Kids Lost an Average of a Third of a Year's Learning During Pandemic

Alan Mozes

Alan Mozes

Updated on January 30, 2023

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Key Takeaways

Children across the globe lost an average of a third of a year's worth of learning during the pandemic

Some countries fared better than others, with the United States falling right near the average, and math skills were affected more than reading abilities

Even more troubling is the fact that kids haven't had a chance to catch up

MONDAY, Jan. 30, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Adding to the very long list of hardships exacted by the pandemic, a new review indicates that schoolchildren around the world ended up losing more than a third of a full year's education due to school closings and disruptions.

The finding follows an analysis of 42 studies conducted in 15 rich or middle-income countries: the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

The analysis concluded that across the world "schoolchildren’s learning progress slowed down substantially during the pandemic," noted study lead author Bastian Betthäuser, an assistant professor of sociology with the Centre for Research on Social Inequalities (CRIS) at Sciences Po in Paris.

He discussed the findings during a media briefing held last week.

In addition to pegging the average learning loss among these nations equivalent to 35% of a single academic year, Betthäuser highlighted several additional findings:

  • Learning deficits arose quite early in the pandemic
  • More than two years later, children have not recovered that lost learning
  • Children from low-income families were disproportionately affected by school closures
  • Learning deficits were larger in poorer than in richer countries.

The review further found that the educational hole left by the pandemic appears to be considerably worse in math, compared with reading.

“And this may be due to parents being better able to help their children with reading, compared to math exercises,” Betthäuser said.

His team acknowledged that their analysis did not include much data drawn from relatively poor countries, though Betthäuser said it "seems very plausible that learning deficits are even higher yet" in low-income countries than in wealthier nations.

The team also noted that education loss in each country was tracked at different times during the pandemic, depending on each particular study’s time frame. That can make it somewhat difficult to stack up one country’s performance against another’s, given that the pace of academic disruptions varied as the pandemic unfolded.

Still, Betthäuser stressed that some countries appeared to have fared notably worse than others.

For example, “Sweden and Denmark are two countries where we don’t see large learning deficits,” he noted.

Betthäuser said figuring out precisely why this was the case was beyond the scope of their current analysis.

But one obvious factor, he said, is that Sweden actually had very few school closures, “so interruptions were virtually absent” in that country.

Denmark, however, did close their schools, Betthäuser acknowledged. Yet he theorized that children in both countries may also have benefited from “comparatively well-functioning, encompassing and generous welfare states” that better afforded families the financial security to find workable ways to both minimize stress and keep child education on track.

“But this is speculation,” he reiterated. “We don’t know for sure at this point.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Brazil appeared to have experienced the greatest degree of academic loss among its kids. That’s according to that country’s study, which took a snapshot of school disruptions up until the fall of 2020.

As for the United States and the U.K., Betthäuser said both countries seem to have fared “sort of around the average.”

That means that both American and British schoolchildren lost “a bit more than a third of a school year” due to school closures, he said.

Betthäuser also characterized the American experience, in particular, as a story of “a glass half full, half empty,” given that learning losses appeared to have unfolded at a steady pace throughout the pandemic. That means that while learning loss didn’t get worse over time, kids across the country still haven’t been able to catch up.

The findings were published Jan. 30 in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

If not addressed, that could prove problematic for affected children over time, Betthäuser warned, given that "we know that education is one, if not the key, predictor for success in the labor market and building their own livelihood."

As to what can be done to make up for lost time, "there is strong need for further policy initiatives to help children recover the learning they lost at the start of the pandemic," Betthäuser argued.

"And it's important that these policies target children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have been most affected by the pandemic," he added. "And in our view, governments should also plan for and fund evaluating the learning programs that they do implement in order to understand their effectiveness in recovering learning deficits."

More information

There's more on the pandemic’s global impact on education at UNICEF.

SOURCES: Bastian Betthäuser, PhD, M.Sc, assistant professor, sociology, Centre for Research on Social Inequalities (CRIS), Sciences Po, Paris; Nature Human Behavior, Jan. 30, 2023

What This Means for You

School closings and disruptions worldwide have cost kids a third of a year's worth of learning, with more deficits seen in poorer nations.

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