It will take years for our country to fully understand the impact of widespread school closures on this generation of children. But the data are mounting, and the picture they paint is grim. Analysts at McKinsey estimate K-12 students will experience an average of nine months’ learning loss in math by the end of the school year.
Just a few weeks into the pandemic, experts were already predicting school closures would widen existing disparities. But the scope of the losses shows even our pessimism failed this year. As many as one-third of students are still receiving no in-person instruction, and the ones likeliest to remain virtual are in large, urban districts that disproportionately serve children of color. We expect those students to be a full year behind their white peers in math by this summer.
As a cognitive scientist who has devoted significant study to the intertwined issues of anxiety and performance, I fear the cascading effects of this crisis will be nothing short of monumental. We have long known that students with poor attendance and those who fall behind in school are likelier to drop out altogether. Failure to complete high school is associated with poor mental health, increased odds of substance abuse and greater chances of involvement with the justice system -- to say nothing of lower earnings throughout life. And the problem starts much earlier than high school. Research shows a direct correlation between income and school achievement -- and where the income gap has grown, so too has the school achievement gap.
Taken together, these factors translate into fewer college-educated people in the workforce, resulting in lower incomes for the nation’s workers for the next 70 years. To stem the effects of this looming disaster will take sustained, all-hands-on-deck intervention. Options on the table range from national summer school to a Marshall Plan for education to forgoing standardized tests. But from where I sit as a current college president, I see a clear role and responsibility for higher education.
The fact is, colleges and universities have a vested interest in the next generation’s academic success. Today’s K-12 students are tomorrow’s college goers -- at least they could be with the right support. And we cannot afford for the privileged alone to succeed. Not only would such a homogenous cohort diminish the quality of the thinking and knowledge production that happens on our campuses; it is unconscionable for us to turn our backs on those whom the system has already shortchanged.
So, to my colleagues in higher education, I challenge all of us to get creative about what we can do to be part of a much-needed solution for today’s younger learners. Some universities already host full-time schools for the benefit of their local neighbors such as Arizona State’s system of ASU preparatory academy schools. But colleges and universities can do much more beyond direct schooling.
At Barnard College, for example, we pivoted quickly this year to formalize a program in which our students tutored the children of our faculty and staff members. And our education department set up virtual enrichment clubs led by our education majors that offered projects ranging from digital storytelling to STEM. Looking forward, we are ramping up collegewide efforts and financial support for our students to get involved in tutoring elementary school students across New York City, where our campus is based.
Not only is it relatively inexpensive for colleges to support work-study or institutionalized volunteer initiatives, it's also a great way to connect campus life to the life of surrounding communities -- and vice versa. Every college should be more intently exploring how they can better distribute access to the student human capital they possess.
The fact is, we will not know just how serious and lasting the effects of COVID will be on the nation’s schoolchildren for quite some time. But we already know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. These young learners will not get a second chance at these years when their brains are most flexible and adaptive to education -- and we all pay the price the longer they miss out. The sooner we come together, flex our innovation muscle and step up for students left behind during the pandemic, the better.