Lessons for education from PISA for Development during the coronavirus crisis

Young African girl sitting at a desk in a classroom reading a book

By Andreas Schleicher

Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Some 1.5 billion students and youth across the planet have been affected by school and university closures due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This absence of schooling on a global scale has amplified the importance of education as well as highlighted the great disparities that exist between those who have access to learning opportunities and those who do not. The most disadvantaged children are those that were already out of school or were in school but not learning even before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

The PISA for Development (PISA-D) data on out-of-school youth were collected just a year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Analysis of this key data, combined with the previously collected data on the in-school students in the participating countries, provides relevant and important insights and lessons for low- and middle-income countries in particular. As the school systems in these contexts emerge from lockdown, the countries will need to regain the educational ground that has been lost during the crisis and then strive to overcome the challenges that existed even before the global pandemic took hold.

What was the situation before the pandemic?

PISA-D results, and other learning assessments, show that even before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived too many young people in the PISA-D participating countries were unable to achieve even minimum levels of proficiency in reading and mathematics – defined as Level 2 in PISA’s proficiency scale for both domains. Less than half of 15-year-olds in these countries complete the basic education cycle – the majority of them are out of school.

Source: PISA 2018 and PISA for Development Databases. See note at end of blog.

The proportion of 15-year-olds in these countries that have achieved at least minimum levels of proficiency in reading is less than 15% and in mathematics less than 10% (compared to an average of 76% and 71% respectively in OECD countries).

As a result of the closures of schools during 2020 the loss of learning is expected to be considerable, compounding what was already a global learning crisis. There is a significant risk that disadvantaged children may not return to school when they reopen, further increasing the number of out-of-school youth in these contexts.

Supply and demand: Why are so many young people out of school?

The PISA-D survey reveals many of the societal and system factors that are associated with low levels of student performance and why many children in the PISA-D participating countries do not go to school, including obstacles related to the quality and supply of schooling as well as the demand for schooling.

On the supply side, the factors include insufficient and inadequate education infrastructure, especially in rural areas, as well as poor quality instruction. On the other side, there is weak demand from the poorest children and youth for education and the parents of these children, even those with resources, do not consider education of poor quality a good investment.

Disadvantaged children, particularly girls, are least likely to return to school following the easing of the COVID-19 lockdowns because many have moved into paid or unpaid work or have become married

These supply and demand factors are being exacerbated by the COVID-19 health and economic crisis with likely compounded adverse impacts on opportunities for learning, educational achievement and dropout rates. Disadvantaged children, particularly girls, are least likely to return to school following the easing of the COVID-19 lockdowns because many have moved into paid or unpaid work or have become married. In addition, those already out of school, again mainly girls, will face even greater challenges to resuming their education as schools struggle to return to normal practices.  

What are the solutions?

The policy implications and solutions identified based on the analysis of the PISA-D survey data are especially relevant for low- and middle-income countries emerging from the COVID-19 health and economic crisis. According to UNESCO data, some 24 million learners are at risk of not returning to school in these contexts as education institutions reopen. Here are some of the key areas for change that can help manage these risks, based on the PISA-D findings:

  • making schools more inclusive;
  • improving the quality of instruction, especially the teaching of reading in early grades;
  • introducing specially targeted interventions to dismantle the barriers that keep youth out of school or prevent them from returning to school;
  • tackling the problem of distance to school by providing support for transportation to disadvantaged children living in rural areas;
  • strengthening policy frameworks to ensure free and compulsory schooling up to the age of 16;
  • introducing stronger incentives, such as conditional cash transfers, to keep children and young people, especially girls, in school; and
  • promoting greater awareness and understanding of the long run returns to schooling amongst parents, children and young people.

The PISA-D participating countries are already considering policy examples from countries that have been successful in making their education systems both higher in quality and higher in equity, as well as other relevant international good practices. As part of this consideration, the PISA-D participating countries are looking at how these international examples might be adapted to suit their national contexts and requirements.

Real change often takes place in deep crisis – this moment holds the possibility that we won’t go back to the status quo when things return to “normal”. By improving on prior schooling, it will be possible to improve the futures of children who have in the past been left behind.

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Photo: Shutterstock/Riccardo Mayer

Note on figure:

  1. The percentage of 15-year-olds performing at Level 2 or above for all PISA-D countries was computed as a weighted average of the percentage of students performing at Level 2 or above and that of youth not enrolled in school performing at Level 2 or above. The OECD average is a student average.
  2. The percentage of 15-year-olds covered by the PISA sample (Coverage index 3) is shown next to each country/average. Paraguay is not shown in the figure as this percentage may be significantly underestimated and subject to future revision (see the chapter on “Sampling outcomes” in the forthcoming PISA for Development Technical Report).