Learning time lost during the height of the pandemic could cost Massachusetts students more than $21 billion in future earnings, according to a new pair of analyses from education researchers at Harvard and Stanford.
The analyses show that on average, Massachusetts students lost 75 percent of a school year’s worth of math learning and 41 percent of a year of reading. Boston Public Schools students fared slightly worse, losing 85 percent of a school year in math and 41 percent in reading.
Without major intervention, that decline in math achievement would mean a 1.6 percent decrease in the lifetime earnings of current Massachusetts students — or about $23,840 per student, according to a state-level analysis performed for the Globe. Collectively, students across the United States could lose nearly $1 trillion in future earnings.
The results underscore the urgency of helping students catch up, said Thomas Kane, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who is one of the studies’ co-authors.
“The school buses were stuck on the freeway in a traffic jam during 2021,” Kane said, by way of analogy. “Now, it’s great that they’re running again. They’re running again at about the same pace that they were running before the pandemic. But there’s a lot of lost ground to make up.”
The researchers used state-level data from the recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, to put state tests’ results from 2019 and 2022 in dozens of states on a consistent scale — and to measure the progress of students in individual districts.
Reading achievement suffered less, but results on the state standardized tests, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, showed performance on reading was still falling in 2022 — while it had begun to recover in math, relative to the trough in 2021.
With higher-poverty districts showing the most lost learning, the pandemic’s effects, if not remedied, are likely to widen income inequality and generally have worse consequences for high-needs students, Kane said.
“There’s been a big increase in inequity,” Kane said “Weren’t [high-income students] already ahead? Yes, they were, but the point is, they’re even more ahead than before.”
If each day’s worth of learning recovery costs as much as a day of instruction, the state’s billions in federal relief funds are not enough, on their own, for a total recovery, the researchers found. Individual districts must fully spend that money, plus billions more, to reverse course.
At Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston, leaders have overhauled its curriculum and now teach phonics-based reading explicitly past third grade for the first time. Pre-pandemic, third-grade students mostly didn’t need explicit phonics instruction, Principal Kristen Goncalves Redden said.
Goncalves Redden also tapped into federal relief funds to add a math interventionist and an inclusion specialist, who leads the school’s team that supports students with disabilities and students with academic or social struggles. She also added a new reading teacher working with the school’s English learners, and expanded the school’s team-teaching model from K-2 to the entire school, both changes aimed at getting students more much-needed small-group and one-on-one time with teachers.
At the school Thursday morning, parents of second-graders met with teachers to set learning goals for their kids. The school makes sure that parents are aware that kids are behind — national polls indicate most parents don’t realize their children are behind — and that the parents are able to help their kids catch up. In a third-grade classroom, a two-member teaching team split up students for small-group reading, then the class gathered to decode consonant combinations as a group, some drawing on their one-on-one time with the reading specialist.
“Every child definitely has some form of loss, whether it’s academic, social, or both,” Goncalves Redden said. “Now we’re building momentum. It feels better.”
In Salem, Superintendent Steven Zrike said his students on average are behind a half year to a full year.
Salem schools are offering intensive tutoring to hundreds of students, using federal relief funds to keep class sizes small and implementing new curriculums, among other measures, Zrike said.
“We have a moral imperative and responsibility to support young people, not just in their academics,” Zrike said. “That’s critical, but [so is] their ability to engage and enjoy their childhoods.”
The losses vary widely from district to district and state to state. Districts with more low-income students tended to have greater losses than richer districts; in Massachusetts, a handful of higher-poverty districts like Lynn and Holyoke lost more than a year of math learning, while wealthier towns like Andover and Lexington lost less than half a year.
The researchers also found a relationship between time spent in remote learning and lost math achievement, with states where students missed more in-person school showing greater declines. But remote learning time, for which available data is incomplete, only explained a portion of the variation. There were notable outliers, like California, which had the highest average closure rates but smaller losses in math than most other states.
Researchers will have to examine other variables like access to broadband, COVID-19 rates, and local economic conditions, Kane said.
“None of these things were about schools,” he noted.
But education research shows that even if schools are not at fault for the declines in test scores, it’s worthwhile for schools to invest in recovery, Kane said.
That research uses progress on the NAEP over the last 30 years, which was much more dramatic in some states — including Massachusetts — than others, to estimate the impact of achievement on life outcomes, including lifetime earnings, incarceration rates, and teen parentage rates.
The analysis also sheds light on the progress Massachusetts students had made on the NAEP over the 27 years prior to the pandemic — around two grade levels’ worth of gains in math, or $65 billion in future earnings.
Massachusetts education leaders have said the learning recovery could take as much as five years.
“Underlying these test scores are concrete skills,” Kane said. “You can’t just skip calculus if you want to be an engineer. You can’t just skip math if you want to be a carpenter. You can’t just skip writing if you want to have almost any professional job.”