This op-ed was originally published by Educational Results Partnership on May 5, 2020.
Because of the COVID-19 crisis, the US economy has nearly ground to a halt. Tens of millions of workers are now seeing their jobs and livelihoods disappear—in some cases, permanently. Many businesses will never reopen, especially those that have or had large debts to manage.
State and federal lawmakers have responded by pouring trillions of dollars into the economy to address the immediate costs. However, there is another important dimension along which this current crisis will generate long-term costs—the education of our youth and the training of our future workforce.
What are these costs, and how exactly will the COVID-19 crisis affect them?
There will be at least three sets of populations who will suffer education or training losses, causing them greater future economic pain. One group consists of workers permanently displaced from their current jobs who will need assistance with retraining or reemployment. Another group consists of young adults finishing school, facing a weaker job market and lower returns on their schooling than expected. But the costs imposed on disadvantaged K-12 students by the COVID-19 crisis might be the greatest of all.
We cannot ignore the fact that the crisis will exacerbate existing inequities in education. But we should also pay attention to the potential downstream economic impact of a widening achievement gap, caused by school closures around the country.
Disadvantaged students – in other words, those from lower-income families and communities and those of color –have historically confronted lifelong achievement and education gaps between themselves and their more privileged peers under the best of circumstances. Though educators and policymakers have tried to close these gaps since at least the 1990’s, relatively little progress has been made. In particular, major federal efforts like No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top achieved only modest gains in closing achievement gaps, and very large ones remain. These achievement gaps then contribute to ongoing gaps in college attendance and attainment between less and more advantaged students, which also result in gaps in lifetime earnings for the disadvantaged. Opportunities in America to become well-educated and affluent remain very decidedly unequal.
The closing of schools and rapid deployment of ad-hoc distance learning programs are now adding another layer of inequality for disadvantaged children. Early reports show students in grades K-12 who lack the essentials at home to master online education are falling further behind their more affluent peers. If the impact of lost learning among these students is not properly mitigated, achievement gaps that have existed for decades will only get worse.
This will be true even if schools around the country reopen and remain open next fall; if they don’t, the gaps will widen further, to potentially calamitous levels – greatly increasing the already wide chasms in educational attainment and earnings between disadvantaged and more affluent Americans.
And, if this happens, an entire cohort of students could also fail to attain the skills employers need to create a productive economy. Economic success today, and even more so in the future, will require well-educated workers who have mastered a range of cognitive and analytical skills, as well as social and communicative ones, in the K-12 years. Such students can then successfully undertake the kinds of postsecondary education that will make them productive throughout their careers. If an entire cohort of students fails to attain these skills, the losses will be felt not only by them but by the overall economy. Major and costly social dislocations, such as rising crime and poorer health, might also occur under these circumstances.
Accordingly, the stakes associated with making these major educational adjustments to offset the losses that COVID-19 is now imposing on so many children, youth, and adults, could hardly be higher.
The authors did not receive financial support from any firm or person for this article or from any firm or person with a financial or political interest in this article. The authors are not currently officers, directors, or board members of any organization with a financial or political interest in this article.