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Making Sense of the Global Learning Crisis: How Bad Could It Get?

By Aapo Markkanen | March 03, 2021 | 0 Comments

Tech and Service Providers

Of all possible paradigm shifts, watershed moments and disruptions that the COVID pandemic has ushered in, there is one that is starting to feel to me strikingly underexplored for its long-term consequences. I’m talking about the worldwide school closures and their impact on education. In this post, I’m trying to form a better understanding of the scale of the issue. Later on, I will be exploring what it may mean from the tech industry’s perspective.

On one hand, it needs to be noted digital transformation has worked its magic also in this field. That is something I have witnessed first-hand while observing and supporting our daughter’s remote learning in the past two months. Previously, I would have never imagined that a child on her first school year could make any significant progress through remote learning. The fact that she has managed to do so speaks for the skills and dedication of her teachers, as well as the power of available tools and enabling infrastructure. Just less than a decade ago, learning from home would have been a very different experience for many schools and families.

On the other hand, there is no denying that beyond positive surprises and reassuring anecdotes the big picture is extremely concerning. Digital skills and virtual tools have helped as a stopgap, but at a societal level they clearly cannot come even close to subsituting the value of in-person schooling and peer interaction. In basic education, the role of digital has been more about preventing a severe crisis from becoming an outright catastrophe, rather than the sort of adaptive and progressively improving muddling through seen largely in business.

Confirming the existence of that crisis, and measuring its magnitude, is obviously difficult to do on the fly, with the underlying pandemic still raging. However, here are some country-level findings that at least serve as indicators of what we might be facing once life starts returning to normal:

In the UK, the Education Endownment Foundation estimates [PDF] that among the local Year 2 pupils (age 6-7) the hitherto Covid effect on both maths and reading was around two months’ worth of lost progress, as measured in autumn 2020. It also identified an attainment gap of seven months between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils. The study had no comparable baseline to establish the Covid effect on the attainment gap, but suggested that it is wider than in earlier (pre-pandemic) estimates. Since it was conducted, the UK has undergone another round of school closures, lasting from the New Year until the second week of March.

In Chile, the Ministry of Education assessed in August 2020 that the interruptions to face-to-face learning during the then school year would translate, on average, into a learning loss of 88% against what would have been expected. For the pupils in the richest household quintile the effect was 64% and for the ones in the poorest quintile 95%. Here, it is worth pointing out that the school year in Chile runs from March to December — making the early timeline of the pandemic particularly unfortunate from the schooling perspective. The same goes for most other South American countries.

In the US, the situation seems to vary greatly across states and even school districts. To give you an idea of the scale of things, according to one measure — by Bellwether Education Partners, as of October 2020 — out of the 12.4 million American students defined as educationally marginalized a whole total of 3 million had not accessed any form of schooling, in-person or virtual, since March 2020.

These data points at least give us some kind of ballpark on the effects the school closures are causing in different countries and, notably, in different socioeconomic groups. For an overview on the number and the length of school closures, at any point in time since the beginning of the pandemic, this data visualization from UNESCO is an enlightening resource. As of March 1 2021, 145 million learners were affected globally, representing 8.3% of the enrolled total. At the current peak, on 2 April 2020, that count was 1.485 billion, or 84.8% of the global total.

All told, what we are witnessing is an enormous amount of human capital being wiped off from the world, much of it irreversibly. The problem is not only that chukdren have been missing out on learning new things, but that they are also forgetting things they had already learned, similar to the summer learning loss observed in normal times. Some portion of what has been or will be lost can be brought back through extended school hours and terms, tutoring programmes and other forms of extra investment, but we also must be realistic about what can be ultimately accomplished in that regard. After all, in parallel to the learning crisis the school closures have also created a mental-health one among school-goers, which means that “catching up” on foregone schoolwork is by no means a matter of crafting a controllable input/output loop and delivering results against an agreed specification.

If we consider the economics of the learning crisis — or global educational deficit, if you will — the numbers don’t get any gentler. The World Bank has simulated the impact of school closures under different scenarios, estimating an average shutdown of 5 months would ultimately lead to a cumulative loss of $10 trillion in the affected cohort’s lifelong earnings. Meanwhile, the OECD has calculated that losing one-third worth of annual learning would lower a country’s GDP by an average of 1.5% over the remainder of the century.

Heavy stuff. Let’s digest it for a moment. I will be writing next about the business implications of all this — discussing especially what technology and service providers should do differently in the new era.



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