Pandemic Home Schooling: Why to Help the Youngest Kid First
Your first-grader is accumulating fundamental skills upon which all future learning depends
As pandemic school closures drag on, how should parents focus their time and resources? For economists Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln and Dirk Krueger, this is not a hypothetical inquiry: Between them, they parent six school-age children. “This is a real day-to-day question for a lot of parents,” Krueger says.
If you hope that their answer is Relax, the kids will be fine, Fuchs-Schündeln and Krueger are not your people. Both are top-performing German academics, he at the University of Pennsylvania and she at Goethe University Frankfurt, following a stint at Harvard University. They’re not relax people.
To understand what children lose when schools close, you first have to understand how children learn and accumulate knowledge. “There’s fairly substantial literature documenting that the way learning works is that kids build on what they learned in younger years,” Krueger says. “If kids lose half a year of school at 6, then skills don’t get accumulated, and they are less effective learners when they are 8, 10, 12.”
You also should know that school, from an economics point of view, has two positive impacts: It increases the probability of attending college, and, independent of that, “If you go to a better school or you go to a more funded school, you enter the labor market with more skills, and that increases your wages, independent of your highest education degree,” Krueger says.
Yes, talking to him makes you want to grab your children and insert them in the nearest private school. My colleague Carla Fried’s take on the stunning value of a college degree.
Overall, in a National Bureau of Economic Research paper, Fuchs-Schündeln and Krueger found that because of 2020 school closures, children are likely to lose, on average, 1% of their future annual earnings for each adult year of life. This is a surprisingly large, lifelong impact from a temporary childhood shock, particularly for future adults in lower salary brackets, for whom that 1% really matters.
School closures have “significant consequences on their accumulation of knowledge, and then on how they fare in terms of high school completion, college completion, and earnings,” Fuchs-Schündeln says. “And we assumed that after half a year, schools would fully reopen, which now seems an unlikely scenario.” One year of school closures more than doubles the earnings losses. You can do the math for your own children’s scenarios; one of mine is in remote classes that will cover one-half of typical curricula.
For a study about children, the model the economists created is surprisingly parent-focused, for the good reason that parents, not children, hold nearly all the cards in children’s educational outcomes by making the lion’s share of decisions about schools, activities and college funding. “It’s all about how much money and time parents spend on the kids at different ages,” Krueger says.
The study’s model, an offshoot of a commonly-used arm of economics called “human capital production,” computes three big inputs: the amount and quality of public schooling, the investment of parents’ time (homework, playing, reading, etc.), and parents’ money invested in education. Out pops the skillsets of children, which correlate with both college admissions and future wages.
The rubric, of course, goes to hell during a pandemic: Parents lose money, kids lose school, and everyone loses their minds. Many mothers, including myself, are currently providing all three of the inputs — time, money and education — at a steep cost to their sleep and careers that goes unmeasured here. And yes, you would not be wrong to question perceiving your children as human capital. Hold that thought.
The model is helpful in illustrating losses that are otherwise intangible, highlighting that younger children are particularly at risk. Older children, with a decade of school under their belts, have a strong, sturdy knowledge base, so skipping a half-year has less exponential effect; not so for first-graders who still consider dragon ownership a real possibility. Parents might want to consider also prioritizing younger children’s face-to-face learning, the same strategy that many U.S. schools are enacting.
Fuchs-Schündeln and Krueger found that parents can somewhat (not entirely) buffer the blow by reacting to school closures with boosts of their investments of time and money. Wealthy children are essentially shielded from most losses by private tutors, iPads, and parents able to spend three to six hours a day on home or remote schooling.
Children with parents unable to pick up the slack face 1.7% annual income losses per year of adult work, and these tend to be poorer children who “rely more on public education. The richer parents respond more strongly to the crisis, with more resources to invest,” Krueger says. He sees these not as culturally driven choices, but economic realities. “If parents have basically no wealth and then they lose a chunk of their incomes in the crisis, what can they do?”
The calming news: Children are not, actually, human capital, nor do their future careers follow averages. They are adorably squishy beings who manage to pronounce the word “coronavirus” cutely, and if one of yours is even a mild go-getter, they will buck the model and emerge with no losses. And any psychological gains or losses from time at home are notably not accounted for here.
For example, an anxious third-grader I know has thrived out of the classroom and caught up on math thanks to daily sessions with Dad; my own thrilled-to-be-home 4- and 6-year-olds now only resort to fists every few hours, a social skill that must pay adult dividends. And I’m now intimately familiar with a variety of home school curricula that I will surely unleash on my children for many summers to come, which must make up for that lost 1%.