There are plenty of reasons why Americans should be alarmed by 2022’s dismal National Assessment of Educational Progress report. In nearly every state and across all demographic and ethnic divides, fundamental skills like math and reading are on the decline. Only 26 percent of all eighth-grade students achieved proficiency in math this year, down from 34 percent in 2019. Just 31 percent of eighth graders were proficient in reading, which is down to levels America hasn’t seen since 1992. Students are struggling to comprehend what they read. They cannot register the basic contours of geometric shapes or perform basic conversions. Experts fear this learning loss has produced a generation of young people unprepared to navigate the world outside the classroom.
This is, according to Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, “a jarring reminder of the pandemic’s impact on academic achievement.” But the consequences of these policies won’t be felt until this ill-served generation descends on the American workforce. In the meantime, apparently, there are more urgent concerns to worry about. The New York Times has identified a more acute menace in the NAEP’s findings: the ammunition it gives to Republican critics of the Democratic Party’s Covid mitigation measures.
“The test results could be seized as political fodder—just before the midterms—to re-litigate the debate over how long schools should have stayed closed, an issue that galvanized many parents and teachers,” the Times warns. The risk that Republicans could pounce, seize, capture, appropriate, or commandeer America’s students’ abysmal test scores is somehow more alarming than the scores themselves.
There is already a rear-guard action underway among educational professionals to prevent observers from drawing any unwanted conclusions. “There is nothing in this data that allows us to draw a straight line from remote learning to student performance,” said National Center for Education Statistics Chair Dr. Peggy Carr. “There is no straight line like people want to draw.” There is, in fact, a very straight line—one drawn by another critic of overly broad conclusions about the pandemic’s effect on educational outcomes, Harvard University professor Martin West.
As shown above, West concedes that there is a substantial gap between how eighth-grade math students performed in red states (they lost “7.2 NAEP scale score points”) vs. blue states (an 8.8-point loss). He further notes that the “clustering of red states at the left of the figure confirms that states that went for Trump were, in fact, more aggressive in reopening schools for in-person instruction.” But the effect is not uniform across the board, and “NAEP data are not well suited to parsing out the relative effectiveness of different modes of learning.”
Fair enough, but one “mode of learning” we can safely judge to be suboptimal is remote learning. If this disappointing report doesn’t feel like a bombshell, it’s only because Americans saw it coming from a mile off.
Study after study of the impact remote and hybridized learning had on the performance of primary- and secondary-school students has found that they contribute to underperformance across the board. “But really,” National Public Radio said of no fewer than six such studies, “this should surprise no one.” True enough. But the only reason this is conventional wisdom now is that critics of school closures were incessant about it. They would not be shouted down or emotionally blackmailed into keeping their concerns about their children’s welfare to themselves.
As early as the summer of 2020, poll after poll showed that parents with school-aged children were panicked. Their kids’ academic performance was suffering, and their mental health was deteriorating. Few failed to notice the brewing backlash. Accordingly, left-leaning municipalities from San Francisco to Chicago to New York City committed to a phased return to in-person schooling before the winter. But teachers’ unions and school administrators intervened.
A poll of educators that summer showed that fully two-thirds preferred to keep schools closed indefinitely. One-in-five teachers told USA Today/Ipsos pollsters they’d rather quit than put their health at risk, and nearly eight-in-ten teachers told NPR/Ipsos they were unconcerned about their absence from students’ lives relative to the risk posed by Covid in the classroom. They won the argument, and most American schools stayed dark.
Nothing so comprehensively explains the backlash Democrats faced at the polls in November 2021’s off-year elections than a reaction to the experimental social policies that were implemented under the cover provided by the pandemic. Educational policies were only one group of these, but they were arguably the most salient. Post-mortem verdicts on races that produced a Republican governor in bluish Virginia and almost unseated a Democratic governor in dark blue New Jersey attributed the GOP’s strength to its opposition to school closures and impediments to learning such as mask mandates. Still, parents were admonished for daring to think, much less say, that Covid protocols were the problem.
Even by the time most schools were again open to students, too many districts clung to crippling mitigation measures such as social distancing and masking. Once again, those who objected to these talismanic initiatives on substantive grounds were dismissed or chided for their indifference to the health of their more “vulnerable” neighbors. “My daughter had a meltdown about having to put sneakers on to go to kindergarten. She got used to wearing sneakers in school,” said New York Gov Kathy Hochul of mask mandate critics. “They adapt better than adults do.” If the polls are accurate, Hochul is facing the fight of her political life just to preserve Democrats’ hold on the governorship in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by two-to-one.
The New York Times coaches its readers into concluding that the problem isn’t school closures but—always and forever—the distinct-funding deficit with which American schools are saddled. While the U.S. “made its single largest investment in American schools” in 2021, at least one study found that $123 billion was “insufficient to address student learning loss.” But the Times concedes that “districts were given wide latitude” regarding how they spent Covid relief funds, even those earmarked for educational purposes. Indeed, some of those funds found their way into the pockets of DEI consultants tasked with implementing “implicit bias” and “anti-racism” training protocols. As one Department of Education document insisted, America needed to undergo a “culture shift” if it was to “reopen equitably for all students.”
If all this did not serve as “political fodder” for those who insist on the need to “re-litigate” the policies that brought low America’s students, it would be a national embarrassment. America’s pandemic experience must be re-litigated if only so it will never again be repeated. And if the GOP is the only party inclined toward self-critical retrospection on this issue, Republicans will deserve all the credit due to the party of competent, capable government. If Democrats cede that mantel to the GOP, they deserve what’s coming to them.