TOPEKA – A study on education during the COVID-19 pandemic found that Kansas students lost months of learning between 2019 and 2022, with students in lower-income school districts experiencing the greatest losses.
The data was collected through the Education Recovery Scorecard, a joint research effort between Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research and Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project. Data for 29 states, including Kansas, is available through project website.
Thomas Kane, faculty director of CEPR at Harvard University, likened the COVID-19 pandemic to a tornado, saying the pandemic has affected school districts differently, causing huge academic losses in some districts and leaving others untouched. Kane said the Education Recovery Scorecard gave local officials the first opportunity to examine education losses at the local level.
“Until now, it has been difficult to see this damage, especially for parents when students are back at school. Surveys show that 90% or more of parents believe their children are on par,” Kane said during an online news conference about the research findings. “But parents need to know what they don’t know. And what this data will hopefully help them see is that students in many districts are way behind where they should be in terms of learning their grade-level content.”
On average, US public school students in grades 3-8 lost about half a year of math instruction and a quarter of a year of reading instruction. The researchers found that the COVID-19 pandemic has widened educational gaps between higher- and lower-income school districts.
Based on testing data from 2022, the researchers found that Kansas students lost nearly six months of math education and more than four months of reading education statewide, though the numbers varied among school districts. Kansas City lost more than an academic year’s worth of math education. Wichita lost about eight months of math education and Dodge City lost more than six months of math education.
Overall, schools with the most students using federal lunch subsidies lost two-thirds of a year in math education, while districts with the fewest low-income students lost only two-fifths of a year in math education.
Kane said distance learning had less of an effect on educational attrition than expected, and said other issues such as the district’s COVID-19 mortality rate, parents’ occupations and broadband also had a significant impact on education.
“One would think that the only thing that would lead to loss of achievement is distance learning, but that doesn’t seem to be the case,” Kane said.
While states that spent less time in virtual school had smaller math learning losses on average, such as Texas and Florida, the researchers said there isn’t necessarily a direct link between virtual learning and educational losses. California had less educational attrition than most other states, but retained virtual education longer than the national average.
Marcus Baltzell, director of communications for the Kansas National Education Association, said he fears Kansas lawmakers will use the study’s findings as a pretext to undermine state funding for public education.
“Somehow the Statehouse is talking about how teachers were supposed to be miracle workers and immune to these effects and students should not have any negative effects after the global pandemic. We think it’s a little ridiculous, of course,” Baltzell said.
Baltzell said leadership in the Legislature has worked for decades to take funding away from public schools. Baltzell said Kansas schools are struggling to recover from former Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget cuts in the wake of the pandemic and that education reform is needed.
Baltzell said standardized testing also isn’t necessarily the most accurate indicator of education in Kansas because there are several other factors to consider, such as students’ mental health, home life and public education resources.
He is concerned that Kansas lawmakers are focusing on restrictive policies for transgender students, banning books and closing schools in the pandemic era rather than creating policies to help school districts recover.
“What made it worse is that while this was going on, while the pandemic was going on, and certainly in the months after the pandemic, we have a majority leadership in the Kansas Legislature that instead of listening to educators and responding to what educators say the needs of their of students are, they’re focusing on an issue like trans athletes that really isn’t an issue in Kansas,” Baltzell said.