Education , Economy

COVID learning loss impacting Oklahoma students, economy

Ray Carter | January 11, 2024

Although Oklahoma did not impose COVID shutdown of public schools to the same degree as many other states, the resulting learning loss is nonetheless expected to negatively impact Oklahoma’s state GDP throughout the 21st century more than all but one other state, according to a recent report.

That finding has the attention of policymakers and was a major focus of a recent legislative hearing on the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s budget request for public schools.

The impact of COVID was worse for students in Oklahoma because the state ranked poorly on academic outcomes prior to the pandemic.

“Our education system, we continue to have outcomes in the bottom of the country,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters told lawmakers. “And so you exacerbate that with COVID and some of our larger districts remaining shut down for nearly a year, well, you add those two things together and yes, we’ve got students that are far behind.”

The report, “The Economic Cost of the Pandemic,” by Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, was published in 2023.

Hanushek estimated that COVID learning loss will result in a nearly 9-percent lifetime income loss for Oklahoma students impacted by COVID closures, tied for the greatest impact in the nation. That will translate into a loss of nearly $200 billion in the state throughout the current century as today’s students become adults and enter the workforce and produce an average GDP loss of nearly 3 percent for Oklahoma throughout the 21st century (tied for the largest percentage loss among all states).

“Without action, not only will individuals in the COVID cohort of students suffer long-term income losses, but also the individual states will see shrunken economic activity,” Hanushek wrote.

While the average learning loss for Oklahoma is bad, the report noted averages can mask the severity of learning loss for many individual students.

“These average losses do obscure the large variation in losses to individuals,” Hanushek wrote. “The existing data points to significantly larger impacts on disadvantaged students who tended to fare worse during the pandemic. The exact magnitude of this differential is, however, not known.”

The negative economic impact of student learning loss has not been felt in states yet because the children affected by pandemic closures remain in school and are not part of the adult workforce. However, that will begin to change this year. Children who were in eighth grade in the spring of 2020, the first impacted by COVID shutdowns, are now high-school seniors scheduled to graduate in May.

Lawmakers have already taken steps in recent years to address the learning loss of children impacted by COVID shutdowns, including the launch of a statewide school-choice program that provides families the option to send a child to private school, as well as increased state funding for public schools that has surged by nearly $1 billion since the 2020 budget year.

“Without action, not only will individuals in the COVID cohort of students suffer long-term income losses, but also the individual states will see shrunken economic activity.” —Eric A. Hanushek, Hoover Institution

Walters’ budget request includes funding for a program to pay teachers up to $50 an hour to tutor students who are currently far behind, due in part to COVID shutdowns, to bring those students up to grade level.

Not all lawmakers appeared concerned about the issue, however.

“Why are we looking at trying to make Oklahoma effectively Lake Wobegon by having everybody above average?” asked state Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City.

“Representative, you’re asking me why we have high expectations on students?” Walters responded.

“No. I’m asking why you’re expecting everybody to be better than a C student?” Fugate said.

“I believe every kid can learn,” Walters responded. “I believe every kid can read. I firmly believe that. When you look at this and over 70 percent (of Oklahoma students) are below proficient, I reject it. I mean we’re falling, again, in the categories of 47th in math, 47th in reading. I think we should absolutely be top 10 in these areas.”

Walters acknowledged that not every student will achieve proficiency but said the state’s overall proficiency rate can be improved without expecting perfection from every single student.

Academic outcomes in Oklahoma lagged well behind national norms prior to COVID, and the pandemic shutdowns meant the state is now digging out of an even deeper hole.

“We had plenty of issues before COVID hit,” said state Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid. “I think the data pretty well bears that out. Those issues were exacerbated through COVID.”

On 2022 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests, often referred to as the nation’s report card since students in all 50 states take the test, 76 percent of Oklahoma fourth graders tested below proficiency in reading and 73 percent were below proficiency in math.

Walters noted that Oklahoma state tests have produced similar findings.

“That’s where we are,” Walters said. “But I do see the ability for us to change that trajectory, and that’s what excites me.”

By the end of the budget hearing, Fugate appeared to walk back his earlier comments.

“I fully support what you’re trying to do on that, trying to get the kids above 50 percent on basic,” Fugate told Walters, “because I think that’s the right objective for where we are today.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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