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  • Erin Eu Lakshmanan

The Economic Impacts of Reducing the Learning Gap Between White and Minority Communities

Children and adolescents saw limited detrimental health effects caused by COVID-19 (“Child Mortality and COVID-19”, 2022) , however these age groups face a different type of crisis - a learning gap, incurred by learning losses during remote instruction. These learning losses have been followed by a gap in learning across socioeconomic groups. This learning gap translates into an equity gap that is problematic in terms of equity and efficiency. According to McKinsey, the gap between white students and black and hispanic students reduced US GDP by up to 4% (Dorn 2, 2020). This op-ed will delve into the potential impacts of the aggravated learning gap between white and minority students (specifically how it affects intergenerational mobility and labor productivity) and critique the American Rescue Plan of 2021 that is currently targeting learning losses caused by the pandemic.

The pandemic affected (and continues to affect) every child and their learning. However, the effects were disproportionately distributed: schools that consist of a higher proportion of BIPOC students were impacted the most (Turner, 2022). Research by the Brookings Institute shows that black adults are 41% more likely to be in poverty than their white counterparts (Winship, 2021). Schools with high percentages of BIPOC students were more likely to be high poverty and remote, and when students were learning remotely, they were learning less (Turner, 2022). These schools were estimated to have “missed the equivalent of 22 weeks of in-person math learning”, whilst low-poverty schools missed 13 weeks (Turner, 2022). Students in such schools were more impacted by remote learning due to limited internet and technology availability at home, as well as the absence of an adult at home to support their learning.

In 32 states, black and hispanic children are more than twice as likely to be living in poverty than white children, hence why learning losses contribute to racial inequality (Murphy, 2018). As shown in Figure 1, BIPOC students were most likely to experience “low-quality remote instruction” and “no instruction”. Figure 2 reveals the consequences of this: math performance across all 3 scenarios was lower for these two quality levels of remote instruction. This can have long-lasting effects and decrease these students' potential earnings more than that of white students, who have higher potential earnings to begin with (Bhutta, 2019).

Figure 1 (Dorn 4, 2020)

Figure 2 (Dorn 5, 2020)

The government has since implemented the American Rescue Plan of 2021, providing $122 billion in funding to help address the learning gap. 7% of this funding was directed towards the

“implementation of evidence-based interventions aimed at addressing learning loss” (“U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION FACT SHEET American Rescue Plan Act of 2021”, 2021). This includes summer learning, extended day, afterschool, high-dosage tutoring or extended school year programs. Though support continues for these programs, there remains one significant drawback: older low-income students were less engaged in school during the remote learning as the pandemic forced them to take up jobs (Dorn, 2020). Thus, fewer low-income high school students may be able to participate in these enrichment programs compared to high-income students, thereby worsening the gap.

Reducing class sizes in schools in census tracts that are high-poverty by employing more teachers would better address this issue. One survey found that 9 in 10 teachers said that smaller classes are effective in boosting student learning, suggesting that class size and learning are strongly correlated (Barnum, 2022). A study in Tennessee supports this policy proposal as the test scores of students in smaller classes quickly overtook the scores of students in larger classes, and those “gains persisted for years” (Barnum, 2022). This implies that the benefits of smaller class sizes are reaped quickly, and the effects are long-lasting. Furthermore, research shows that class size has a larger effect for “minority students and those on free lunch” (Krueger, 1999), which is the target demographic. This policy is evaluated in terms of equity and efficiency; if successful, this policy would reduce racial inequality by reducing learning gaps (equity), and boost GDP closer to its full potential by increasing the productivity of the workforce (efficiency).

The obvious drawback of this policy is that it requires hiring more teachers to facilitate these smaller classes, posing an economic and opportunity cost. The proposed policy’s success depends upon the quality of the teachers hired; the policy may be counteractive if students have lower quality teachers. Additionally, it should be ensured that funds are not reduced for other student resources that may hinder learning. Nonetheless, this policy triumphs over alternatives as it specifically targets the demographic that needs assistance, and requires no student opt-in. The architecture of this policy may make it more effective than the ARP programs where students have to opt in; according to behavioral economic theory, if students have to opt into programs, the take up rate will likely be lower. Therefore, this policy would be

beneficial to more individuals than the policies proposed in the American Rescue Plan of 2021. Of course, all of these policies combined would have the greatest positive effect. A reduction in class size is something that is already being done (Amin, 2022), also proving its feasibility, but these efforts are slow and poorly distributed. More emphasis should be placed on schools in high-poverty census tracts to directly address the learning gap.

Whilst equity and efficiency objectives might be considered by some as antithetical, in this scenario, increasing the human capital and skills of low-income individuals will result in an increase in the overall productive potential of the economy. The learning gap between white and BIPOC students must be regarded as a matter of urgency, and addressed as such. This gap manifests as educational inequality and unequal opportunity, harming mobility and threatening the basis of this democracy. A learning gap poses consequences that could persist for generations, hence why the government should tackle this issue with urgency, funding, and a multitude of policies.


Amin, Reema. “Eric Adams Keeps Mayoral Control, Must Lower Class Size.” Chalkbeat New York, 3 June 2022, -sizes.

Barnum, Matt. “Does Class Size Really Matter? - Chalkbeat: Essential Education Reporting Across America.” Chalkbeat, 10 June 2022,

Bhutta, Neil. Disparities in Wealth by Race and Ethnicity in the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances. he-2019-survey-of-consumer-finances-20200928.html. Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

“Child Mortality and COVID-19.” UNICEF DATA, 23 Sept. 2022,

Dorn, Emma, and Bryan Hancock. “COVID-19 and Student Learning in the United States: The Hurt Could Last a Lifetime.” McKinsey & Company, June 2020, nsights/COVID-19%20and%20student%20learning%20in%20the%20United%20States%20The %20hurt%20could%20last%20a%20lifetime/COVID-19-and-student-learning-in-the-United-Stat es-FINAL.pdf.

Krueger, Alan. “Experimental Estimates of Education Production Functions.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 114, May 1999, p. 1. JSTOR,

Murphy, David. “Poverty and inequality”, 18 Sept 2018

Turner, Cory. “6 Things We’ve Learned About How the Pandemic Disrupted Learning.”, 22 June 2022, Winship. "Long Shadows - The Black-white gap in multigenerational poverty” Brookings, 10 June 2021


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