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The missing piece: Where is 'education' in the national conversation?

The staggering impact of COVID-19 on American lives and the economy was understandably the central issue in the first presidential debate[1] and the vice presidential debate[2]. But somehow, critical questions around education were absent in both debates[3]. In fact, according to transcripts of both debates, the candidates used the word "school" fifteen times, but not always to describe K-12 education. The word "education" itself was stated just three times.

Clearly, this[4] is a school year[5] like no other. A recent Education Week analysis[6] found that 74 percent of the 100 largest school districts in the United States opted exclusively for remote learning, dramatically impacting the education of over 9 million students. At the same time, increasing our nation's educational achievement is a persistent challenge. The 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) revealed that American students performed[7] above average in reading, ranking[8] 13th just behind Sweden and New Zealand, but below average in math. In math, we ranked 37th and fell behind[8] Spain, Lithuania, and Hungary. American students' average performance in both subjects has remained flat for approximately two decades[7].

Our nation's lingering educational woes need to be addressed if we are going to lead the next generation in workforce productivity and entrepreneurship. These challenges are now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers, administrators, and families have made a herculean effort to engage students broadly in online learning that is not optimal[9]. Even before the pandemic, cyber charter schools with sufficient infrastructure fell short of meeting high standards for student outcomes. A recent study[10] from Indiana indicated[11] that students in grades three through eight experienced significant, long-term declines in their math and English/language arts skills after shifting from a traditional public school to a cyber charter school when compared to their former public school peers, who were matched in terms of race/ethnicity, sex, socioeconomic status, and academic achievement. These findings build on prior evidence from Ohio[12], Pennsylvania[13], and across the United States[14].

These challenges of under-resourced schools[15], especially in urban areas, and attempts at online learning are heightened by the continuing digital divide[16].

The result of the COVID-19 crisis is that students are projected[17] to have fallen behind by a third of a year in reading and up to two-thirds of a year in math by this fall 2020. However, these losses are unlikely to be universal, and the top third of students may make gains in reading.

What impact does this have for our country? McKinsey and Company addressed this question in a recent study[18] that estimates the impact on American business. Assuming that regular, in-person instruction does not resume until January 2021, the average American K-12 student may lose $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings due to educational disruptions faced during COVID-19. These financial losses will likely be greater for Black and Latinx students. Losses across all K-12 students are estimated at $110 billion in annual earnings with $98.8 billion attributable to COVID-19 learning losses and the remaining $11.2 billion from the associated increased likelihood of students dropping out of high school.

The challenges faced by our current education system and magnified by the COVID-19 crisis put America behind and leave us with little capacity to lead in the future. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education's A Nation at Risk[19] cautioned "Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world....Others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments." This language is dramatic and does not apply to all students and educators[20], but the data from four decades ago aptly fits today[8] and demands our attention amid the ongoing crises faced by our nation. It is imperative that discussion about education enter the national conversation.

As first appeared in EDUCATION PLUS DEVELOPMENT of the Brookings Institution as The missing piece: Where is 'education' in the national conversation? on October 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission from the authors.

  5. Goldstein, D., What Back to School Might Look Like in the Age of Covid-19. The New York Times, July 29, 2020.
  6. School Districts' Reopening Plans: A Snapshot. Education Week, October 16, 2020.
  7. OECD, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Results from PISA 2018.
  8. Schleicher, A., PISA 2018 Insights and Interpretations. OECD.
  9. Barnum, M., With most U.S. students still learning online, parents say they want better virtual instruction. Chalkbeat, October 8, 2020.
  10. Fitzpatrick, B. R., Berends, M., Ferrare, J. J., & Waddington, R. J. (2020). Virtual Illusion: Comparing Student Achievement and Teacher and Classroom Characteristics in Online and Brick-and-Mortar Charter Schools. Educational Researcher, 49(3), 161-175.
  11. Fitzpatrick, B., Berends, M., Ferrare, J.J., and Waddington, RJ. Brown Center Chalkboard, June 2, 2020. Brookings Institute.
  12. Ahn, J., & McEachin, A. (2017). Student Enrollment Patterns and Achievement in Ohio's Online Charter Schools. Educational Researcher, 46(1), 44-57.
  13. Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Charter School Performance in Pennsylvania 2019. Stanford University.
  14. Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Online Charter School Study 2015. Stanford University.
  15. Raikes, J., Darling-Hammond, L. Why Our Education Funding Systems Are Derailing the American Dream. February 18, 2019.
  16. Stelitano, L., Doan, S., Woo, A., Diliberti, M., Kaufman, J.H., and Henry< D., The Digital Divide and COVID-19: Teachers' Perceptions of Inequities in Students' Internet Access and Participation in Remote Learning. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License, 2020.
  17. Kuhfeld, M., Soland, J., Tarasawa, B., Johnson, A., Ruzek, E., Liu, J., Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. (EdWorkingPaper: 20-226;2020). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University:
  18. Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., and Viruleg, E., COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey & Company.
  19. National Commission on Excellence. A Nation at Risk. April 1983.
elias_blinkoff.jpg Elias Blinkoff
Elias is a third-year graduate student studying developmental psychology at Temple University under the mentorship of Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. He is currently pursuing research at the intersection of developmental psychology and education with interests in the connections between the science of learning and classroom instruction, and classroom language development and literacy interventions. Elias works on “The 6 Cs Go to School” project, which brings a 21st century skills-based approach to learning into elementary school classrooms through close collaboration with educational administrators and teachers. His newest area of “6 Cs” research explores how the same skills are used in higher education. Additionally, Elias investigates the use of inquiry to support preschool students’ vocabulary development. He received his B.A. in Psychology and Educational Studies from Swarthmore College in 2017.

helen_shwe_hadani.jpg Helen Shwe Hadani
An expert in early childhood and creativity development, Dr. Hadani designs and evaluates products and environments that promote children’s curiosity and love of learning. As a fellow at the Brookings Institution, she leads the Playful Learning Landscapes project—an initiative that brings together the fields of developmental science and placemaking with the goal of improving child and community outcomes.
Prior to joining the Brookings Institution, Helen spent 20 years in research and education settings applying her knowledge of early childhood development to creating innovative learning experiences for children and families. She served as the director of research at the Bay Area Discovery Museum where she guided program and exhibit development and authored parent- and teacher-facing publications on creative thinking and child development. As part of and prior to that role, Helen consulted for toy, technology, and media companies, including The Walt Disney Company, Sesame Workshop, Apple, LEGO, Hasbro, Fisher-Price, and Mattel.

Helen holds a Bachelor of Arts in Cognitive Science from the University of Rochester and a Doctorate in Psychology from Stanford University. She currently serves on advisory boards for the LEGO Foundation and Goddard Schools.

Hirsh-pasek.jpg Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek
She is the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Faculty Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Temple University and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her research examines the development of early language and literacy as well as the role of play in learning. With her long-term collaborator, Roberta Golinkoff, she is author of 14 books and hundreds of publications. She is the recipient of the AERA Outstanding Public Communication for Education Research Award, the American Psychological Association’s Bronfenbrenner Award, the Ameican Psychological Association's Award for Distinguished Service to Psychological Science, the American Psychological Society’s James McKeen Cattell Award, the Society for Research in Child Development Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Child Development Award, and the APA Distinguished Lecturer Award and is a fellow of the Cognitive Science Society. She is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society, is the past President of the International Society for Infant Studies and served as the Associate Editor of Child Development.

She is on the Steering Committee of the Latin American School for Education, Cognitive Neural Science as well as on the advisory board for Vroom, the Boston Children's Museum, Disney Junior, The Free to Be Initiative and Jumpstart. Her book, Einstein never used Flashcards: How children really learn and why they need to play more and memorize less, (Rodale Books) won the prestigious Books for Beter Life Award as the best psychology book in 2003. Her recent book, Becoming Brilliant: What the science tells us about raising successful children, released in 2016 was on the NY Times Best Seller List in Education and Parenting. Kathy received her bachelor's degree from the University of Pittsburgh and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and is a frequent spokesperson for her field appearing in the NY Times, NPR and in international television outlets.