The shadows of the coronavirus education crisis

Young girl in classroom wearing facemask

By Andreas Schleicher

Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

In response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, 1.6 billion students around the world were locked out of their schools. Some of them were able to find their way around closed school doors through alternative learning opportunities, supported by their parents and eager to learn. But many remained shut out when their school shut down, particularly those from the most marginalised groups, who didn’t have access to digital learning resources or lacked the support, resilience and engagement to learn on their own.

If anything, this period has made public and widely visible the many benefits that students draw from being able to learn in close contact with their teachers and their peers, and with access to the variety of services that schools offer. This public awareness of the importance of schools and of teachers can help to further engagement and support from communities and parents for schools and for teachers. This is important as a likely result of the pandemic will be greater financial austerity, resulting from the economic adjustment that the health and economic costs of the pandemic will bring about.

Our schools today are our economies tomorrow

It is natural that much of the public attention focuses on near-term challenges around health and employment, but the learning losses that follow from school closures will throw long shadows over the economic well-being of individuals and nations. People with lower skills will be less productive, less able to participate in economic and social activities, and more likely to receive social transfers. And different from the direct economic impact of the pandemic, which will be temporary, these effects are likely to remain permanent. Put simply, our schools today are our economies tomorrow.

While it’s difficult to predict exactly how school closures will affect students’ future development, economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann estimate that the students in grades 1-12 affected by the closures could expect some 3% lower income over their entire lifetimes. This assumes that their learning losses so far are equivalent to missing one-third of a school year on average (a reasonable estimate from all we know) and that schools return to normal in the third quarter of 2020. Hanushek and Woessmann also project that on to our economies and arrive at a staggering long-run cost ranging from USD 504 billion in South Africa to USD 14.2 trillion in the United States to USD 15.5 trillion in China. If the disruptions continue into the new school year, as is already the case in some countries, those losses will grow proportionately.

Table showing present value of lost GDP due to corona-induced learning loss for G20 nations
Source: The Economic Impact of Learning Losses authors’ calculations; World Development Indicators database
See note at end of blog.

Some argue that students will catch up as schools re-open, but that is unlikely to happen if business goes on as usual. Results from OECD’s PISA assessments show that there was no real overall improvement in the learning outcomes of students across OECD countries over the last two decades, with no pandemic, and despite many educational reforms and expenditure per student rising by more than 15% over the past decade alone.

It might be tempting to drop any further thought about improving education; impossible to change anything as big, complex and entrenched in vested interests as education. But many of the world’s leading education systems have attained their positions in PISA only recently. Estonia rose steadily to the top among OECD countries, despite the fact that its expenditure per student remains about 30% lower than the OECD average. Portugal advanced to the OECD average level despite being severely hit by the 2008 financial crisis, and so did Poland. Some countries that still perform well below the OECD average saw remarkable improvements in their students’ performance, including Albania, the Republic of Moldova, Peru and Qatar. So it can be done.

Debunking some myths

One of the reasons why we get stuck in education is that our thinking is framed by so many myths.

The poor will always do badly in school. That’s not true: the 10% most disadvantaged kids in Shanghai did better on an earlier PISA math test than the 10% most advantaged students in large American urban areas.

Immigrants will lower the performance of a country on international comparisons. That’s not true: PISA shows no relationship between the share of immigrants and the quality of an education system, and the school systems where immigrant students settle matters a lot more than the country where they came from.

Smaller classes always mean better results. That’s not true: in fact, whenever high-performing education systems have to make a choice between a smaller class and a better teacher, they go for the latter.

More time spent learning always means better results. That’s not true: study hours in Finland are little more than half of what students in the UAE spend, but in Finland students learn a lot in little time while in the UAE they learn very little in a lot of time.

Learning from today’s educational leaders

The good news is that our knowledge about the most rapidly improving education systems has improved vastly. For a start, leaders in high-performing education systems have convinced their citizens to value the future. Chinese or Japanese parents and grandparents will invest their last money into their future, the education of their children. Much of the Western world has already spent the money of its children for consumption such that their nations are heavily indebted.

But valuing education highly is just part of the equation. Another part is the deep belief that every student can learn and to put the quality of learning first. In high-performing education systems parents and teachers trust that all students can and need to meet high standards, and that trust is manifested in student and teacher behaviour.

Valuing education highly is just part of the equation. Another part is the deep belief that every student can learn and to put the quality of learning first.

And nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers. Top school systems select and educate their teaching staff carefully. And they provide an environment in which teachers work together to frame good practice, and they encourage teachers to grow in their careers.

The best-performing school systems also provide high-quality education across the entire system so that every student benefits from excellent teaching. To achieve this, they attract the strongest principals to the toughest schools and the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms. They align policies and practices across the entire system, ensure that they are coherent over sustained periods of time, and that they are consistently implemented, with robust accountability systems that encourage improvement and innovation rather than administrative compliance.

Not least, top-performing school systems encourage their teachers to be innovative, to improve their own performance and that of their colleagues, and to pursue professional development that leads to better practice. To deliver on the promises offered in the digital age, countries will need convincing strategies to build teachers’ capacity to not just use but also develop new tools; and policy makers will need to become better at building support for this agenda. Given the uncertainties that accompany all change, the status quo will always have many protectors.

Fostering the skills needed for the future

It is important to build on the already ongoing efforts to establish an infrastructure for online and remote learning, and to continue to develop the capacity of students and teachers to learn and to teach in that way. Effective learning out of school during the pandemic placed much greater demands on autonomy, capacity for independent learning, executive functioning, self-monitoring, and capacity to learn on line. The plans to return to school should therefore focus on more intentional efforts to cultivate those essential skills among all students. This is important first because there is a possibility that, until a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 is widely available, any return to school may have to be again interrupted as a result of future outbreaks, at least locally. But beyond the pandemic, there are benefits to students in expanding their learning time and learning opportunities beyond the walls of the school by being able to learn using a variety of modalities of distance learning. The plans for school reopening could consider blended modalities to access the curriculum for all students.

In one way, the coronavirus crisis has revealed the enormous potential for innovation that is dormant in many education systems, which often remain dominated by hierarchical structures geared towards rewarding compliance. It will be important to create a more level playing field for innovation in schools. Governments can help strengthen professional autonomy and a collaborative culture where great ideas are refined and shared. Governments can also help with funding, and can offer incentives that raise the profile of, and demand for, what works. But governments alone can only do so much. Silicon Valley works because governments created the conditions for innovation, not because governments do the innovating. Similarly, governments cannot innovate in the classroom; but they can help by opening up systems so that there is an evidence-based, innovation-friendly climate where transformative ideas can bloom. That means encouraging innovation within the system and making it open to creative ideas from outside. That is another important lesson from the pandemic.

It will be crucial that the many good experiences learned during the pandemic will not be lost when things return to “normal” but provide inspiration for the further development of education.

To mobilise support for innovation, resilience and change, particularly in the uncertainty created by the pandemic, education systems need to become better at communicating the need and building support for change. Investing in capacity development and change-management skills will be critical; and it is vital that teachers become active agents for change, not just in implementing technological and social innovations, but in designing them too. That means also that education systems need to become better at identifying key agents of change and champion them; and to find more effective ways of scaling and disseminating innovations. It will be crucial that the many good experiences learned during the pandemic will not be lost when things return to “normal” but provide inspiration for the further development of education. That is also about finding better ways to recognise, reward and celebrate success, to do whatever is possible to make it easier for innovators to take risks and encourage the emergence of new ideas.

In sum, while this crisis has exposed the many inadequacies and inequities in our education systems, this moment also holds the possibility that we won’t return to the status quo when things return to “normal”. While the pandemic has disrupted education, these disruptions don’t have predetermined implications. It is the nature of our collective and systemic responses to the disruptions that will determine how we are affected by them. Securing significant improvements in learning outcomes will be central to this. As improvements in some countries have shown, the task is not to make the impossible possible, but to make the possible attainable. It is entirely within our means to deliver a future for millions of learners who currently don’t have one. Without improving on prior schooling, the huge economic losses to both the COVID-cohort of students and to nations will be baked into the future.  The projected losses are large enough to justify extraordinary efforts at improvement.

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Note on table: GDP for 2019 is in billions of US dollars in 2017 purchasing power parity (PPP) terms from the World Bank. Present value of lost GDP is based on estimated difference in GDP for 80 years with lower achieving labour force expected from educational losses of one-third or two-thirds years compared to future GDP without learning loss. Future losses are discounted at 3 percent.