Is the COVID-19 slide in education real?

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Children in class. Children in class.

Emerging pieces of evidence of an actual COVID-19 learning loss and of its likely implications for the future of the generation currently in school show that it is essential to mitigate the long-term effects of the pandemic as much as possible.

COVID-19 driven school closures have brought significant disruption in education across Europe and Central Asia (ECA). Emerging evidence from some of the region’s highest-income countries is showing that the pandemic is resulting in learning losses and increases in inequality. It is likely that lower-income countries are suffering even more. To reduce and reverse the long-term negative effects, countries need to implement learning recovery programs, protect educational budgets, and prepare for future shocks by building back better.

At the peak of the pandemic, 45 countries in the region closed their schools, affecting 185 million students. Given the abruptness of the situation, teachers and administrations were unprepared for this transition and were forced to build emergency remote learning systems almost immediately. As of early December, 5,623 schooling days have been lost across all of the countries in Europe and Central Asia. Starting in early March 2020, most school systems across ECA were closed.

One of the limitations of emergency remote learning is the lack of interaction between teacher and student. With broadcasts, this is not possible. However, several countries showed initiative by using other methods to promote interaction between teachers and their students, including social media, email, telephone and even the post office.

Learning losses are real 

Across ECA, evidence is emerging to show that school closures have resulted in actual learning loss – a ‘COVID slide’. Research analyzing these outcomes is ongoing, but early results from Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom have shown both learning losses and increases in inequality. Evidence is also emerging from Kazakhstan of a significant reduction in existing knowledge during the school closures. Alarmingly, these losses are found to be much higher among students from less-educated homes. This finding is reinforced by a study which shows that children from socioeconomically advantaged families have received more parental support with their studies during the school closure period.

Figure 1

Bleak outlook for other countries. These emerging data not only provide insights into the region’s highest-income countries but can also be used to predict outcomes in middle- and low-income countries, which are likely to be suffering even worse consequences. Despite their substantial technological capability, Europe’s high-income countries have experienced learning losses and increased inequality as a result of the abrupt transition to virtual learning, so these outcomes are likely to be even more acute in lower income countries where there is much less technological capability and larger portions of families live below the poverty line. Across ECA, one-third of the region’s nations are not fully connected to the Internet. Additionally, only 50 percent of schools have sufficient IT equipment and internet connectivity to deliver a minimal level of educational content. As a result, it can be expected that the negative consequences in the region’s middle- and low-income countries are likely to be significant.

Outside of the classroom, learning losses may translate into even greater long-term challenges. Decreases in test scores are associated with future declines in employment. Conversely, increases in student achievement lead to significant increases in lifetime earnings, as do increases in years of schooling is associated with an 8 to 9 percent gain in lifetime earnings.

In response to rising COVID-19 cases, some countries have implemented a second wave of school closures. Others are still relying on partial virtual instruction. With the use of virtual learning still prevalent, it is essential that actions should be taken now to reduce the long-term effects of the pandemic as much as possible. 

In the absence of any intervention, the learning losses arising from the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to have a long-term compounding negative effect on children’s future well-being. This includes learning losses, less access to higher education, lower labor market participation, and lower future earnings.

Recommended Interventions 

To mitigate these challenges while also building a more resilient system that can withstand future crises, we make three core recommendations – implementing learning recovery programs, protecting education budgets, and preparing for future shocks. 

1.    Implement learning recovery programs.

Most immediately, governments must ensure that students who have fallen behind receive the support that they need to catch up to expected learning targets. The first step must be to carry out just-in-time assessments to identify these students and their support needs.

Research has shown that 12-week programs of tutoring can result in students making the kind of progress that would be expected from three to five months of normal schooling. In Italy, middle school students who received three hours of online tutoring a week via a computer, tablet, or smartphone, saw 4.7 percent boost in math performance, English, and Italian.

Another proven method to improve reading scores quickly is Teaching at the Right Level, an approach that works by: assessing children’s learning levels, grouping children based on learning levels rather than age or grade, using a range of engaging teaching and learning activities, focusing on foundational skills rather than solely on the curriculum, and tracking children’s progress. With this, randomized trials have shown that tailored educational systems that make instruction more relevant to the current level of students’ competences has a significant impact of learning outcomes, particularly among lagging students. As teachers identify the best learning recovery programs for their students, it is imperative that particular attention is paid to low-income and disadvantaged students who fell further behind during the school closures. With this, governments also need to support teachers with more resources and additional training.

2.    Protecting the education budget. Given the significant financial strain that economies have been under during the pandemic, government budget cuts can be expected and this may jeopardize the gains that have been made in recent years in terms of access to education and improved learning outcomes. To ensure a resilient recovery, it is essential that the education budget is protected and that the schools that need financing the most are supported. To help the most vulnerable students, governments should be directing much of the funding and resources to support schools delivering remote instruction, particularly if those schools are serving high-poverty and high-minority populations. To encourage students to remain in school, incentives such as scholarships may need to be implemented.

Learning recovery programs will not be feasible without substantial financial support. In the presence of budget cuts, affluent families will be able to continue to fund educational supports like tutoring; however, lower income families will not as easily be able to fill this gap. For example, the UK announced a £1 billion pupil catch-up fund that contained a portion set aside for tutoring and the National Tutoring Programme with a £76 million budget. Therefore, significant budget allocations and further actions are needed to return to previous levels of learning.

3.    Preparing for future shocks by building back better. Looking to the future, it is not only imperative that we recover from the pandemic but that we use this experience to become better prepared for future crises. To support this, countries need to build their capacity to provide virtual education in the future. Schools should be better prepared to switch easily between face-to face and remote learning as needed. With this in mind, it will be necessary to develop flexible curricula that can be taught in person or online.  Additionally, teachers need to be better equipped to manage a wide range of IT devices in the event of a future lockdown. Offering short training courses to improve their digital skills will help. Using the post-pandemic to rebuild education systems and make them resilient is a priority. At the same time, it is important to build the future education system that will not be subject to lost learning during the next pandemic.


Robin Donnelly

Education Consultant

Harry A. Patrinos

Senior Adviser, Education

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