By Thomas Dee
Student learning took a big hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Just how much is only becoming clear nearly three years after the World Health Organization declared the pandemic and nearly all U.S. public schools pivoted to online instruction for at least several months in March 2020.
However, the data guiding the nation’s efforts to help kids catch up does not generally include the students who experienced the most dramatic learning disruptions.
Nationwide testing results released in the fall of 2022 revealed that the reading and math performance on standardized tests of students who were in fourth and eighth grades in the U.S. in the 2021-2022 school year declined by historic amounts.
This dramatic evidence of learning loss has mobilized federal, state and local education leaders. The federal government has allocated US$122 billion to support state and local efforts to help students “catch up in the classroom.”
Public school districts are using these resources to fund tutoring and extended learning time. And researchers are assessing the effects of these investments on standardized test scores.
However, these efforts do little to identify or target support to the children whose learning environments were most disrupted by the pandemic. This is especially so for the youngest students, who aren’t yet old enough for most standardized testing.
Enrollment decline and the ‘streetlight effect’
During the pandemic, public school enrollment in grades K through 12 fell by 1.2 million students. These declines were concentrated among kindergarten students and in schools that offered only remote instruction.
Similarly dramatic enrollment losses among even younger learners erased a decade of progress in boosting preschool education enrollment.
These declines indicate that the pandemic caused students to miss instructional time or undertake disruptive school switches, often in their developmentally critical early years.
However, school officials list early-childhood programs among the least popular use of available federal funds and provide no indication of targeted academic-recovery efforts for younger or truant students.
This is an example of what scholars call the “streetlight effect,” in which people focus their attention on easily visible evidence – such as the test scores available for older, currently enrolled students – rather than other relevant data that are more obscured and harder to identify.
And long lags in national data reporting mean little is yet known about the learning environments of the disproportionately young children whose families avoided public schools during the pandemic. Currently, official federal statistics do not even provide basic data on private school or home-school enrollment beyond 2019.
Where the kids went
My research, done collaboratively with The Associated Press and data journalists at Stanford University’s Big Local News, addresses this issue.
For our analysis, we gathered state-level data on public, private and home-school enrollment for the school years from 2019-20 through 2021-22. We also used U.S. Census Bureau estimates to identify the school-age population in each state over this time period. These combined data provide insights into where the students who avoided public schools went and what it means for the nation’s academic-recovery efforts.
Complete data aren’t available in every state, but we have good data on more than half of the school-age population in the U.S. at the onset of the pandemic. These states also experienced public school enrollment declines that are representative of the national trend.
Some students, particularly the youngest, clearly turned to private schools during the pandemic. In the 34 jurisdictions with available data, private school enrollment grew by over 140,000 students between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years. However, this increase only explains a modest amount – roughly 14% – of the corresponding decline in public school enrollment.
A more surprising finding is the robust growth of home-schooling during this period. An early Census Bureau survey reported that home-schooling increased soon after the pandemic began. Our data show this initial increase endured into the 2021-22 school year when most public schools returned to in-person instruction.
In the 22 jurisdictions with data, home-school enrollment increased by over 184,000 students between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years – a 30% increase. For every additional student enrolled in private school over this period, nearly two entered home-schooling. This sustained growth in home-schooling explains 26% of the corresponding losses in public school enrollment.
Roughly a quarter of the public school enrollment loss simply reflects the pandemic decline in the number of school-age children in the U.S. However, people moving to new homes during the pandemic means this demographic impact varied considerably by state. In states like California and New York, which saw their overall populations fall dramatically, the percentage declines in public school enrollment were at least six times those in states like Texas and Florida, where populations grew.
New questions for academic recovery
These findings raise several new questions about what help American students will need to get their education back on track. For instance, researchers know little about the learning opportunities available to children who switched to home-schooling, or the effects of this choice on families.
Our data is also unable to locate more than one-third of the students who left public schools. That could mean that some children are not going to school at all – or that even more families started home-schooling but did so without notifying their state.
A third possibility is that the pandemic led more families to have their kids skip kindergarten. Our data indirectly supports this conjecture. The unexplained declines in public school enrollment are concentrated in states that do not require kindergarten attendance, like California and Colorado.
What we do know is the pandemic’s learning disruptions occurred disproportionately among the nation’s youngest learners.
Our work to understand and respond to this situation is just beginning. One possible response is to refocus some federal funding on the broad use of early screening tools to reliably identify – and address – learning setbacks years before students are old enough to take the current battery of standardized tests, which often begins in the third grade. Policymakers can also do more to locate students who are missing and to understand the educational needs of those outside the light of conventional data systems.
Thomas Dee is Barnett Family Professor at Stanford University.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
Pierre Tristam says
It’s a wonder the bigoted bullshit I read in these comments hasn’t given me eyeball cancer. Then again, why the surprise. We live in a country founded at least in its white-celled entrails on bigotry, but we try to do better, and often we succeed. Not these days of trump and gory, unfortunately. Ganging up on immigrant children at the border wasn’t enough. This now, the targeting of migrant children in schools, is one of the new, trendy outrages of the revanchist right. But Migrant children play an infinitesimal role in school burdens’ finances (1 percent of the cost even by tendentious calculations) especially compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars, in Florida alone, getting stolen from public schools to finance private, religious and homeschool education. Taxpayer-funded madrassas, in other words, with about as much difference between the islamofascist kind and the evangelical white nationalist kind as there is between Publix and Winn Dixie (emphasis on Dixie) ice cream. That aside, the parents of those migrants more than make up the burden to public schools: “illegal migrants” paid $17 billion into social security and Medicare in 2016, not a cent of which they’ll recoup. That was in 2016. So these days they contribute at least three times as much as their children cost public schools, and that’s not figuring in to what extent those children grow up to work twice as hard as most entitled Americans, contributing yet more to the Wallee-esque lifestyles of the type of smug men who write cancer-causing comments. At least the commenter didn’t blame other children for ruining public schools. Those were the screeds of other eras. Nostalgic as the bigots are for them, all they have to do is replace one target with another. Wasn’t there a TV show starring an ass in the 60s called Mr Ed? Or was that a horse? Either way: horseshit is horseshit. Now I have to get an MRI.
Your opinions are a bit slanted. First the current immigration crisis is not legal immigration, or am I also wrong?
Does Miami have an issue or am I wrong?
Does a problem exist or am I wrong?
So pointing out a problem that impacts the educational problem is bigoted bullshit?
Why not investigate the problem before simply trying to shut down the thread. Facts are neither bigoted, wrong nor right. Just facts.
And yes, Mr Ed was a horse of course. Ps get a colonoscopy your a bit constipated and it’s making you cranky
Pierre Tristam says
Ed, I just showed you in the earlier comment, with links for your convenience, that the problem you’re referring to is not a problem but a benefit, and that if there are financial burdens in the public education system, it’s not from those kids. Changing your goal posts won’t help. My last recent colonoscopy was surprisingly clear (I was amazed as you are) but that doesn’t prove you wrong on one count: cranky is an understatement, when I’m faced with bigotry passing itself off as argument. What’s your solution to your alleged problem? Throw the little shits out of school? Deport all their parents like with Eisenhower’s wetback shipments to please the Birchers? This immigrant is happy to keep schooling you on your country’s history.
No fix the immigration problem. That’s the solution. How can you be so combative and myopic. Your liberal views won’t allow for a common sense solution.
If you will just stop and look for common ground we can pull together and solve a lot of problems. You are proving Sarah Huckabee right. “The choice is between conservative and crazy”. Do you really believe you are always right and all conservatives are always wrong or just uneducated bigoted jackasses?
And just so we are square. I have 4 biracial grandchildren that I love dearly. Another son is married to a beautiful Dominican woman and I cherish their two wonderful children.
My wife and I came from very meager means and raised 6 productive children and put them all through college…no student loans because I paid the freight. And I will not apologize for being extremely successful in business because I worked 85-105 hours a week for 40 years. I don’t owe anyone anything not do I want anything from anyone. I take full responsibility for everything I do….and I am not bigoted or racist. I am a realist. So what’s your excuse? I dare you to be honest with the next reply because turning it around on me void of any origami thinking. It’s name calling.
Michael Cocchiola says
Funny how implicit bigots always excuse their bigotry by claiming black or brown or Asian friends and relatives. Trump is anti-Jewish, yet he points to his son-in-law and daughter to refute that.
Just suck it up and acknowledge that undocumented migrants are economically and culturally beneficial to America. Your ancestors started out the same way and you seem to have benefitted from America’s largess. Why not pay it forward?
Let’s try to slow this conversation d o w n so everyone can understand. Even you.
Are you denying an educational learning loss is a problem because of the pandemic and if my above references to migrant children entering the equation, it might get worse? Just look at Miami’s 12000 new children introduced in the last 2 years. They need 6-7 schools more to house students. Fact. Haitians and Cubans mean English is a second language.
And Michael next time I have a family reunion, you will have an open invitation to mingle with my children and their spouse along with my 17 grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Cause I recon you think I’m a lying white bigoted racist? But then I guess you won’t believe your lying eyes. You’ve made of you mind because you just know. Right? There can never be an opposing opinion because it’s not yours, how can it be right, you know the truth.
Like I used to tell my children, I hope I get as smart as you so I will know everything too!
The dude says
Both of you are missing the more salient point here… the REAL danger is from those trans kids…
And I am indeed overdue for a colonoscopy myself.
Ed: When you believe that Sarah Huckabee Sanders is in any way right, reasonable or a practitioner of common sense, then you have blown your whole argument, and your judgement is questionable. After the President talked about making this country better for the middle class, that piece of work, Sanders, egged on culture wars.
If you disagree about these kids being here, remember it was Trump’s conservative administration who separated the kids from their parents, with no means of getting them reunited. Some are still in institutions, some in foster homes and some with distant relatives. Do you understand that your hostility towards them, with no plan for resolution, can make enemies of these kids when they grow into adults?
I have no kids, with the exception of my husband’s adult child, yet I have paid into the school tax system all my adult life. I have no issues with these kids. I do, however, have big issues with our tax dollars going to private schools, religious schools, and home schools, taking money away from the public schools for which it was intended. These families have opted out of the public system, therefore should opt out of public funds.
As far as Miami goes, I am very familiar with Miami as I was born and raised in the next county north. Where do you figure most of Miami’s population originated from, Kansas?
Did you address any of the problems/issues that I pointed out? No
Your response is almost a personal attack on a conservative.
The problem is at our door step and has to be addressed. Short term these sanctuary cities will have ballooned classroom size until facilities can be built. The children will need to learn English and catch up 1-2 years of learning with their age appropriate cohorts. These issues will retard the learning curve of the children in these classes. Does anyone dispute the facts?
What is the solution? We(all of us) need to fix the immigration issue. We can not sustain the current crisis forever.
Liberals, please acknowledge the problem and offer a solution that doesn’t attack the messenger. Will you or anyone admit the truth or continue to ignore the problem and call me names?
Anyone going to reply to Ed and what he asked? Didn’t think so. Winner Ed.
Pierre Tristam says
Freddy, if you look further up you’ll see that there’s been plenty of engagement with Ed, but it’s pointless, after a while, to debate with a moving goal post, or a post.
Never moved the goal post even though you say I did.
Don’t read more then the facts into my post. You are good but you can’t read my mind nor put words in my mouth.
Everyone has an opinion and yours Pierre is not always correct.