Achievement Gaps and the Lost COVID-19 Generation

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By: Michael D. Toth

Systemic academic gaps and an economic downturn may equal a bleak future for many students – but it does not have to be this way.


Long-Term Economic Impact Root Cause of the Gaps
8 Skills Teachers Urgently Need


How large is the disruption?

Research is emerging showing how dramatic the learning losses for children are and will likely continue to grow from continuing COVID-19 school closures – unless we do something to change it. School leaders can actively close these gaps now before they widen into chasms by supporting educators to develop eight virtual teaching skills that can make all the difference to close the learning gaps among students and accelerate online learning for all students.

Educators are on the front lines of what a recent U.N. report calls “the largest disruption to education in history.” Nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and all continents are affected (United Nations, 2020). After months of school closures, the potential for a “lost COVID-19 generation” of students is emerging.

Nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and all continents are affected.

Learners who have been marginalized severely impacted – and they’re not the only ones

Mother Helping Son Studying With Laptop On A Online Class At Home

Achievement gaps due to the extended school closures in spring 2020 and continuing into the fall will span all grades K-12 and affect all students. From the students who have been the most economically advantaged, to the students who have been the most marginalized and already had considerable barriers to their learning, every student will likely experience regression in academic learning and social-emotional development.

According to a study by the University of Southampton in the UK, it could take a full year for students from working poor and working class families to catch up. Even students from middle class and upper middle class families will need an estimated six months to recover lost learning (Pensiero et al., 2020). This was only taking into account the school closures for last spring. If virtual instruction continues unchanged and teachers don’t receive the support they need to develop new virtual teaching skills and accelerate student learning, the losses could become even more severe.

It could take a full year for students from working poor and working class families to catch up. Even students from middle class and upper middle class families will need an estimated six months to recover lost learning.

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The gaps could get even worse

McKinsey & Company report similarly stark and unequal impacts, predicting that a January 2021 mass re-opening of in-person school would mean 10.3 months of lost learning for Black students, 12.4 months lost for students from working poor and working class families, and an average of 6.8 months lost for all students (Dorn et al., 2020).

We are not facing just an achievement gap – an achievement chasm is opening up. And as the COVID-19 generation grows up, this chasm in academics will translate to adult skill gaps and lost wages unless educators mitigate this by accelerating learning and closing gaps now in virtual instruction.

What long-term economic impacts do students face?

The Royal Society’s Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics (DELVE) in the UK estimates that about a quarter of their workforce will have lower skills due to COVID-19 school closures. The study predicted that skill loss could translate to a reduction in students’ earning potential by about 3% a year if no action is taken (DELVE Initiative, 2020). And this is as of July 2020 – depending on how school re-openings proceed, the impact could be worse.

Lost learning could mean a lifetime of lost wages

McKinsey & Company’s statistical model for the U.S. also warns of the severe potential impacts of skill loss on students’ economic future. The numbers skewed more severe for students of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Average earnings could be reduced for Black students by $2,186 per year (3.3%), for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds by $1,642 per year (4%), and for white students by $1,348 per year (1.6%). Over a 40-year working life, students could lose $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings just from learning losses caused by COVID-19 school closures (Dorn et al., 2020). If schools remain closed past January 2021, the losses will continue to climb.

Over a 40-year working life, students could lose $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings just from learning losses caused by COVID-19 school closures.

The threat of a divergent economic crisis and recovery

Early evidence of disproportionate economic impacts from COVID-19 is already emerging. The Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research reported that 41% of black-owned businesses permanently closed between February and mid-April of this year. The number of white-owned businesses that closed in the same time period was 17% (Fairlie, 2020).

Some economists predict a “K-shaped” economic recovery on the horizon. Certain individuals and businesses will rebound and grow rapidly – following the upper part of the “K” – while others will follow the lower part of the “K,” plummeting into sharp decline (Thorbecke, 2020). This divergent recovery will perpetuate economic inequities and further aggravate an already existing class divide.

Lowered economic growth will impact the entire nation for years to come

New research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reveals a startling possibility. COVID-19-related learning losses could impact the U.S. economy for the remainder of the century.

After one-third of a year of school closures, the U.S. economy is estimated to lose $14.2 trillion over time. The estimated loss rises to $28 trillion if students continue experiencing learning loss for an additional two-thirds of a year.

The report warns, “Just returning schools to where they were in 2019 will not avoid such losses. Only making them better can” (Hanushek & Woessmann, 2020, p. 3).

How do we solve the root cause of academic gaps?

The most important school-based factor in student achievement is teacher quality (McCaffrey, et al., 2003). High-performing teachers deliver strong tier 1 core instruction. Strong core instruction is effective at getting all students to demonstrate evidences of achieving the lesson’s learning target by the end of the lesson – and doing this effectively for every lesson.

Strong core instruction matters. Researchers found that if a student had one poor-performing teacher, the student could experience negative effects on achievement that persisted through three years of high-performing teachers (Mendro, 1998).

High-quality virtual core instruction was likely nonexistent for some groups of students

Existing inequities in the quality of core instruction have carried over and worsened in the COVID-19 virtual learning environment. McKinsey & Company estimated the quality of remote instruction for K-12 students during the COVID-19 school closures and reported that 46% of Black students and 60% of students from working poor and working class families likely received low-quality instruction, respectively, and for both groups, 40% likely received no instruction at all.

In all three scenarios, students are at risk for significant learning loss ©McKinsey & Company

Exhibit from “Covid-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime”, June 2020, McKinsey & Company, Copyright (c) 2020 McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

Further, McKinsey & Company estimated that only 14% of Black students and 0% of students from working poor and working class families likely received high-quality remote instruction during the pandemic. The estimated overall average of all K-12 students who received high-quality remote instruction was a mere 32% (Dorn et al., 2020).

And students agree – in a recent survey, the majority of students reported that online learning isn’t working for them. 59% said online learning is worse or much worse compared to in-person instruction, according to a survey of 890 teens taken between August 20-27.

 In the graph above, McKinsey & Company projected how the quality of remote learning and the in-class reopening dates will affect the level of learning losses based on NWEA RIT scores (Dorn et al., 2020). Note the dips that represent the typical summer regressions, which are even more severe in remote learning environments. Even average-quality remote learning causes a learning slowdown throughout the year, whether schools open in-person this fall, next spring, or next fall. 

The impact of low-quality instruction is devastating. Note that low-quality instruction causes students to experience no growth from August to May – therefore losing another entire year of learning – and then they would hit another summer regression. If students receive no instruction (or disengage from remote instruction) their learning would fall into a sharp decline from which they may never be able to recover.

14% of Black students and 0% of students from working poor and working class families are estimated to have received high-quality remote instruction during the pandemic.

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It’s understandable that most teachers were flustered when they were thrown into the unfamiliar territory of distance learning, many without access to training to build the new skills and competencies they would need to provide high-quality virtual core instruction for students. But continuing distance learning and hoping that students will experience an achievement boost once schools reopen in person is not an option. Virtual instruction must improve dramatically – now.

Tough instructional questions educators grapple with as virtual instruction continues

Distance learning is not going away anytime soon.

Of 907 districts tracked by EdWeek, 49% of districts are currently using remote learning only and 27% are using a hybrid model as of September 23rd, 2020. This equates to 76% of districts engaged in remote or hybrid instruction, with only 24% offering full in-person instruction to all students (Education Week, 2020).

Even schools that are reopening in-person may have to shut down again as infection rates spike. For example, COVID-19 cases rose 26% for children in Florida as of mid-September, after in-person schools began to open (Rodriguez, 2020).

The CDC warns about a second wave as this could be “the worst fall, from a public health perspective, we’ve ever had” as COVID combines with the flu season (Karimi et al., 2020) and researchers from Houston Methodist Hospital found that a more contagious strain of the coronavirus now dominates cases (Beasley, 2020).

And as of mid-September, the CDC director and other vaccine experts estimate a vaccine won’t be available to the general public until February 2021 at the very earliest – but more likely, it will be closer to July or August 2021 (Thomas & Drucker, 2020).

As many schools prepare for several more months of distance learning, educators will be faced with further challenges.

Many are wondering:

      • How do I engage my students over long periods of distance learning?
      • What are effective routines for virtual classrooms?
      • How do I progress monitor learning during online instruction?
      • How do I set up effective student grouping tasks and routines online?
      • What do I do if students are struggling?
      • How do I keep students motivated?
      • What is effective pedagogy for distance learning?
8 skills teachers urgently need to strengthen virtual tier 1 core instruction

As teachers, students, and parents across the nation can attest, traditional classroom instruction does not translate well to distance learning. If teachers are not supported to “reskill” for distance learning (learn new skills to teach in a virtual environment), the achievement gaps will continue forming into achievement chasms unabated.

Which instructional skills will help teachers yield the best results in a virtual learning environment?

1. Facilitation of positive relationships with and among students in a remote environment
Students need positive relationships and connections now more than ever. Many have experienced trauma and stress due to COVID-19 and have not been able to connect with many people outside their family while in quarantine. They also lost the opportunities for the everyday social interactions they had in the classroom, cafeteria, and on the playground where they could naturally build bonds with their teachers and peers. In a virtual environment, teachers must have a new set of skills and strategies to intentionally connect with their students and foster bonds between students. Not only will positive relationships improve students’ social-emotional learning, but also their academic learning as they become more motivated and can more effectively participate in collaborative learning with their peers in virtual breakout rooms.
2. Development of virtual routines for students to access tech tools and resources:
Tech tools are essential for engaging students in a remote environment and giving them access to the resources they need to learn. But many teachers, students, and parents experienced frustration with unfamiliar tech tools during the pandemic. Even if the tools were not completely new, students may not have been accustomed to using the tools by themselves. Teachers can minimize frustration by developing logical systems and routines for students to use tech tools and access resources in an efficient way – and, most importantly, less instructional time will be wasted.
3. Creation of student roles for working in groups with self-management and student agency:
Students should be able to engage in meaningful collaborative work with their peers during virtual instruction – but they can’t simply be grouped into breakout rooms with the expectation that they will figure out how to work together. Teachers must be intentional about creating student roles that provide students with clear responsibilities and expectations so they can self-manage. When students have this clarity, they become empowered with agency over their own learning. Student agency is especially important in a virtual environment where students have to take on more responsibilities than they may have been accustomed to during in-person instruction. For example, students might need to manage their own time and watch lesson recordings before live virtual instruction. Not all students have parental or guardian supervision to help them stay on track. But when students know their peers are counting on them to come prepared and be able to fulfill their role, students are more likely to be motivated and engaged – as long as the teacher knows how to design roles effectively.
4. Ability to lesson plan by identifying standards and learning targets:
Even with in-person instruction, it is important that teachers plan lessons by identifying standards and corresponding learning targets. These learning targets can be used by students to understand if they’ve accomplished their learning and allow teachers to verify if students have mastered the full intent and rigor of the standard. In a virtual environment, the strengthening of this skill is even more important because lesson formats and cadences are changed. Teachers need to develop the ability to translate lessons to virtual without losing focus on the learning targets and standards. For example, a teacher might be used to a 45-minute instructional time slot in person, but they need to be able to effectively adapt and break apart the lesson for shorter virtual sessions while still ensuring students reach their learning targets.
5. Proficiency with a flipped model that involves less teacher talk and more active collaborative learning:
Teachers may find it much more difficult to engage students in a virtual learning environment than they did in-person. Even those with a dynamic lecture style and rapport in-person will find students less able to concentrate for long periods of content delivery in a remote environment. Also, time is more precious – teachers may have students in-person for several hours a day – but in a remote environment, they need to make the most of the limited amount of live virtual time they have together. Teachers can utilize a flipped model that involves “mini-lessons” and other pre-work and focus the live virtual instruction on active collaborative learning. Flipped lessons must be carefully engineered to set students up for rich learning in their breakout groups and teachers should be ready with strategies to intervene with students who were not able to complete the pre-work.
6. Expertise in rigorous, standards-aligned tasks that work in virtual, blended, and face to face settings:
Rigorous, standards-aligned tasks are a vital part of any type of instruction, but in virtual instruction they are even more important. Again, students are more likely to have difficulty concentrating and disengage when instruction is virtual. Tasks must be engaging and challenging enough for students to want to invest their effort and achieve their learning targets. It is imperative that all students have access to rigorous, standards-aligned work so they can begin to catch up and accelerate their learning. The time that teachers invest in developing these tasks will not be wasted when schools go to blended or fully in-person learning – if teachers develop expertise in designing adaptable lessons, the tasks will be ready for virtual, blended, or face to face lessons.
7. Development of structures to verify student learning and offer real-time micro-interventions:
In the classroom, teachers could verify student learning by circulating to check student work, pulling small groups or individuals, collecting papers, and other means. Teachers could jump in the moment they saw gaps forming and provide interventions. But virtual instruction makes those methods difficult, and many teachers are not sure how to be responsive to students in a remote environment. Teachers need new structures for verifying student learning and providing real-time micro-interventions in order to begin closing achievement gaps and preventing further gaps during virtual instruction.
8. Utilization of methods to gather student evidence and track progress:
Similarly, teachers need a new set of tools to gather student evidence and keep track of progress – and so far, these structures have been largely absent during the pandemic. With systems such as attendance, grading, and state assessments thrown into disarray for many districts during remote instruction, structures for gathering student evidence and tracking real-time learning progress are sorely needed. Teachers must be equipped with methods for determining whether their lessons are effective and achieving the intended results with students.

In addition to supporting teachers in developing these new skills, leaders must also be ready with tools and processes for monitoring the quality of virtual instruction and keeping track of student data. While leaders cannot visit physical classrooms to look for evidence, it is important that they do virtual visits and have virtual protocols for observations, coaching, and feedback to teachers.

Accelerate Achievement at Your School!

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Proactively close gaps now and prevent a COVID-19 lost generation

The only way to ensure we do not have a lost COVID-19 generation is for schools to get proactive now at strengthening virtual core instruction. An entire generation of students is counting on us to not only catch them up, but also to help them get ahead with the skills to succeed in an unstable economy.

The depth and number of new skills teachers must master in order to strengthen virtual core instruction may seem daunting. At our Applied Research Center, we responded to this urgent need by developing research-based professional development, live virtual expert coaching, and a virtual classroom walkthrough tool. Please get in touch with our experts to learn more about how we can partner with your school. 

COVID-19 equity gaps will only exacerbate the longer we wait to close them. Accelerating learning and closing gaps through strengthening virtual core instruction is the proactive way to close the COVID-19 chasm before it is too late for our students.

School leaders can actively close these gaps now before they widen into chasms by supporting educators to develop eight virtual teaching skills that can make all the difference to close the learning gaps among students and accelerate learning online for all students.

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KEY ROLES: Senior Director, IE Model of Instruction, Education Consultant, Curriculum Specialist, Teacher



Beasley, D. (2020, September 23). Houston study: More contagious coronavirus strain now dominates. Reuters.

Basileo, L.D., and Lyons, M.E. (2019). The research base supporting the Rigor Diagnostic observation instrument. Instructional Empowerment, West Palm Beach.

DELVE Initiative (2020), Balancing the Risks of Pupils Returning to Schools. DELVE Report No. 4. Published 24 July 2020.

Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., and Viruleg, E. (2020, June 1). COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey & Company.

Education Week. (2020, July 15) School Districts’ Reopening Plans: A Snapshot. Retrieved September 23, 2020 from

Fairlie, R. (2020, May 23) The impact of COVID-19 on small business owners: Evidence of early-stage losses from the April 2020 current population survey. Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

Hanushek, E. and Woessmann, L. (September, 2020). The Economic Impacts of Learning Losses. OECD.

Karimi, F., Almasy, S., and Andone, D. (2020, August 14). Rushing reopening could have devastating consequences, Dr. Fauci says. CNN.

McCaffrey, D. F.., Lockwood, J. R., Koretz, D. M., & Hamilton, L. S. (2003). Evaluating value-added models for teacher accountability. RAND Corporation.

Mendro, R. L. (1998). Student achievement and school and teacher accountability. Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education, 12, 257–267.

Pensiero, N., Kelly, A., and Bokhove, C. (2020, July 23) Covid-19 lockdown primary-secondary education impact. University of Southampton.

Rodriguez, E. (2020, September 15). Florida’s Largest Teachers Union Pressing Gov. Ron DeSantis To Release Schools COVID Data. CBS Miami.

SurveyMonkey (2020). Common Sense Media|SurveyMonkey poll: COVID and the return to school.

Thomas, K., and Drucker, . (2020, September 17). When Will You Be Able to Get a Coronavirus Vaccine? The New York Times.

Thorbecke, C. (2020, July 16). As COVID-19 financial crisis wages on, some economists warn of a divergent ‘K-shaped’ economic recovery. ABC News.

United Nations (2020). Policy brief: Education during COVID-19 and beyond. United Nations.

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