Learning Loss and Urban Schools

Did urban students lose ground academically because of COVID? Yes, but no more so than suburbanites.

3 minute read

February 1, 2023, 8:00 AM PST

By Michael Lewyn @mlewyn

View from behind young girl student wearing headphones and raising her hand as she attends online class with dark-haired female teacher on laptop in front of her

Hananeko_Studio / Online learning

In 2020-21, most American schools went online in response to the COVID-19 virus. The conventional wisdom seems to be that online education was a disaster, with younger students allegedly suffering massive learning losses. Some commentators sought to use this learning loss as a political weapon, claiming that learning loss was a policy failure inflicted by Democrats and/or teachers' unions and/or city governments on the urban poor. (For example, see this Twitter thread.)

Last year, the Department of Education issued scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests—not just for the nation as a whole, but for individual school districts. The complaints about “learning loss” certainly have some basis. Average reading scores for 9-year-olds declined by 5 points (from 220 to 215) over the past few years, and mathematics scores declined by 7 points (from 241 to 234).*  

However, this learning loss was not concentrated among urban schools. In fact, the gap between city and suburban schools stayed about the same: reading scores went down by 2 points in cities and by 4 points in suburbs, and math scores went down by 5 points in both cities and suburbs.   

The federal report card also includes test scores for 21 urban school districts.** In four districts (Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami and Austin) reading scores either stayed the same or improved slightly between 2019 and 2022. In the most densely populated urban school districts, reading scores declined, but to a lesser extent than in most American schools: for example, reading scores declined by 1 point in New York City and Washington, 2 points in Philadelphia, and 3 points in Chicago and Boston. On the other hand, reading scores did nosedive in a few districts, mostly in the Rust Belt and South. The Education Department treats any decline of over 6 points as significant. Average score declines exceeded this amount in Detroit, Jacksonville, Baltimore, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Cleveland. (I note that only in Cleveland did reading scores decline by more than 10 points between 2019 and 2022).

Urban children, like suburban ones, struggled with mathematics to a greater extent than reading. In no urban district did results improve between 2019 and 2022, and in the most densely populated urban districts (Boston, New York, and Philadelphia) math scores declined by 7-9 points, roughly comparable to the national 7-point average. In Chicago and Washington, math scores declined by a little more (10 and 11 points respectively). The largest declines were in the Rust Belt and South: math scores in Detroit, Charlotte, Cleveland and Baltimore declined by between 12 and 15 points.  

In sum, it appears that as a general matter, urban and suburban children struggled about equally with post-COVID learning losses. Generally, test scores in larger urban districts seem to have declined by a bit less than in suburban America in reading, and by a bit more in mathematics.

*Although the NAEP report contains data for eighth-graders as well, I am focusing on fourth-graders because a) I think it is reasonable to assume that online education is more difficult for younger students and b) I do not want this post to be of Biblical length.

** There doesn’t seem to have been a strong racial gap in learning loss: reading scores for blacks, whites and Hispanics all declined by 3-5 points. Similarly, scores for charter schools, traditional public schools and Catholic schools all declined by 2-4 points. There also doesn’t seem to be a strong partisan difference either: both the five states where reading scores rose or declined the least (Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Hawaii, and South Carolina) and the five states with the largest declines (West Virginia, Oklahoma, Maine, Delaware, Virginia) have a mix of Democratic and Republican governors. 

***In addition, the NAEP’s list of urban districts include five counties that are heavily but not entirely urban (Clark in Nevada, Guilford in North Carolina, Shelby in Tennessee, Hillsborough in Florida, and Jefferson in Kentucky).

Michael Lewyn

Michael Lewyn is an associate professor at Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, in Long Island. His scholarship can be found at http://works.bepress.com/lewyn.

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