After the closure of schools by COVID-19, Africa must reform education to alleviate the learning delays that will weigh down the next generation. There are solutions, according to this new research
The covid-19 pandemic has caused a historic shock in education by closing the schools of more than 1.6 billion children in the world. This shock will worsen an educational crisis that already existed before and in which many students were already learning very little in school. The World Bank predicts that the percentage of illiterate children by age 10 could rise from 53% (pre-pandemic number) to 63% due to the closure of schools.
These deficits in teaching could be derived from a combination of elements: the forgetting of what was previously studied and the lack of what would have been learned if the schools had not closed. Such losses can accumulate over the long term. Pupils returning to schools, far behind the projections of the curricula, may be too far behind to learn from day-to-day teaching, thus falling further behind.
This new study , which we published in the International Journal of Educational Development , looks at how much learning may be lost in Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Tanzania, and Uganda as a result of the pandemic shutdown. We use data from the first grade reading assessments in these five countries. Our model indicates that there could be up to a year behind in learning in the short term. Our calculations warn that these deficits will be unevenly distributed and those who will fall further behind will be students who started out with lower learning levels.
According to our calculations, these short-term learning deficits could add up to 2.8 deficit years in the long term. This is the case if the curriculum – often overly ambitious and out of line with student learning levels – is not adjusted to allow students to reach the required level.
Historic opportunity for reform
But that doesn’t have to be the end result. Although COVID-19 has slowed learning, bold reform is possible, and the pandemic provides a historic opportunity to revamp education systems. It could be time to put in place practices and policies that have already been necessary to address the decades-long underlying education crisis.
The review of existing work identifies two strategies to mitigate learning losses and improve learning even beyond pre-covid-19 levels. This review builds on a growing base of interventions that have worked at scale in low- and middle-income countries to improve literacy and numeracy skills.
The first strategy is to adapt teaching to the student’s level of learning. This can be achieved at low cost through a test of the child’s knowledge during the training process – what is known as a formative assessment – and a variety of activities tailored to the level of each student. This strategy has more potential than prescriptive teaching based on a single curriculum.
The second strategy is to introduce structured pedagogy programs that combine structured lesson plans , teacher training and school support. In the current situation, many teachers are often forced to fend for themselves and write their own daily lesson plans. By providing structured and ongoing support, great strides in learning can be made.
Previous studies have shown that both proposals improve learning in three years of high-quality schooling at a cost of $ 100. These gains are roughly equivalent to the education gap in the tiered system between Zambia, one of the lowest performing countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and Kenya, one of the highest performing.
The model indicates that short-term correction through these strategies can significantly alleviate learning delays. And what is more surprising, the ambitious reforms linked to these strategies – such as the long-term adaptation of teaching to student levels – can not only alleviate all training deficits, but also improve previous learning levels to covid-19.
Countries that have already started
In the study we present some examples of countries that are beginning to implement these reforms, such as Botswana and Madagascar. In the second largest region of Botswana, the Northeast, the director of the Ministry of Basic Education asked all schools to carry out a formative assessment and implement the specific teaching immediately. And this was done when schools reopened in June 2020 after the first wave of closures due to covid-19.
The region updated the roles and responsibilities of educational personnel to regularize this reform. Training sessions were held with the support of the NGO I lead, one of the largest dedicated to youth in the country, Young 1ove , in collaboration with USAID and Unicef. The Ministry hoped that progress would be reported frequently and the regional director visited the schools directly to monitor implementation. Although causal evidence is not yet available, early data indicate that learning levels are improving faster than in other regions.
Madagascar is another example. The Government has strengthened the national program for recovery, called CRAN , which before the pandemic had been providing an intensive two-month learning period to children based on their level. By the end of 2018, CRAN had been implemented with the support of UNICEF in seven of the 22 regions of Madagascar. At the end of 2020 and in response to the closure of schools due to covid-19, this implementation was accelerated. Although the Government and Unicef are in the early stages of the project, it demonstrates how governments can reinforce current programs to change teaching and learning practices.
These reform initiatives are hopeful, but very few countries have taken steps to date. If urgent action is not taken, short-term learning delays could stunt the next generation of learners for life, with potential intergenerational consequences. Covid-19 presents the need to act urgently and provides an opportunity to devise different solutions. Perhaps some education systems will be reformed to achieve the long-awaited goal of education for all.