Skip to main content
Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan students fell behind during COVID. Their recovery lags other states

Children with backpacks running in front of a school
National researchers say Michigan schools are reversing pandemic-ear learning losses slower than many other states. They don’t know exactly why. (Bridge file photo)
  • Researchers at Harvard and Stanford universities find Michigan’s pandemic education recovery is slower than other states
  • Michigan students remained nearly half a grade behind in math and reading in 2023
  • State leaders tout new spending plans for education

Michigan’s public school children have barely begun recovering what they lost academically during the pandemic and are well behind most states, according to a national analysis of state proficiency data. 

Despite modest gains last year, the studies show Michigan students remained nearly half a grade behind in math and reading in 2023.

That recovery is tepid, especially in comparison to results in Ohio, Wisconsin and 18 other states, where students did better in reading, according to researchers at Harvard and Stanford universities

Michigan’s recovery surpassed only five other states.

In math, Michigan’s recovery ranked 17th out of 28 states compared. Overall since the 2018-19 school year, Michigan students had regained almost no lost reading skills and just a couple weeks of math by 2023.


Those worrying statistics come as many districts across the state and country are spending the last of nearly $200 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money. Michigan schools got about $5.6 billion combined. They have until September to spend the money that was intended, in part, to help students catch up academically.


With that deadline fast approaching, two new studies released this week show federal funding has helped students partially recover in most states. The authors suggested additional spending could lead to more recovery. But that’s money Michigan lawmakers may be reluctant to provide.

State leadership plays a role

Researchers are still working to identify which programs or policies were common to states where students recovered faster from learning losses. 

But there are real differences, they say. 

“In some states, the (state) leadership is …  putting a lot of focus on that academic recovery,” said Marguerite Roza, a research professor at Georgetown University, who looked at each state’s federal COVID-19 recovery spending and their latest test results.

In Ohio, for instance, educators first identified students’ learning loss in September 2021, focused on literacy and “accelerated learning” and, later, took advantage of relaxed funding rules to set aside money for tutoring.


Ohio students recorded a remarkable recovery between 2021-22 and 2022-23 — they had been down a half of a grade in math and a third of a grade in reading, and are now just a few weeks behind in reading and two months behind in math, far better than Michigan has fared.

A major difference between Ohio and Michigan is how their public education systems are run: In Ohio the top education official is appointed by the governor, and both repeatedly held discussions about getting the state’s students back on track.

In Michigan, Superintendent Michael Rice is hired by the elected State Board of Education. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has little say on how the Michigan Department of Education operates, besides approving the budget. 

Whitmer has sparred with department leaders in the past and she was critical of their March 2020 decision not to count remote class time toward graduation requirements. She also created a new department, moving the state Pre-K program and teacher workforce initiatives into the Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential.

Critics of the Michigan system suggest that how education is run in the state could have exacerbated the problems caused by the pandemic.

“This is something that hurts us as a state, the fact that we don't have (central authority),” said Venessa Keesler, a former MDE deputy superintendent and now president and CEO of Launch Michigan, a coalition of business and education groups aiming to reform the system.

“Nobody ever says, ‘Hey, instead of you all doing it 830 different ways, we're going to narrow it down to like the five best ones that are research-based, or these programs have some evidence or these approaches,’” Keesler told Bridge Michigan.

Roza, who is director of Georgetown’s Edunomics Lab,  which studies education finance decisions, told Bridge she did not know the specific differences between how states responded to learning losses. 

But she noted that school leaders in some states were constantly talking about math and reading recovery. 

“And in other states, it’s sort of random,” she said. “So some districts are (getting recovery),  some districts aren’t.”

Within Michigan, there were vast differences between schools. Consider: 

  • Students in some districts, like Ypsilanti and Garden City, were nearly two grades farther behind in reading by spring 2023, compared to 2018-19, the data shows. Twenty-six districts had reading results that were at least a full grade behind.
  • But students in 56 districts, including wealthier districts Forest Hills, Grosse Pointe and Rockford, which got less money per student, were actually ahead of where they were in the 2018-19 school year.
  • In math, students in 15 districts had lost a full grade level, including Saginaw, Lansing and the Charlotte schools.
  • Students in 97 districts actually posted gains in math, including students in the Northville, Romeo and Caledonia schools.

Not every district was included in the analysis, researchers said, because many had too few students in a particular grade to measure across years. Charter schools were not included in the district-level analysis, they said, in part because their size and higher rate of student mobility, making it harder to compare across years. But all students are in the statewide analysis.


Critic: Problem rooted in pandemic handling

State education officials acknowledge Michigan learning loss but say they are addressing the problems with additional, targeted funding.

“We are concerned,” Sue Carnell, chief deputy superintendent, told Bridge Michigan. “We do believe we’ve made some gains. And we know we have some ways to go. So we aren’t satisfied. We are working on initiatives to help districts and funding and grants.”

Whitmer, in an interview with The New York Times, recently described learning losses as a “long, hard price tag” the state is paying from the pandemic. The Democratic governor said she would have done things differently, especially if she’d known that COVID-19 “didn't disproportionately kill children,” which she said was initially feared.

Whitmer ordered schools to close March 16 through April 5, 2020. She later extended the closure through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. She signed legislation in August 2020 that largely let districts decide whether to return to in-person learning or remain remote.

But when asked by Bridge what the governor would have done differently, Whitmer’s office did not offer any details and instead pointed to the new state budget approved this week by the Legislature, which includes $23 billion for schools, calling it an “historic investment” in education.

Spokesperson Stacey LaRouche cited Whitmer’s role in funding learning supports “to address unfinished learning,” including a universal school meals program, literacy coaches and mental health resources.  

“Governor Whitmer will continue to work with anyone to ensure dollars are improving student outcomes,” LaRouche said in a statement.

The new state budget includes a one-time increase in funding for schools but will also reduce funding for mental health and school safety from $328 million last year to $26.5 million this year. It allocates no new funds for the state tutoring program created last year.

The spending plan also expands access to free pre-Kindergarten and provides tuition-free community college.

Sue Carnell headshot
Sue Carnell, chief deputy superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education, said recent state budgets will help students recover learning loss. (Courtesy photo)

Although the governor doesn’t control the state education department, she could have pushed for spending initiatives to help K-12 students more directly, said Molly Macek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank.

The pre-K and community college plans won’t help the students now in elementary, middle and high school who suffered learning losses, she said.

“It certainly doesn't make sense given how far behind Michigan is and especially among our low-income communities,” Macek said.

She was also critical of Whitmer for how she managed the pandemic, saying the governor could have been more forceful in requiring schools to end remote learning, a setting that studies show hurt children’s well-being.

“So she should have, at the very least, encouraged districts to open as soon as possible, making sure that funding was then going to be allocated to making sure that they were safe enough to open it and encouraging them to do so,” Macek said.

A number of Michigan districts, including those with some of the highest rates of low-income students, stayed remote until just the last couple of months of the 2020-21 school year. Low-income students have also had some of the slowest recovery gains, and the achievement gap between poor and non-poor students has widened, researchers say.

However, researchers looking at recovery say the length of pandemic closures did not affect recovery rates, according to a report published this week. Nor did a state’s political leaning, its unemployment rates or the percentage of students with access to computers.

Results from 2022 show Michigan students suffered substantially from the pandemic, losing ground nationally in reading and falling in math like most students across the country. 

While the national studies focus on district and state-level results, researchers at Michigan State University have analyzed data from tests students take a couple of times a year.


Tara Kilbride, a researcher and the interim associate director at Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at MSU, said results from those tests show some progress.

“We've been seeing slight improvements year after year, but they're small relative to the initial drops early in the pandemic,” Kilbride said. “So I would expect to see continued recovery, though it's going to be a long process.”

It may also be a costly process. 

Researchers at Stanford suggest it could cost $18,800 per student annually to recover all the lost learning — that’s billions more than states are now spending as COVID-19 response funding runs out. 

“There is still potential for recovery” without that funding, but it “would be at a much slower pace,” Erin Fahle, executive director of the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford, told Bridge. “And I think that that's something we need to think about.”

How impactful was this article for you?

Only donate if we've informed you about important Michigan issues

See what new members are saying about why they donated to Bridge Michigan:

  • “In order for this information to be accurate and unbiased it must be underwritten by its readers, not by special interests.” - Larry S.
  • “Not many other media sources report on the topics Bridge does.” - Susan B.
  • “Your journalism is outstanding and rare these days.” - Mark S.

If you want to ensure the future of nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan journalism, please become a member today. You, too, will be asked why you donated and maybe we'll feature your quote next time!

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Pay with PayPal Donate Now