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Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO)


We create research to improve the education system and equalise opportunities for all.


Post-pandemic schooling challenges: CEPEO’s second annual lecture by Professor Joshua Goodman

By Blog Editor, on 10 August 2023

Lisa Belabed with Jake Anders and Lindsey Macmillan

Each year, CEPEO holds an annual lecture showcasing vital research on education policy and equalising opportunities. For this year’s lecture (held at Central Hall Westminster on Thursday 20 July 2023) we were delighted that Professor Joshua Goodman from Boston University, who recently completed a year in Washington DC on the US President’s Council of Economic Advisors, joined us to talk about his ongoing research on post-pandemic schooling challenges in the United States — which have many parallels with the challenges we are facing in the UK.

Professor Lindsey Macmillan, CEPEO’s Director, began proceedings by recapping highlights from the centre’s past year, including the recently released evidence-based policy priorities, and new research from the COSMO study, as well as reminding us that CEPEO was established just six months before the pandemic started, with its huge implications for educational inequalities and, hence, the direction of our research, including a shift to carry out work to understand post-pandemic schooling challenges.

How it Started

Professor Goodman’s talk was divided into three parts. He started with his research at the beginning of the pandemic, as 50 million children across the US saw their schools close their doors, for what would turn out to be periods ranging from a few months to over a year. At this point, there was virtually no data on school disruption of this scale, and this lack of historical precedent made it difficult to predict learning losses.

However, those unprecedented learning losses were difficult both to grasp and fully anticipate, and there were disparities among parents’ ability to and proactivity in responding to them. Professor Goodman and colleagues used Google Trends to try to quantify the extent of these responses: by April 2020 searches for school- and parent-centred online learning resources doubled compared to pre-Covid levels. Partly because of these differential responses, learning losses were worse for students in high-poverty schools, whose families were less likely to have the resources to compensate for their losses outside of school. Josh pointed out his own ability as a professor and former mathematics public school teacher in helping his children stay on track as exemplifying those disparities.

Beyond learning loss, Professor Goodman highlighted that school enrolment has also been adversely affected by the pandemic, with public school enrolment dropping 3% in autumn 2020, the largest decrease since World War II. Part of this can be explained by an increase in homeschooling, likely driven by health fears, but many of those students effectively vanished.

Josh was also keen to avoid being entirely negative in his assessment of the situation. One silver lining of the pandemic relates to bullying. Turning again to Google Trends data, Goodman and colleagues found that searches about bullying and cyberbullying (perhaps especially surprising for the latter) were reduced as a result of school closures. Suicide rates among children also decreased as schools closed.

How it’s Going

Having described the immediate impacts of COVID-19 disruption, Professor Goodman turned to post-pandemic recovery efforts. Early in the pandemic, the US federal government sent $60 billion to K-12 schools: an unprecedented use of federal funds for school support, as schools in the US are mostly funded at the state- or local-level. This was followed in March 2021 by Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER), another $120 billion to be spent by 2024. A minimum of just 20% of ESSER was allocated to be spent on programmes to reduce learning loss, and a lot has rather been spent on temporary hires and salary increases for teachers. The extent of this support dwarfs that which we have seen in England, but appears to have been less well targeted.

As our understanding of the effects of the pandemic on learning loss has become clearer, the picture has remained bleak. The US has seen a drop in 8th grade math scores estimated to lower lifetime income by 1.6% or $1 trillion across all affected students. Chronic absenteeism rates have doubled in many states — more so in schools with high proportions of ethnic minority students — with an average of 6-7 missed days per school year. And enrolment has remained an issue: there was no rebound in enrolment in autumn 2021 to offset the 3% of students who had left public schools at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. While there were widespread concerns about teacher burnout early in the pandemic, there is a lack of direct evidence on this point, but the rate of quitting has jumped 17%.

What now?

Concluding his talk, Professor Goodman was keen to focus on the future and what we should be doing to mitigate the challenges he outlined. Asking “what now?” he set out what he sees as the biggest challenges facing education policymakers at this moment. First, the big federal spending in light of the still terrible learning results is leading to a narrative of wasted funds, which makes it challenging to obtain further funding. But, he pointed out, this ignores the counterfactual: the learning losses without this federal support could very easily have been even worse.

Second, districts (somewhat equivalent to English local authorities, albeit retaining more oversight over schools than many now have here) still do not understand the scope of intervention necessary to tackle the learning loss that has become embedded. On top of this, they are concerned that adding instructional time is not popular, are finding high-quality tutoring hard to scale, and that the teacher workforce is tired, sapping energy for taking the urgent action still needed.

Third, there is a perception that parents do not have the appetite to tackle the embedded learning loss their children are facing. This is largely because they often do not recognise that their child’s academic skills were affected by the disruption of the pandemic, as school grades (“on a curve”) can have tended to obscure learning losses from them.

In the face of these challenges, Professor Goodman stressed the importance of getting attendance back to pre-pandemic levels, as absenteeism makes all other interventions less effective. This mirrors one of CEPEO’s policy priorities of reducing pupil absenteeism. He also highlighted the need to help districts (or, in a UK context, school and academy chain leadership) understand the scope of intervention needed, as well as the importance of choosing solutions that scale. For instance, tutoring has proven difficult and labour-intensive, and Josh argues that other, more widely manageable, teaching solutions would be preferable, notably through technology that supports, rather than replaces, teachers’ work.

Wrapping up

The lecture ended with Professor Goodman reasserting the importance of data, which is foundational in his research on education and economics — the same being true for CEPEO. In the US, the local nature of schooling presents major data challenges. He also stressed the need for timely datasets: federal enrolment data is released with a one-year lag, which he argues is much too long: by the time the data are released, another school year has already begun so policymakers often feel that priorities have ‘moved on’. He also stressed a lack of data on important issues such as teacher workforce, and the difficulty of measuring ESSER funds’ spending and efficiency.

Having had the opportunity to speak with members of CEPEO on their own research, Professor Goodman referred to the datasets being used and developed within the centre. These include pioneering use of administrative data such as the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) dataset, in partnership with the UK Government, along with the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities (COSMO) study supported by UKRI Economic and Social Research Council and in partnership with the UK Department for Education. He called for more partnerships of this kind in building datasets that will allow research that drives forward education policy by helping to identify schooling challenges rapidly and responding to them just as rapidly.

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