The state of education – one year into COVID

School bag on school desk with face mask and hand sanitiser next to it

By Andreas Schleicher

Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– A new OECD survey shows some countries were able to keep schools open even in difficult pandemic situations
– The new data highlight opportunities for improvement in education systems
– Mobilising support for innovation, resilience and change in education is more important than ever

In an unprecedented education crisis like the one caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it is difficult to derive insights from the past. But it helps to look outwards to how other education systems are responding to similar challenges. To support this, the OECD has collected comparative education statistics to track developments throughout the pandemic through a series of Special Surveys.

The results from the latest Special Survey show that some countries were able to keep schools open and safe even in difficult pandemic situations. Social distancing and hygiene practices proved to be the most widely used measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but they imposed significant capacity constraints on schools and required education systems to make difficult choices about the allocation of educational opportunity. The vaccination of teachers has also been part of national strategies, with 19 out of the 30 education systems with comparable data implementing national measures prioritising teachers’ vaccination. However, the limited initial supply of vaccines, and competing public health objectives make the prioritisation of vaccination a difficult balancing act.

School closures

It is noteworthy that infection rates in the population appear unrelated to the number of days in which schools were closed. In other words, countries with similar infection rates made different policy choices when it comes to school closures, whether motivated by educational objectives, by the health infrastructure or by other public policy objectives.

What is concerning, however, is that the countries with the lowest educational performance tended to see the greatest number of instructional days lost. In fact, the performance of 15-year-olds on the PISA 2018 reading test explains 53% of the variation across countries in the number of instructional days lost in 2020 in upper secondary schools. In other words, education systems with already poorer learning outcomes in 2018 saw more learning opportunity lost in 2020. This means that the COVID crisis did not just amplify educational inequalities within countries, but also the performance gap among countries.

Graph showing countries with lower educational performance kept schools closed longer in 2020

Mitigating the impact of shutting schools

Where school closures were needed, the Special Survey shows that many countries made major efforts to mitigate their impact for learners, families and educators, often with particular attention to those in the most marginalised groups. Where school capacity was limited because of social distancing, most countries prioritised young children and students from disadvantaged backgrounds for learning in-person, reflecting that the social context of learning is most important for these groups, while digital alternatives are least effective for them. 71% of countries with comparable data provided remedial measures to reduce learning gaps at the primary level, 64% did so at the lower secondary and 58% at the upper secondary level of education. About half of the countries introduced specific measures focused on disadvantaged students, while about 30% targeted measures at immigrant, refugee, ethnic minority or indigenous groups. The question is, why did we need a pandemic to make these things happen?

The question is, why did we need a pandemic to make these things happen?

Significant efforts were made to ensure reliability and predictability of services for students and parents, and to ensure that all students have a regular and dedicated contact, even when schools were closed. Many countries put in place new channels to facilitate communication between students, families, teachers and school or local authorities. Countries have also relied on a range of approaches to ensure inclusiveness in distance education. This included flexible and self-paced digital platforms as well as agreements with mobile communications operators and internet firms to enhance access, particularly at the primary level of education.

Local capacity was key for a safe opening of schools. Success often depended on combining transparent and well-communicated criteria for service operability, with flexibility to implement them at the frontline. The latter often included local decisions as to when to implement measures of social distancing, hygiene, quarantine or the closures of classes or schools.

With reduced instruction time, it was essential to prioritise curriculum content to avoid teachers and students becoming overburdened. Sometimes core subjects like reading or mathematics were given greater emphasis. When it comes to learning at school, priority was often given to the learning of new content over the rehearsal of material, to the preparation and review of material learned at distance, and to the motivation and development of effective learning strategies and social learning.

The pandemic also complicated the administration of national examinations and assessments. To a varying degree, education systems changed the calendar, content and mode of examinations and assessments. The variation in the extent to which countries deviated from their assessment and examination plans relates both to the pandemic context and to how important these tests were in their respective education systems. Countries that could draw on multiple modes of assessment in pre-pandemic times found it easier to substitute examinations with other ways to recognise student learning.

Teaching and learning in the digital environment

During school closures, digital resources became the lifeline for education and the pandemic pushed teachers and students to quickly adapt to teach and learn on line. Virtually all countries have rapidly enhanced digital learning opportunities for both students and teachers and encouraged new forms of teacher collaboration. The responses from the Special Survey show consistent patterns across countries: Online platforms were extensively used at all levels of education, but particularly so at the secondary level. Mobile phones were more common at the secondary level and radio at the upper secondary level. Take-home packages, television and other distance learning solutions were more common at the primary level.

Chart showing the different distance learning solutions adopted during the COVID pandemic

Not least, the transition to remote instruction and the subsequent re-opening of schools had a profound impact on teachers’ work. The crisis required many of them to acquire new skills and prepare materials suited to virtual learning environments. In some cases, it also added new responsibilities to their work, such as the co-ordination of support and resources for their students, increased interaction with parents, the organisation of remedial classes or the implementation of new administrative, health and safety procedures in schools. In some contexts, teachers’ absences further limited capacity and placed constraints on schools’ ability to reduce class sizes or implement different hybrid learning models. The Special Survey shows how these new demands on teachers and their colleagues have moved some countries to change their staffing and recruitment practices.

The transition to online or hybrid teacher professional learning has been an additional challenge for many teachers who were not familiar with online learning formats. Teacher engagement in online professional development was limited prior to the pandemic and teachers were less likely than other professionals to learn by keeping up to date with new products and services. The Special Survey shows how most countries made major efforts to support teachers’ learning on line during the pandemic, for instance by providing ICT access and connectivity to teachers or supporting ICT-related teacher professional learning to build teachers’ digital competence.

Building education systems for young people’s future, not our past

Of course, all of this costs money. In the 2019/20 school year, most countries were able to mobilise additional resources for their extra efforts during the pandemic, and the estimations by countries suggest that many countries will be able to raise additional funds also in the 2020/21 school year. However, the long-term economic outlook is far more challenging. Now is the time for countries to build on the lessons of the pandemic to reconfigure the people, spaces, time and technology to devise more effective and efficient educational environments.

In one way, the 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 but also making it open to creative ideas from outside.

Now is the time for countries to build on the lessons of the pandemic to reconfigure the people, spaces, time and technology to devise more effective and efficient educational environments

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 is crucial that the many good experiences being learnt during the pandemic are not 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.

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