Three years into the Covid-19 pandemic, we can see the results of the largest natural global education experiment in modern history. They’re worrying.
At the height of pandemic shut-downs in April 2020, UNESCO estimated that 190 countries instituted nationwide closures of educational institutions, affecting nearly 1.6 billion students globally (94 percent of all learners). This represents one-fifth of humanity.
Since 2020, I have been leading a team of senior global education experts to inform the Group of Twenty (G20) advisory processes, a forum for international economic cooperation for leaders and heads of government of 19 countries and the European Union. Using UNESCO data, we estimated that between February 2020 and March 2022, education was disrupted globally for an average of 41 weeks — that’s 10.3 months.Extended school closures have grave and lingering effects on education, health, and social and economic well-being, even after students return. Some never will: Globally, an estimated 24 million are at risk of dropping out entirely. If these issues are left unaddressed, the United Nations’ secretary-general has warned that the effect will be a “generational catastrophe.”
We must take immediate steps to prioritize education systems, especially since more disruptions are likely. More than 250 million children were already out of school before the pandemic because of conflict, emergencies (like natural disasters) and social inequities. Countries continue to face complex challenges of climate change, conflict, displacement, disease, hunger and poverty. For example, schools in Delhi — which had some of the longest pandemic closures globally — were closed for additional weeks or months in 2021 and 2022 due to air pollution; in 2022, smoke from California wildfires caused closures from the coast to Reno, Nevada.
In case it isn’t obvious: Schools matter for learning. A new review of 42 studies covering 15 countries (primarily high-income) concluded that on average, children lost out on about 35 percent of a normal school year’s worth of learning due to pandemic closures. Learning deficits appeared early in the pandemic and persisted.
An earlier review covering high-income countries found, in seven out of eight studies, statistically significant negative effects of pandemic closures on learning in at least one subject area. Those studies mainly looked at elementary education and covered core subjects and areas such as math, reading and spelling. Importantly, the negative effects were worse for students from lower-income households, with relatively less-educated parents, from marginalized racial backgrounds or with disabilities.
A modeling study on low- and middle-income countries projected that if learning time in Grade 3 is reduced by one-third (roughly the scenario in the first wave of global pandemic-related school closures), students will be a full year behind by the time they reach Grade 10 if there isn’t remediation.
Schools matter for other reasons too: They are hubs for counseling, therapeutic services, childcare, protection and nutrition. The World Food Programme estimates that at the height of closures, “370 million children in at least 161 countries [including the US] were suddenly deprived of what was for many their main meal of the day.”
Schools also have large cumulative economic effects on societies. A comprehensive study of 205 countries concluded that four months of school closure (far less than the global average) can amount to a lifetime loss of earnings of around $3,000 per student in low-income countries and up to $21,000 in high-income countries. That may not seem like much at first glance, but the collective lost income for this generation is shocking: $364 billion in low-income countries to $4.9 trillion in high-income countries — amounting to a staggering 18 percent of the current global GDP.
So, what can we do?
It’s clear that digital technology and virtual instruction can provide some continuity, but they aren’t a panacea. The Survey on National Education Responses (led by UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and the OECD) revealed that only about 27 percent of low- and lower-middle-income countries and just 50 percent of high-income countries reported having an explicit policy on digital remote learning that was fully operationalized. Moreover, there is a global gender and wealth digital divide on access to basic digital infrastructure like devices and high-speed internet.
A study by World Bank researchers concluded that in the best-case scenario (high-income countries with shorter disruptions and better access to technology), virtual learning could compensate for as little as 15 percent to a maximum of 60 percent of learning losses.
Wide-scale remedial education programs to boost learning in areas like math, reading, writing and critical thinking can help. Intensive tutoring programs can narrow learning gaps, especially when they are one-on-one or in small groups, by a professional, and more than twice a week. One analysis showed that this kind of programming can increase student achievement from the 50th percentile to nearly the 66th percentile.
But one-off interventions aren’t enough for systems-level change. Without large-scale publicly financed remedial programs, we can expect obvious inequities in who benefits and who doesn’t. Those who can supplement their children’s education privately will do so, while others will be left further behind. We also need integrated curricular reform, where adaptations for each grade are connected to the previous grade and to the next to account for disruption.
Of course, teachers are the key resource for education systems. We entered the pandemic with a global shortage of 69 million teachers. There is now teacher attrition, and educational needs are even greater. Pay and better working conditions to retain and recruit teachers must be prioritized.
All this takes money.
Before the pandemic, low- and lower-middle-income countries already faced a $148-billion annual financing shortfall to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 on quality education for all by 2030. That gap has widened by a range of $30 billion to $45 billion.
In 2020, one-third of low- and lower-middle-income countries had to spend more on servicing their external debt than they could on education.
The global recommendation, set in the 2015 Incheon Declaration adopted at the World Education Forum, is for countries to spend at least 4 percent to 6 percent of their GDP or 15 percent to 20 percent of their public budget on education. Even before the pandemic, OECD countries spent only about 10 percent of public budgets on average on education. About a third of more than 150 countries missed both benchmarks.
Early data suggest the percentage of budgets going to education went down on average from 2019 to 2021, not up. Official aid programs also cut their budgets for education in 2020 to the lowest levels in five years.
Now, more than ever, governments must make different policy choices to prioritize education.
There’s a narrow window in which to address this, and that window is closing. The future of a generation depends on it.
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