The back-to-school scene as I dropped my daughter off for her first day of school this year was delightfully normal. For parents around the country, recent weeks marked the first back-to-school season since the end of COVID-19 as a public health emergency, and this is something to celebrate. As we emerge from a pandemic that upended schools and the lives of students, educators and policymakers are lamenting the academic learning loss of those affected. But the narrow focus on academic performance is obscuring a larger crisis and missing the bigger picture about how young people are faring and what they need moving forward.
As students head back to school this fall, funders that care about education and youth need to know: How are kids really doing in the aftermath of COVID-19? And how does philanthropy need to evolve to support the needs of a generation of students emerging from the pandemic’s tumult?
CEP’s YouthTruth initiative set out to answer this question by consulting the experts: students themselves. We analyzed quantitative and qualitative student feedback data from over 500,000 secondary students gathered before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic. From that data, we learned that student perceptions of learning and belonging in the 2022-23 school year returned to pre-pandemic levels (though troubling differences across student demographic groups remain). Concerningly, however, students’ experiences with mental health and support from adults in school worsened during COVID-19 and have not recovered.
What We Measure Matters
It is all too easy to gravitate towards narrow definitions of student academic success and metrics like test scores and graduation rates. But neither young people themselves nor funders’ strategies or evaluation approaches can be reduced to these metrics. Student perception data illustrates the ways in which social, emotional, and academic development are entwined, and suggests multiple ways funders can help.
Build Belonging for All Students
Let’s start with the most positive of the findings: Young people’s experiences with learning and belonging followed similar patterns over the course of the pandemic and both have bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, according to students. (Test scores have not, but it is worth noting that student perceptions are leading indicators while test scores are lagging indicators reflective of recent years.) Nonetheless, there remains much room for improvement.
Only 42 percent of students, for example, indicate that they really feel like a part of their school’s community. This matters both because of its intrinsic value — young people deserve to feel like they belong — and because belonging is foundational to learning and can catalyze students’ motivation to learn. What’s more, a greater proportion of white students (46 percent) experience a strong sense of belonging than students of color (40 percent), while only 35 percent of LGBTQ+ students really feel like a part of their school’s community relative to 46 percent of their peers.
So how can philanthropy help? For those that fund in education, consider: Do your strategies emphasize and value social and emotional learning, relationships, and belonging alongside academic interventions and supports? How might you support the infrastructure, staffing, and programs that help build connections and community? For place-based funders: To what extent are LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color in your community experiencing a strong sense of belonging?
Understand and Address the ‘Support Gap’
Perhaps even more striking is the fact that students’ experiences with their own mental health and support from adults worsened during COVID-19 — and have not recovered. Nearly half of all students in the 2022-23 school year reported that depression, stress, or anxiety makes it hard for them to do their best in school. (And for LGBTQ+ students, an astonishing 77 percent of students cited depression, stress, or anxiety as an obstacle.) This proportion increased steadily over the course of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the proportion of students saying that there is an adult at school they can talk to when feeling upset, stressed, or having problems decreased to just 41 percent in the 2022-23 school year.
The “support gap” created by the simultaneous increase in students’ mental health as an obstacle to learning and decrease in support from adults at school emerged in fall 2020. This gap has since widened, despite significant attention to COVID’s impact on youth depression, anxiety, and mental health. Students describe “not enough counselors” and ask that their schools “make more of an effort to reach out to students,” making it “more accessible and clear” how to get the help they need rather than just “pushing it under the surface.” The bottom line is that young people’s challenges with mental health and insufficient support are not getting better, not yet anyway — and these challenges directly impact students’ ability to learn.
Here, too, there is an opportunity and a need for philanthropy. Education funders, community foundations, and health funders concerned with mental health: Consider how you (or how you could) support programming, training, staffing, or additional resources for youth mental health and well-being in schools or in students’ communities. How might you help advocate for structural changes to the funding or staffing of youth mental health supports?
Put Student Voice at the Center of the Narrative
The national narrative on learning loss is well-meaning but limited. Our obsession with test scores, the pressure to “catch up,” and one-dimensional accountability systems crowd out other integral sources of feedback about how young people are doing. The world is taking shape around this younger generation, and decisions are being made about their future. Yet far too often their voice is ignored.
This student voice data calls for funders to think beyond academics when it comes to supporting young people to learn, thrive, and succeed in school and in life.
Students are telling us in no uncertain terms that learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Social, emotional, and academic learning are intrinsically linked, and learning can only progress so far when we separate them. This has always been true but is especially so now.
Students are imploring that we adults not go back to business as usual. In some of their own words: “Put us before test scores.” “Work alongside us.” “Actually listen to us.” As philanthropy moves forward in this next chapter, please remember that students are whole people that need whole solutions to succeed in school and in life. And that part of the solution must include truly listening to them.