Cheryl Oldham Cheryl Oldham
Senior Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
Vice President, Education & Workforce Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


May 03, 2021


School closures and ineffective virtual learning are driving major learning loss among students, but it's not just subject matter content they are missing. More than half of public school K-12 teachers say the pandemic has resulted in a "significant" learning loss for students, both academically and social-emotionally. Without in-person classroom interaction, students are missing out on natural opportunities to improve "soft skills" like motivation, time management, and collaboration. Unfortunately, teachers and programs that are going to great lengths to teach these skills despite the challenges posed by virtual learning are the exception rather than the rule.

This dual learning loss not only hurts students' progress in school but will also have repercussions for students finishing school and preparing to enter college or the workforce next year.

Colleges and universities are anticipating that many incoming freshmen will face significant challenges. A survey this fall found that two-thirds of high school students worry "most days" or "some days" about not being prepared for the next year of school. Similarly, about half of the students surveyed (49%) by the ACT this year indicated that they were very concerned about how the disruptions to their schoolwork in spring 2020 would affect their level of college preparedness. Some will likely be placed into remedial courses, prolonging the amount of time and cost it will take them to earn their degrees. And for many, having to take remedial courses may lead to their starting but not completing postsecondary education.

That's not the only risk soon-to-be undergraduates are facing, as some K-12 schools have lowered their grading standards during virtual learning. An unprecedented number of students who received passing, or even solid, grades in school will not be prepared for college classes. These students may not realize they are not ready to meet the demands of college courses until late in the semester—when it's more difficult to recover from an academic setback. And even if they do realize they need help, underdeveloped soft skills may also make it harder for students to succeed in college, especially during periods of adversity.

Pandemic-related learning losses will also hurt students preparing to enter the workforce immediately after high school. Even before the pandemic, many employers found that recent graduates are unprepared to succeed in the workforce because they lack the skills necessary for jobs that require working on teams, communicating clearly, and juggling competing tasks. Now, employers are concerned that a lack of in-person education will negatively impact young workers' workplace-critical soft skills. And they are right; without the skill development that naturally occurs during in-person learning, high school graduates may struggle to acclimate to the workplace. And since youth employment has a significant impact on career outcomes, it's critical we enable students to succeed in the workplace.

School districts must use the new funding they are receiving wisely to optimize student skill development. Learning loss among today's K-12 students will severely impact tomorrow's workforce and will hamstring our country's ability to compete and win in the global economy.

Learn more about the Center for Education and Workforce's K-12 initiatives.

About the authors

Cheryl Oldham

Cheryl Oldham

Cheryl A. Oldham is senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and vice president of education and workforce policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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