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The Bottom Line What Will It Take to Put U.S. K-12 Education on a Better Path?

Originally published at Real Clear Education

There’s no question that public school students have experienced learning loss since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. Closed schools, remote instruction, and reduced school hours have made the loss inevitable for most. The exceptions are students who received supplemental learning support beyond what their public schools provided – whether from parents, grandparents, older siblings, tutors, learning centers, or online resources.

Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a research-based nonprofit that assesses student progress and proficiency, recently released a report on learning during COVID-19. It found that students started the 2021–2022 school year with a 9- to 11-percentile-point decline in math and a 3- to 7-percentile-point decline in reading. The learning loss was greater among Hispanic, American Indian, and black students than among Asian and white students. Additionally, high-poverty students had greater than average learning loss.

The learning loss leads to substantial economic effects. According to an analysis from Dan Goldhaber, Thomas Kane, and Andrew McEachin, the deficit represents $43,800 in lifetime earnings per student. Multiply that by the 50 million students currently enrolled in public schools, and the figure is staggering: $2 trillion. Clearly, the impact is not only hurting our students today but will also be carried with them into their adult years.

The U.S. K-12 education system must change from adult-focused to student-focused, input-focused to output-focused, teaching-focused to learning-focused, group-focused to individual-focused, and time-focused to competency-focused.

Keri D. Ingraham

Goldhaber, Kane, and McEachin provide additional insights regarding how long it will take for students to recover. For example, they noted that in grades four and five, it would take “an additional eight to 10 weeks of instruction to cover the loss in reading and math, respectively. In grades 6 through 8, where the material is more complex and students’ rate of progress slows, it would take an additional 14 and 19 weeks of instruction to cover those losses in reading and math, respectively.”

Parents want this learning loss remedied. At-home remote learning not only revealed to them how inefficient the education system was but also demonstrated the vastly differing learning needs among students. Consequently, parents are no longer satisfied with the ineffective one-size-fits-all approach – 95 percent of parents support tailored instruction as the key to recovering student learning loss and improving K-12 education. Parents understand that every child is uniquely wired, with differing strengths and interests. It’s illogical to conclude that all children will learn in the same way and at the same rate – but that’s how our current system operates.

This leads to a pivotal question: What stands in the way of personalizing education? With $800 billion annually devoted to K-12 public education (expanded by an additional nearly $200 billion of federal funding during the pandemic), the problem is clearly not lack of money. Nor can it be a lack of technology, as virtually every student now has an Internet-connected device during the school day. Ultimately, what stands in the way is a stagnant system, with its dearth of leadership and innovation and its entrenched interests that staunchly maintain the status quo.

We can and must do better for our students. What will it take to make up for the learning loss and set the United States’ K-12 education system on a better trajectory? It’s going to take one state to set an example – one state to show the courage to make policy changes that challenge entrenched interests, break down constraints to innovation, and open the door for a new breed of education leaders who will champion personalized learning.

These policy changes must address everything from increasing competition through universal school choice, allowing funding to follow students, promoting and expanding education savings accounts, supporting charter schools, awarding credit for learning activities outside school, redesigning the school year and day, and revamping grade levels and graduation requirements. Additionally, changes must be made to the curriculum, instruction methods, assessments, teacher and administrator certification, teacher seniority pay, and school-board selection processes. Foundational to making the required reforms is granting schools and districts the flexibility to innovate. And making these changes will only be possible if we transform how we select and train education leaders.  

It’s going to take one state changing the system from adult-focused to student-focused, input-focused to output-focused, teaching-focused to learning-focused, group-focused to individual-focused, and time-focused to competency-focused. This will require the governor, state legislature, and state educational establishment to unite around a common vision and work together. Such a transformation can only occur in a state willing to break the power of teacher unions and their domination of employment policies, teaching philosophies and practices, and educational purse strings.

If we can get just one state to flip K-12 education on its head, other states will follow, in time.

Which state has the courage and leadership to lead the way?

Are you concerned about educating the next generation?
The American Center for Transforming Education is a program of Discovery Institute, a non-profit organization fueled by its supporters. Will you help us advance the timely and vital work of transforming our K-12 education system so that it better serves students and their families?