well educated, using private resources like tutors, private schools and home schooling, while the vast majority that depend on the public schools are left even further behind.

For most children, the school year ended in March. The sooner we face it, the faster we can fix it.

Susan Dynarski is a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @dynarski.


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