Pandemic-Related Learning Loss Translates to Trillions Lost in GDP and Disparate Impacts on Students

This article is a part of an ongoing series that examines equity during COVID-19 in early childhood and how this crisis impacts young children and families of color disproportionately in health, education, and geography across North Carolina. An introduction to the series can be found here.

The US can expect to lose more than the equivalent of an entire year of GDP due to learning disruptions from COVID-19, according to a new report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The average individual US student can expect his or her lifetime earnings to be 3-6% lower due to COVID-induced learning losses. Students with disabilities and students from overburdened and under-resourced households — who are disproportionately students of color — will face higher earnings losses. Structural education reform could ameliorate both overall losses and the disparate impact of the losses. 

US Expected to Lose More than $14 Trillion in GDP

Using past research on school closures and the learning losses over the summer, the OECD estimates that the US will lose 1.5% of the country’s future GDP for every three months of disrupted learning. Students in the US already lost three months of schooling this spring due to the pandemic, and many (including in NC) have not yet returned to in-person school, but are instead learning online from home, therefore facing continued disruption to their learning. 1.5% of the US’s future GDP equates to about 69% of our current year GDP. If disruptions continue for, say, six months, the US can expect to see a 2.9% drop in future GDP, which equates to about 136% of our current GDP. These losses total $14 trillion to $28 trillion over time. The US GDP in 2019 was $20.6 trillion.

Losses to Individual Students’ Lifetime Earnings

Losses in earnings will impact individual students as well. The report uses research on the impact of years of schooling on income to estimate that, in the US, three months of disrupted schooling will cost the average 1st through 12th grade student 3% of her or his expected lifetime earnings, and a six month disruption would cost 6%. 

Disrupted schooling and relying on at-home learning both shrinks the size of the pie…

The OECD reports: “The notion that lost years of schooling are not so bad if they affect everyone are based on the erroneous assumption of a national economic “cake” of fixed size and that education largely serves to determine the share of income going to each individual. But the cake shrinks when everyone reaches a lower level of education; the entire economy suffers, not least because of higher burdens on social security systems and lost tax revenues for social tasks.”

…AND increases disparities in the sizes of the slices.

Children with learning difficulties and those from overburdened and under-resourced households — who because of current and historical structural racism are disproportionately Black, Latinx and American Indian students — are projected to suffer the largest lifetime earnings losses. The report continues: “[T]he schooling-at-home approach clearly relies considerably on the instructional skills of parents, while the use of technological solutions to ameliorate the effects of closures depended on broad availability of tablets, computers, and internet access. The negative impact of this situation was undoubtedly greater for students from disadvantaged households. Low-achieving students will find it particularly hard to acquire new instructional material on their own at home, without the explanations and support of trained teachers. It is not simply a matter of closing the “digital divide” across households. Thus, the prior estimates of the earnings loss, which apply to students of average achievement in the average household, are likely to underestimate the career earnings losses to students from disadvantaged households and for low-achieving students. These considerations also hold into the future to the extent that disruptions in schooling with different re-opening strategies imply continued pressure on learning at home.”

Assumed Impacts on Younger Students

The report does not calculate overall or individual impacts on income due to learning disruptions for students younger than first grade. However, it acknowledges that “[r]ecent research and the commensurate policy development have pointed to an important role of early childhood education. This critical development window appears particularly important for preparing disadvantaged students for schooling (e.g., (Heckman, 2006[6])). The disruption of this segment of the education system will likely have lasting long-term impacts on affected child cohorts, but it is not currently possible to incorporate this into the estimates.”

Real Education Reform Could Help

The report stresses that the only way to avoid — or at least limit — these negative long-term impacts of the current and future pandemics is to make structural improvements to how we educate children. The authors highlight two research-based potential solutions that have long been discussed but not put into effect at scale:

  • Use teachers in different ways. Research consistently shows that teachers vary in their effectiveness, and we can expect that this variance carries over into new ways of teaching, such as remotely. Using teachers where their particular skill sets are most effective can increase overall performance. Assigning the most effective teachers to the students who need the most support (and have historically received the least) could reduce the opportunity disparities that currently lead to outcome disparities. 
  • Personalize education through a mastery-based system. Students in a given classroom are often at all different levels of achievement, based largely on the historical and current opportunities that have been given or withheld from them and their families. More individualized instruction — which can be facilitated through digital learning — and a demonstration of mastery system could better support learning and potentially reduce disparities. Students would work on specific learning modules until they could demonstrate that they have mastered them, then they would move forward, regardless of what other students in their classes were doing. Using technology to assist in such personalized learning would also free teachers to focus on students who need the most individual attention.

The authors finish with the hope that the attention on schooling right now due to the pandemic and its effects will provide the impetus needed to make long-lasting structural changes to our education systems to improve outcomes, especially for those children facing the most barriers to opportunity.