It’s been nearly three years since politicians across the country locked down America’s K-12 government schools in March 2020 as part of an unprecedented effort to “slow the spread” of a pandemic, and two-and-a-half years since a relative handful of power-hungry union bosses campaigned successfully to block the fall 2020 reopening of schools in the vast majority of our nation’s school districts.
The enormous cost of the lengthy lockdowns is still being tallied.
At the end of last year, for example, Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek, who specializes in education matters, published an analysis assessing the long-term consequences of the substantial declines in the average student’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math and reading tests from 2019 to 2022.
On average, 8th graders’ NAEP math scores dropped by eight points.This was the largest decline ever in the decades-old history of the test. And unless education policymakers can figure out a way to help students make up for this learning loss over the next few years, it will result in an estimated reduction of their lifetime earnings by 5.6% Over the course of the remainder of the 21st Century, that would translate into a cumulative earnings loss of as much as $28 trillion.
School lockdowns that in many cases went on for longer than an academic year are not the only reason the COVID-19 years turned into an educational disaster for the U.S. But there is ample evidence that the lockdowns greatly exacerbated math learning losses in state after state and school district after school district.
Recent assessments also show schoolchildren in Big Labor-dominated districts who were already struggling pre-COVID suffered disproportionately from the lockdowns.
That’s why, as distressing as it is, it’s not surprising that, by 2022, according to a recent report issued by the Illinois Department of Education, there were dozens of Chicago schools with exactly zero students demonstrating proficiency in either math or reading!
And vast numbers of American teenagers apparently completely gave up on formal education during the pandemic years. A February 18 Wall Street Journal editorial cited a study showing that roughly 240,000 students who left public schools in 21 states since the 2019-20 academic year “can’t be accounted for”!
Fortunately, the massive projected lifetime earnings losses for today’s schoolchildren as a consequence of COVID-19 and the extended school lockdowns that came in its wake are not inevitable. As Hanushek acknowledges, if schools in the future do a significantly better job at helping children learn than they did before the pandemic, then the grim economic scenario he envisions can be averted.
How can elected officials make schools more effective? Union-label politicians like Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders claim they know. Sanders recently introduced legislation that would hike federal taxes to pay for a $450 billion, 10-year increase in the already huge pot of money Uncle Sam sends to state and local government schools with the putative goal of giving Americans “the best education system in the world.”
But the reality is the “correlation between funding and school quality is extremely weak.” As one careful analysis by a team of Harvard and Stanford researchers concluded: “On average, an additional $1000 in per pupil spending is associated with an annual gain in achievement of one-tenth of 1 percent of a standard deviation. But that trivial amount is of no statistical or substantive significance.”
Real gains of a magnitude great enough to make up for the COVID-19 learning-loss disaster are possible, but they are only likely to happen if elected officials in state after state find the courage and wisdom to roll back substantially or better yet repeal state laws handing government union bosses monopoly-bargaining power over how educators are managed and compensated.
As a landmark 2018 paper coauthored by economists Stan Liebowitz and Matthew Kelly (the latter was a research fellow at the time) found, union legal privileges, political clout, and other closely related factors have a “substantial and statistically negative relationship with student achievement.”
It has long been clear that removal of teacher union bosses’ government-granted power to codetermine with elected officials and their appointees how public schools are run should be the principal objective of education reformers in America. But the urgency of this reform has become far greater since the 2020-22 educational catastrophe.
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