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A frustrated student signals for help after experiencing learning loss.

“Welcome to the Lake Wobegon school system, where all the schools are well funded, all the teachers are smiling, and all the children are above average.”

A paraphrasing of a quote by Garrison Kiellor

Learning Loss: Parental Optimism vs. Reality

Parents have become a lot more optimistic about how well their children are doing in school according to Tom Kane, professor of education and economics at Harvard, and Sean Reardon professor of education and sociology at Stanford. A recent Pew survey found that only a quarter of parents thought their children were still behind.  Another study showed that more than 90 percent thought that their child had already or would soon catch up. Unfortunately, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  In a New York Times opinion article on May 14, 2023, Professors Kane and Reardon reported a study indicating that significant leaning loss took place during the pandemic, and that prospects for students catching up are bleak.

“Math, reading, and history scores from the past three years showed that students learned far less than before the pandemic than was typical in prior years. The average student fell behind a half year in math and a third of a year behind in reading.”

Kane & Reardon

Drilling into the data from 7,800 school districts in 41 states, the pandemic exacerbated economic and racial inequality among school districts.

Surprisingly, while the impact of the pandemic on learning was quite different across communities, the effects within communities were similar.  Within a school district, learning loss rates were similar regardless of family income or ethnicity. That is, you might expect that more affluent students would be better protected from learning loss than lower income students, but that wasn’t the case. Overall, for students it mattered a lot more which school district you were in than how much your parents made.

Will Students Catch Up?

The research about recovery from learning loss is not encouraging.

According to Kane and Reardon, “When students fall behind, they don’t just catch up naturally. Reviewing data from the decade preceding the pandemic, we identified numerous instances where a school district’s test scores suddenly declined or suddenly rose within a particular grade….. Students resumed leaning at their prior pace, but they did not make up the ground they lost or lose the ground they gained. Years later, the affected cohorts remained behind or ahead.”

Keep in mind the data was from a pre-pandemic period where the impact would seemingly be less dramatic and widespread than during the pandemic.

Mark Nowacki at the 2023 London Chess ConferenceAt the London Chess Conference in March 2023, Dr. Mark Nowacki, Head of Research for the FIDE EDU Workgroup delivered an even more somber assessment, citing evidence from what happens after a natural disaster closes schools. A research study by Oxford/RISE, found that 90 percent of leaning loss occurred after schools had re-opened!

The problem of learning loss goes beyond students simply missing out on learning content. Numerous reports site dissolution of student study and learning habits as problems. Teachers report that upon their return to school, many students have lost focus and interest. Schools are dealing with a serious uptick in mental health and behavioral problems. Some of this is from being detached from the routines of school and learning; some is from social/emotional damage from pandemic disconnections. It is safe to conclude that students’ capacity for self-learning has suffered as a result, and needs revitalization.


For Kane and Reardon, added instruction time is a necessary but limited solution.

  • “For those districts that lost more than a year’s worth of learning, state leaders should require districts to resubmit their plans for spending the federal money and work with them and community leaders to add instructional time.”
  • “Communities must find other ways to add learning opportunities outside the schools calendar.”

State and school district leaders face critical strategic choices about how to address learning loss. It begins with everyone, that is parents and politicians as well as educators recognizing that the problem is not over.

The next step involves prioritizing alternative remedies for their student bodies. That is, is should the focus be on making up missed content, triaging social emotional learning damage, building the capacity for independent learning, or some blend of remedies?

The Role of Chess in Education in Remedying Learning Loss

Chess in Education (CIE) solutions can be powerful (and fun) complements to summer make-up programs focused on math and reading. If educators accept that it is magical thinking to believe that such remedial programs alone can somehow make up the learning loss gap, then a better strategy would be to motivate students to be self-learners. For many students, chess is both antidote to bad learning habits, and a positive motivation to thinking, problem-solving, and active learning.

<More on how CIE addresses learning loss>


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