Back to top

How to Reverse Pandemic-Related Learning Losses


Published February 22, 2023

Dealing with the profound learning losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic starts with teachers. Unfortunately, improving individual teacher performance remains quite challenging. A more potent solution is to keep and reward the most effective teachers while getting rid of the least effective ones.

Discussion Questions:

  1. If Hanushek’s teacher effectiveness solution would help students recover from pandemic-related learning losses, would it also improve the education of later students?
  2. With the successes in the teacher effectiveness studies, why is there still such resistance to removing bad teachers and rewarding good ones?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “Finding the Best Teachers for Post-Pandemic Schools,” by Eric Hanushek via the Wall Street Journal. Available here.
  • Watch “Are Declining Test Scores Coming for the COVID Generation?” with Michael Petrilli. Available here.
  • Watch “Overhauling the Nation’s Report Card,” with Chester E. Finn, Jr. Available here.
View Transcript

By far the largest economic costs of the Covid-19 pandemic in the U.S. will come from shortfalls in student learning from school closures and the general disruption of normal schooling. 

The best estimates place learning losses at the equivalent of a year or more of schooling. For the average student, their total lifetime earnings will fall by 6% to 9%. For disadvantaged students, the effects will be even larger.

Schools are now struggling to restore the schools we had in March 2020. But the learning losses will be permanent if we just return to those levels.  Offsetting the pandemic requires improving the schools.   

Over the years, researchers have found extraordinarily consistent results about the relationship between teacher effectiveness and student achievement. A study that I conducted in the public schools of Gary, Indiana in the early 1990s found that the best teachers provided a year and a half of academic growth for students each school year, while the least effective only provided half a year’s learning. Other researchers have reached similar conclusions in Los Angeles, New York, Tennessee, Texas and elsewhere. These studies adjusted for student backgrounds and student achievement level.

How, then, to deal with the profound learning losses that have occurred during the pandemic? Unfortunately improving individual teacher performance remains quite challenging. A more potent solution is to keep and reward the most effective teachers while getting rid of the least effective ones.

This prescription is energetically resisted by the teachers’ unions, who argue that such policies promote favoritism, drive out teachers even as we face shortages and distract from the need to improve salaries and benefits across the board. But reforms focused on teacher effectiveness have been implemented in several places, and the results show a clear path to improving schools.

In 2009, the school chancellor and mayor in Washington, D.C. were able to implement a system called IMPACT that evaluated the district’s teachers. Based on these assessments, the most effective teachers were highly rewarded with annual bonuses and increases in base salaries of up to $25,000. The least effective were asked to leave.

In the first three years of IMPACT, almost 4% of teachers were dismissed for poor performance and an even larger percentage, under threat of dismissal, voluntarily left. At the same time, the retention rates for the most effective teachers increased significantly. Since the introduction of IMPACT more than a decade ago, the test scores of Washington students (on the National Assessment of Education Progress) have risen faster and more consistently than those in any other large city district with significant disadvantaged populations.

Another instructive case is the Dallas Independent School District, where the former superintendent implemented a new evaluation and pay system for teachers and principals starting in 2014. 

A key part of the Dallas system is to send the best teachers where they’re most needed. In 2016, teachers at the top three rating levels got bonuses of eight to twelve thousand dollars to move to schools with the lowest student performance, and then stay there. Within three years, those schools got closer to the Dallas average, and student performance in Dallas as a whole improved relative to other large Texas districts.

Reforms focused on teacher effectiveness may stand a better chance today than before the pandemic. Educators and public officials understand the urgency of improvement if we are not going to abandon the Covid cohort of students. The past few years also have given parents a closer look at the instruction that their children receive, and many have come away disappointed and determined to push for change.

To rescue today’s Covid cohort of students, there’s no need to wait for further retirements or a new crop of entry-level teachers. A focus on more effective teachers could be implemented quickly by providing salary incentives to effective teachers to take on more students. Buying out the contracts of ineffective teachers would move schools in the same direction. In the longer run, providing incentives for effective teachers will attract and retain more of them.

The window for addressing the profound learning deficit created by the pandemic will close before long. That would leave millions of students at a lifelong disadvantage, unless we can give them access to the most capable teachers.