COVID-19 and education systems

From Ed•sy•clopedia
Cultivating student learning

Learning levels vary a lot—and, often, are low.
Let's raise them.
Edsyclopedia icon cultivating student learning.png
Introductory articles
Key categories


The negative impact of COVID-19 on global education systems sits on top of the pre-existing learning crisis, the reality that while the majority of children around the world attend school, a large proportion of them are not learning.

Global school closures

Global school closures as of June 30, 2020. Source: Our World in Data

Given COVID-19’s high degree of transmissibility, a major consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has been full or partial school closures in virtually every country from January 2020 onward. China was the first country to implement school closures on January 26, 2020, requiring educational institutions across all levels cease in-person operations. By June 30, 2020, only 9 countries (Belarus, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Lesotho, New Zealand, Switzerland, the Solomon Islands, Tajikistan, and Vanuatu) were operating their schools without any form of mandated or recommended closure policies in place.[1] Thus far, 1.7 billion have been forced out of school temporarily as a direct result of COVID-19.[2] For an ongoing account of school closures globally, see the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data database, which tracks country-level school closure policies in real-time.

Transition to remote learning

With little notice, teachers, administrators, students, and parents around the world were forced to navigate a messy transition from in-person to remote learning, a challenging process fraught with both social and economic costs.[3] Remote learning is a broad term that encompasses any format of learning which happens outside the classroom and in which a teacher is not in the same location as their students.[4] This can be enabled by digital technologies, such as web conferencing platforms and mobile phones, and analog materials sent home with children, such as printed materials.

Learning losses among students

One major cost of school closures relates to learning loss among students, which comprises both the 'deterioration' of knowledge that is forgotten over time, and the 'opportunity cost' of lost learning.[5] While many education systems are attempting varying degrees of remote learning, it is widely accepted that the closures will produce substantial losses in learning.[6] But why is this the case? According to Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE), there are three key reasons for school closures leading to learning losses:

  1. Learning trajectories in developing countries are flat, and many children fail to master foundational skills. This means that a substantial portion of children are not equipped with the requisite skills to learn independently at home, especially if their parents cannot provide academic support.
  2. Learning levels in developing country classrooms vary widely, and COVID is likely to increase variation as students have different learning experiences and parental support at home.[7]
  3. The curriculum in many developing countries is overambitious, setting out an agenda that teachers and students cannot effectively cover.[8] This will make recovery more challenging as teachers must help students catch up with where they ought to be in the curriculum while also teaching a more diverse classroom.

A wide array of both empirical and theoretical evidence provides further support for the claim that school closures result in learning losses.

Empirical evidence of learning loss

Several studies draw an unmistakable causal link between temporary school closures and learning loss among school children. The evidence suggests that children affected by school closures learn less in a given year, thereby falling behind the pace of the curriculum. When these children return to school, they continue to fall farther and farther behind, especially in contexts where the pace of instruction and the curriculum are not adapted to suit children’s lower learning levels upon re-entry.

Kashmir earthquake in Pakistan (2005)

A recent study suggests that temporary school closures may result in large learning losses over the medium-term.[9] Four years after the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake, Andrabi, Daniels, and Das (2020) analyzed the impact of school closures in the wake of the disaster. Comparing households that were close to the fault line with similar households farther away from the fault line (and thereby less affected by the earthquake), the researchers found that temporary school closures of 14 weeks resulted in learning losses in English, Urdu, and mathematics among children aged 3-15 at the time of the earthquake. The losses were equivalent to 1.5 years of schooling, a deficit that, if carried over into adult life, could mean that the affected children stand to lose 15% of their lifetime earnings. Interestingly, however, children whose mothers completed primary education did not experience statistically significant learning losses. Additionally, temporary school closures did not lead to higher dropout rates in the affected region.

School closures in Ethiopia (2020)

Slowed learning gains as a result of school closures in Ethiopia, with a noticeable gap between urban and rural areas. Source: https://riseprogramme.org/blog/learning-inequalities-widen-COVID-19-Ethiopia

Schools in Ethiopia closed in March 2020 as the pandemic began to take hold, and started to reopen from October 2020, with a phased approach prioritizing schools in rural areas. As schools reopened, children joined the next grade so, for example, those previously in Grade 5 joined Grade 6. At the beginning of the school year, they received catch-up classes over a period of 45 days aimed at covering aspects of the curriculum that had been missed during school closures. From October 2020, after the catch-up classes had taken place following schools reopening, researchers re-tested around 3,050 students who had been assessed at the beginning and end of the school year in 2018-19.[10] Researchers found that learning levels were considerably below what would be expected if they had continued on the same trajectory as their gains in learning in Grade 4. For those in urban areas, their learning progressed at less than half of the speed that would have been expected if there were no school closures. Progress was even lower for rural students, whose learning progressed by only one third to normal expected pace. This is of particular concern as the above results show that the already wide rural-urban gap has probably widened. Evidence collected via phone surveys during school closures identified that teachers in rural areas were less able to support children’s learning, and that rural households had more limited access to technology and faced other pressures that meant they were less able to support children’s learning at home.

School closures in Kenya (2020)

Schools in Kenya closed nation-wide in March 2020, and remained closed through the end of the year, only reopenning in early 2021. Research conducted by Whizz Education[11], a Kenyan online tutoring organization, found that from a sample of 965 rural students:

  • 53% of students exhibited declines in their levels of maths knowledge.
  • The average loss among those students was 1.1 years, or 13 months.
  • There was an overall average math learning loss in excess of 3.5 months. While students demonstrated an average math knowledge score of 9.28 on March 20, 2020, their scores dropped to 8.98 when resassessed between October 12, 2020 and March 17, 2021. It is worth noting that these students were on average 3-4 years behind their international peers even before COVID-19 related school closures.

School closures in Pakistan (2020)

Learning losses among Pakistani boys and girls as a result of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Source: https://www.cgdev.org/blog/new-data-learning-loss-pakistan

Private schools serve a substantial portion of school-going children in Pakistan—39 percent of primary school students and 38 percent of middle school students in 2016. In a study by Lee Crawfurd, Sussanah Hares, and Ana Luiza Minardi (2021), 1,528 households with children enrolled in both private and public-private partnership schools run by The Citizen's Foundation (TCF) participated in three rounds of surveys—the first two of which took place during the Pakistan's first school closure window (between March 16, 2020 and Septermber 23, 2020), while the last of which took place during the second school closure window (between November 26, 2020 and January 18, 2021).[12] Survey data suggests that due to school closures, male students became less likely to answer questions correctly while girls became more likely to answer questions correctly. While this analysis is based on a very short two-item assessment, the pattern is consistent with the change in average hours girls and boys spent studying between September and February. Girls consistently spent more time than boys on studying across the three survey rounds: in round one, girls studied on average for 1.6 hours per day while boys studied for 1.5 hours. In round three, girls studied for 2.2 hours and boys for 1.9 hours on average. However, while girls did manage to make learning gains, researchers estimate that these gains were less than what they would have been without school closures.

Evidence from wealthy countries

The Education Endowment Fund has compiled a running list of studies quantifying learning losses resulting from school closures in western countries such as the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United States. The studies also apply an equity lens by considering how learning losses among children from disadvantaged group compare to the overall samples tested.

Modeling and projecting learning loss

In addition to empirical evidence of learning loss caused by school closures, researchers have also created models that simulate cohort learning among students to understand what happens to learning levels in the event of an unexpected shock. For example, Michelle Kaffenberger and Lant Pritchett in a recent working paper, introduce their pedagogical production function which simulates how much, on average, a child at a certain skill level learns over a certain period of time (usually one year) in a certain grade.[13] The PPF is a dynamic simulation of learning trajectories, as learning trajectories depict how much children learn over time. Findings derived from this tool provide real-world insights to policymakers who want to understand the learning trajectories of children and how different reforms will improve learning in their education system.

Kaffenberger 2021[14]

Percent of in-school children learning zero, due to falling behind the level of instruction, at each grade level (according to Kaffenberger's pedagogical production function simulations). Source: https://riseprogramme.org/publications/modeling-long-run-learning-impact-covid-19-learning-shock-actions-more-mitigate-loss

This paper uses a calibrated model with a pedagogical production function to estimate the potential long-term losses to children’s learning from the temporary shock of school closures. Kaffenberger models five scenarios to test the impact on learning loss of time out of school and potential remediation approaches:

  1. The counterfactual of cohort learning with no shock, representing business-as-usual schooling.
  2. A learning loss shock of three months (one-third of school year) for children currently in Grade 3. The model tracks how their learning will be affected through Grade 10. For simplicity, it is assumed that no additional school dropouts occur due to the school closures, making this a conservative estimate of learning loss.
    • Result: if learning in Grade 3 is reduced by one-third, roughly the amount of time many children are likely to be out of school, learning levels in Grade 10 (compared to a counterfactual of the same children with no shock) are a full year lower. The percent of the current Grade 3 cohort that would reach the SDG goal of minimum proficiency in mathematics by Grade 10 drops from 7 percent with no shock to just 3 percent reaching the SDG goal with the shock.
  3. Another variation of learning loss, reducing Grade 3 gains by one-half of a school year.
    • Result: in this scenario, the Grade 10 learning deficit far surpasses the initial loss of one-half of a year’s learning. In Grade 10, today’s Grade 3 cohort has gained 1.5 years less learning than if the shock had not occurred. this larger shock further reduces the percent of the cohort who reaches the SDG target for math to just 2 percent.
  4. A learning loss shock of three months (one-third of a school year) coupled with a short-term remediation effort covered during Grade 4 before moving on to Grade 4 topics.
    • Result: short-term remediation mitigates about half of the Grade 10 learning deficit, reducing the long-term impact of the shock to one-half of a school year. In the remediation scenario, the percent of the Grade 10 cohort who reach the SDG for mathematics is 4 percent, compared with 3 percent with the shock and no remediation and 7 percent in the counterfactual with no shock.
  5. A learning loss shock of three months (one-third of a school year) coupled with a full instruction reorientation which combines short-term remediation with long-term reorientation of instruction to children’s learning levels.
    • Result: this scenario not only fully mitigates the effect of the shock but increases Grade 10 learning above the counterfactual of no shock by more than a full year’s worth of instruction. Remediation combined with long term reorientation of instruction produces a whopping 2.3 years’ more learning than if the shock had gone unmitigated. With remediation and instruction reorientation, 27 percent of the cohort achieves the SDG—nine times more than had the shock gone unmitigated, and even nearly four times more than the counterfactual of no shock.

To further explore the data produced by this research study, visit this page on the RISE website.

Angrist et. al. 2021[15]

Researchers simulated learning loss as a result of COVID school closures using Kaffenberger and Pritchett's pedagogical production function[16], along with Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) data from Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Tanzania, and Uganda. Two simulation secnarios were studied:

  1. The first scenario assumed a linear deterioration of learning as time passed (following our assumption of linear learning gains and an approximate 10 % linear deterioration for a typical summer-length school closure).
  2. The second scenario assumed that learning loss was compounded for each additional week that students were out of school (i.e., instead of each week out of school accounting for the same amount of learning deterioration, it’s assumed that deterioration increases with each additional week).

Researchers found that school closures that reduced learning by three-quarters of a year for the grade 3 cohort reduced their eventual grade 10 learning by 2.2 years. In this scenario, by grade 10, 92 % of in-school children would have fallen behind the level of instruction and would not be learning. Finally, reducing grade 3 learning by one year resulted in long-term learning loss of 2.8 years by grade 10. Fully 97 % of in-school children were far enough behind that they would not be learning by grade 10. In each scenario, children would reenter school increasingly further behind the level of instruction and curriculum. As a result, they would continue to miss out on learning even after they were back in school. Additionally, it appears that school closures could exacerbate inequities. Students near the bottom of the distribution for whom literacy skill gains are more tenuous are likely to lose most, if not all, of the skills they had learned before COVID-19 induced school closures. This divide is likely to be further impacted by inequitable availability of and access to distance learning opportunities during school closures (e.g., favoring students from families with higher socio-economic status).

Instructional responses to the COVID-19 crisis

While the COVID-19 pandemic is a unique crisis, it has exacerbated challenges that already existed pre-pandemic: overambitious and rigid curricula, large classes with high heterogeneity, teachers with low levels of content knowledge and pedagogic skill, high levels of teacher absenteeism, students falling substantially below grade-level expectations and lacking mastery of basic numeracy and literacy skills, limited and unsupportive learning conditions at home for children, and lack of support for teachers.[17] Despite the myriad challenges that education systems currently face, there are three critical, high-impact actions that can and should be taken to protect children's long-term life outcomes[18][19]:

  1. Making a system-wide commitment to prioritize universal, early, conceptual and procedural mastery of foundational skills (Foundational skills#Universal, early, conceptual and procedural mastery of foundational skills (UECPMFS)).
    • Foundational skills in reading and math should be a priority because they unlock children’s ability to access content in more complex subjects.[20] Children who fail to master them are at the greatest risk of long-term learning deficits. Political and educational leaders should make it clear that foundational skills are a priority, and articulate clear, achievable goals to reinforce this point, because education systems perform best when delegation is clear and consistent.
  2. Assessing children’s learning levels when schools reopen.
    • In order to get children back on track, teachers must know the learning levels of the students in their classrooms. Teachers will need resources to conduct diagnostic assessments and support, from within their school and from education authorities, to process this information and use it to adapt their classroom instruction to children’s learning levels.
  3. Adapting instruction to meet children where they are.
    • As schools reopen, teachers should focus on helping students progress in foundational literacy and numeracy rather than on moving through the standard curriculum, and progress should be measured in terms of student improvement from baseline rather than against a curriculum standard. To achieve this, teachers will need information on students’ learning levels; the authorization, resources, and capability to align teaching to be coherent with students’ abilities; and the support to put new practices into action.
      • Pritchett and Beatty (2012) illustrate the mismatch of curricular expectations and student learning in different countries.[21] For instance, in Punjab, Pakistan, the curriculum expects children to master single digit addition by first grade—but 65% of third graders had not mastered that skill. Research from Uganda demonstrates the lack of focus on foundational skills and competencies in the primary grades’ curriculum, and advises for a curriculum adjustment to children’s actual learning levels rather than quickly progressing to teaching higher-order skills which children will not benefit from unless foundational skills are mastered (Atuhurra/Alinda 2017)

See also

References

  1. “School Closures during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Our World in Data, University of Oxford, 2021, http://www.ourworldindata.org/grapher/school-closures-covid?time=2020-07-30.
  2. Kaffenberger, M. 2020.  Modeling the Long-Run Learning Impact of the COVID-19 Learning Shock: Actions to (More Than) Mitigate Loss. RISE Insight. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-RI_2020/017
  3. “Adverse Consequences of School Closures.” UNESCO, 13 May 2020, http://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/consequences.
  4. “What's Working Well in Remote Education.” GOV.UK, 2021, www.gov.uk/government/publications/whats-working-well-in-remote-education/whats-working-well-in-remote-education
  5. Angrist, Noam et. al. 2021. "Building back better to avert a learning catastrophe: Estimating learning loss from COVID-19 school shutdowns in Africa and facilitating short-term and long-term learning recovery". International Journal of Educational Development. Vol. 84. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S073805932100050X
  6. Kaffenberger, M. 2020.  Modeling the Long-Run Learning Impact of the COVID-19 Learning Shock: Actions to (More Than) Mitigate Loss. RISE Insight. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-RI_2020/017
  7. Cilliers, Jacobus. “How to Support Students When Schools Reopen?” RISE Programme, 23 June 2020, http://riseprogramme.org/publications/how-support-students-when-schools-reopen.
  8. Pritchett, Lant and Beatty, Amanda. 2012. "The Negative Consequences of Overambitious Curricula in Developing Countries - Working Paper 293". Center for Global Development. https://www.cgdev.org/publication/negative-consequences-overambitious-curricula-developing-countries-working-paper-293
  9. Andrabi, T., Daniels, B., Das, J. 2020. Human Capital Accumulation and Disasters: Evidence from the Pakistan Earthquake of 2005. RISE Working Paper Series. 20/039. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISEWP_2020/039
  10. Kim, Janice et. al. 4 May 2021. “Learning Inequalities Widen Following COVID-19 School Closures in Ethiopia.” RISE Programme. http://riseprogramme.org/blog/learning-inequalities-widen-COVID-19-Ethiopia.
  11. "Measuring the impact of COVID-19 on learning in rural Kenya". April 2021. Whizz Education. https://www.whizzeducation.com/wp-content/uploads/Kenya-Covid-Impact-SCREEN.pdf
  12. Crawfurd, Lee et. al. 2021. "New Data on Learning Loss in Pakistan". Center for Global Development. https://www.cgdev.org/blog/new-data-learning-loss-pakistan
  13. Kaffenberger, M. and Pritchett, L. 2020. Failing to Plan? Estimating the Impact of Achieving Schooling Goals on Cohort Learning. RISE Working Paper Series. 20/038. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-WP_2020/038
  14. Kaffenberger, M. 2020.  Modeling the Long-Run Learning Impact of the COVID-19 Learning Shock: Actions to (More Than) Mitigate Loss. RISE Insight. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-RI_2020/017
  15. Angrist, Noam et. al. 2021. "Building back better to avert a learning catastrophe: Estimating learning loss from COVID-19 school shutdowns in Africa and facilitating short-term and long-term learning recovery". International Journal of Educational Development. Vol. 84. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S073805932100050X
  16. Kaffenberger, M. and Pritchett, L. 2020. Failing to Plan? Estimating the Impact of Achieving Schooling Goals on Cohort Learning. RISE Working Paper Series. 20/038. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-WP_2020/038
  17. Angrist, Noam et. al. 2021. "Building back better to avert a learning catastrophe: Estimating learning loss from COVID-19 school shutdowns in Africa and facilitating short-term and long-term learning recovery". International Journal of Educational Development. Vol. 84. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S073805932100050X
  18. “RISE on COVID-19.” RISE Programme.https://riseprogramme.org/covid-19
  19. Spivack, Marla. “To Mitigate the Effects of COVID-19 on Education Outcomes, Systems Should Prioritise Foundational Skills and Adapt Instruction to Children's Learning Levels.” RISE Programme, 22 Sept. 2020, http://riseprogramme.org/publications/mitigate-effects-covid-19-education-outcomes-systems-should-prioritise-foundational.
  20. Belafi, C., Hwa, Y., and Kaffenberger, M. 2020. Building on Solid Foundations: Prioritising Universal, Early, Conceptual and Procedural Mastery of Foundational Skills. RISE Insight Series. 2020/021. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-RI_2020/021
  21. Pritchett, Lant and Beatty, Amanda. "The Negative Consequences of Overambitious Curricula in Developing Countries - Working Paper 293". Center for Global Development. https://www.cgdev.org/publication/negative-consequences-overambitious-curricula-developing-countries-working-paper-293