Ana Capilla is Lecturer in International Relations at Universidad Francisco de Vitoria. Jorge Sainz is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Bath Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and Professor of Economics at Rey Juan Carlos University (URJC). Ismael Sanz is Associate Professor of Economics at URJC.
In a recent post, UNESCO showed us similarities between COVID-19 and the challenges XIV century societies confronted during the Black Death, and how knowledge diffusion never stopped. Back then, as William Courtenay remembers, the plague helped develop new ways of teaching. It was the beginning of a new world in education, and so it will be this time again.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic schools are closing down all over the world, as it's considered one of the more relevant measures to stop the contagion. At the time of writing this post the numbers are astonishing - UNESCO estimates more than 1.5 billion learners are affected. Behind these numbers there are some big risks and a few opportunities that every nation is confronting, and their responses will shape the education and, therefore, the future of learners for decades to come.
In a recent OEI report, we reviewed the empirical evidence of the impact of school closures on educational attainment. We estimated, by using previous experiences, that the effect of school closures in Spain for this academic year will equate to 4.5% of the standard deviation. Shutting educational institutions will reduce the instructional time in a regular course by approximately 30%, which in terms of future earnings will represent a reduction of 1.5% of total future wages.
Those are not our final figures however. As for the first time in history, we believe there is a tool which may be a large-scale remedy for the loss of education: online classes. Since the beginning of the closures, educational authorities all over the world are turning to online teaching where possible. But there are several challenges to this method.
First, online education requires a greater commitment and discipline. Particularly in the early educational levels, where families are responsible for the level of commitment toward the development of their children. They must ensure that they are in touch with their schools and teachers, and carry out the activities provided by them. The role of parents is fundamental, and the level of support received at home can, in turn, be the cause of significant differences between students. For instance, students whose parents have a higher level of education may receive more help during quarantine, which can open or increase a gap between themselves and other students.
Second, the effectiveness of online education depends also on the involvement of the educator, his or her training in the use of online methodologies, and the use of a practical methodology that is more attractive to students. Unlike the next issue, this can be readily unraveled by authorities, such as through training to increase their effectiveness, and should be immediately addressed by Governments.
Finally, another fundamental matter on which little has yet been done, is a long term investment that cannot be solved in a matter of weeks: the quality of the digital platform and of the physical network. The difference between synchronous or asynchronous methodologies (interactive class or by downloading content) affects the reiteration of the interaction between students and the continuous evaluation of knowledge. So too does the quality of students’ hardware, determined mainly by the family income.
Depending on these issues, if online education compensates for 50% of face-to-face education, then the impact of school closures will be halved to 2.25% of the standard deviation. That is, half of the impact on student learning can be cushioned by online training. The final effect will depend on the effectiveness of online education in comparison with face-to-face traditional methods. This outcome may go from better results online to null, depending on the previous considerations.
From the previous paragraphs something is clear. Socio-economic conditions are going to have a severe impact on how the COVID-19 crisis will affect educational outcomes. Families with an educated background, and higher incomes in urban areas and developed countries may not be affected at all. As a result, the gap between rich and poor, urban and rural, or northern and southern students may broaden. Also, the economic effects post-crisis - with a great recession in sight, and an uncertain recovery - will mean a surge of unemployment. Evidence suggests that those families affected, most likely of medium and low income and skills, will confront an increasing likelihood of their learners not graduating from compulsory education on time or dropping out completely.
Additionally, as Doepke and Zilibotti remind us, measures from the United States show that in primary education the summer break can mean a loss of 4% of the 8% acquired knowledge in math during the academic year. If schools do not reopen soon, the loss will equate to two summers, and children with lower achievement - most of them from the least fortunate families - may have lost a complete academic year. A long term result, Rodrick and Salman point out, will be an increasing difficulty to find a "good job," defined as one that allows a person to develop professionally, a fair wage and, in general, the possibility of belonging to the middle class of a country with all of the privileges and benefits this entails. In not addressing these issues currently, the differences between those who are able to get a "good job" and those who are not, will only be exacerbated. There is a need for a new social pact focused on the welfare of society through an improvement of education that allows everyone to obtain the advantages of belonging to it. Governments have to take action.
Some countries, like Italy, are moving towards a general pass for the academic year. These measures are risky as they tend to perpetuate the gap between students’ backgrounds, unless they come up with remedial measures. For example, the Italian Government has bowed to pressure for an early start of the next academic year and for provision of additional classes to those students who need extra help.
In Spain, a decade ago, the experience of the PROA programme, which gave extra support to disadvantaged students (those who will be most affected by the closure of schools), improved academic performance on reading and learning by 8.5%. Furthermore, regions like Galicia, who improved upon the programme by signing school-tailored contracts for schools most in need, got even better results with a long-lasting impact. Other regional governments included different measures, like fiscal stimulus to provide laptops and subsidise home connectivity for low-income students.
There is a lot at stake. We may have lost a generation or the opportunity to close a gap between those who can and those cannot. Never have differences been so dependent on authorities’ decisions. In an economy where automatisation is hanging like Damocles’ sword over the less-trained, the lack of action may have lasting effects on a whole cohort of students if nothing is done.
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All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.