Students who are falling behind in school – in particular, those who are at below grade level – are at greater risk of dropping out of high school. This can have detrimental lifelong impacts, as well as negative economic consequences for dropouts and society at large.

*This report can be read in its entirety here.*

This issue is much more important in this era of COVID-19, as many more children are falling behind grade level. Policymakers should therefore pay attention to state remedial education programs and consider whether current resources, both state and federal, are being used to the best advantage for kids who are falling behind.   

The Achievement Gap Has Gotten Bigger

Research conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic by the consulting firm McKinsey found that minority and low-income students are at much greater risk of falling behind because of school closures and disruptions. They found that:

  • Black students may fall behind by an additional 10.3 months;
  • Hispanic students may fall behind by an additional 9.2 months;
  • Low-income students may fall behind by an additional year.

Achievement gaps between groups of students were very large and stubbornly persistent for decades heading into the COVID-19 pandemic.  And, from March 2020 to June 2021, McKinsey estimates that these achievement gaps will grow by another 15 to 20 percent. 

McKinsey forecasts that the learning loss from COVID-19 “may translate into long-term harm for individuals and society.” They estimate that the decline in student achievement will have a national cost in upcoming years of $110 billion in annual earnings for students, higher crime and incarceration rates, and other negative social outcomes.

Other recent studies are arriving at very similar conclusions.

New Solutions Are Needed

Given the decades-long failure of existing remediation programs and the acute learning losses due to the pandemic, it is time to try something new to help students who are falling behind.

The research consensus on remediation programs for public school students is that they have performed poorly for decades. Federal and state funding for remediation programs have increased significantly over time. For example, federal Title I-A funding increased by 81 percent between 1980 and 2017 in real (inflation-adjusted) terms.[1] Despite this large increase in funding, Title I has not boosted student achievement (Brookings report: Dynarksi and Kainz, 2015) and been poorly targeted to the students most in need (Hamilton Project, Gordon, 2016).  Further, achievement gaps between groups of students have been stubbornly persistent for decades (Hanushek, et al., 2020).

Students who fall behind grade level and remain behind for a period of years often end up as high school dropouts. The economic consequences of dropping out of high school are severe: lower lifetime earnings, more poverty, increased use of government welfare programs, reduced generation of tax revenue, higher rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births, higher incarceration rates, more drug use, lower life expectancy, etc.

Given the expensive and absolute failure of federal remediation programs, it is clearly left up to the states to do something about helping students who are behind grade level.


[1]Congressional Research Service, 2017. Title I-A grants are to be used to “provide supplementary educational and related services to low achieving and other students attending elementary and secondary schools with relatively high concentrations of students from low-income families.”

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