Rethinking Education Post-Coronavirus: Lessons from Spain to Avoid Widening the Socioeconomic Achievement Gap

By Ana Capilla, Organización de Estados Iberoamericanos (OEI) and UFV; Jorge Sainz, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (URJC), Madrid (Spain) and IPR (University of Bath, UK); and Ismael Sanz, URJC, Madrid (Spain)

In a recent post, UNESCO reminded us of the similarity between the learning challenges that fourteenth century societies confronted during the Black Death and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Back then, as William Courtenay remembers, the plague helped develop new ways of teaching and the beginning of the substitution of Latin with popular languages as vehicles to communicate science. Just as that global pandemic marked the beginning of a new world in education, so could the current one if policymakers respond thoughtfully to this education crisis.

School closures are happening all over the world and learning is being disrupted. At the time this post was written, more than 1.5 billion learners have been displaced – more than 91% of all students. Those few countries where schools have remained open are moving towards a total lockdown as an important response to contain the spread of COVID-19. Beyond these numbers, however, countries face many risks to recent gains in education opportunities, especially for students from vulnerable families.

In a recent OEI report, we reviewed the empirical evidence of the impact of school closures on educational attainment. We surmise, based on the estimates from experiences of previous crises throughout history, that the effect of school closures from the official Declaration of Alarm in Spain (March the 15th) for this academic year will reduce the instructional time of a regular course by about 30%. In terms of OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), this reduction is the difference between Spain and the OECD average (8 points).

The solution is not without challenges

Yet, these findings need not define the final outcome of this pandemic. For the first time in history, we have a tool that may serve as a large-scale remedy for the loss of classroom-based education and enable the continuity of learning programmes: distance learning. Since the beginning of the closures, educational authorities across the world are turning to distance teaching and learning where possible, but there are several notable challenges to this policy.

First – aside from internet connectivity – online education requires a greater commitment and discipline from learners and teachers. If this can be achieved, academic performance could be at least as good as traditional formats. Second, at lower educational levels (pre-primary and primary), families are responsible for enabling teaching, motivating their children (and themselves) and promoting learning. Parents must ensure that students remain in touch with their teachers and carry out the recommended lessons and activities provided. The role of parents is fundamental in distance learning and can be the cause of significant differences in learning outcomes among students. Generally, students whose parents have a higher educational attainment could possibly provide more support during quarantines which, in turn, may increase the learning gap between students of different socioeconomic groups. This outcome of course is conditional on many factors, including if both parents are teleworking full time or are deemed part of essential services.  

Third, the effectiveness of distance education depends on the involvement of the teacher, her or his training in the use of distance learning methodologies, the interaction of teachers and students as they engage in learning, and the use of a practical methodology that is attractive to students. This can be readily examined and remedied by authorities through training the trainer to increase the effectiveness of teachers and distance learning platforms and should be immediately addressed by governments.

Fourth, as alluded to earlier, a fundamental matter that cannot be solved in a matter of weeks or months is access to and quality of the digital platform and physical network. The difference between synchronous or asynchronous methodologies (i.e. interactive classrooms, downloading content, etc.) affects the teacher/student and student/student interaction and the continuous evaluation of knowledge, which is also a relevant issue. In this instance, the level and quality of student access to computers/digital technology and high-speed networks is largely determined by family income.

Vulnerable learner populations will need more support

Ultimately, a country’s ability to mitigate the prevalence and severity of these four challenges will determine the impact of school closures and confinement on student learning. In fact, we estimate that distance learning can compensate for half of the lost face-to-face education time. In this case, the impact of school closures could be halved and the negative impact on student learning/attainment will be reduced. The final impact will depend on the effectiveness of distance learning compared to face-to-face traditional methods for all learners.

Specifically, lower socioeconomic groups are most at risk during this period of COVID-19 school closures if education policies do not target their particular challenges with regards to distance learning. In general, students from families with high educational attainment, higher incomes, living in urban areas and in high-income countries will fare better and their academic performance may not be as negatively affected by school closures. As a result, the education disparities between rich and poor, urban and rural or northern and southern students may broaden. Also, the effects of an expected post-COVID economic crisis, with a great recession in sight and an uncertain economic recovery will mean a surge of unemployment and deepening levels of poverty. Evidence from previous recessions suggests that students from vulnerable families will confront the increasing likelihood of not graduating from compulsory education on time or dropping out altogether.

Supportive education policy action is urgently needed

To avoid these consequences, we believe that governments have to take rapid action based on existing evidence. Some countries, like Italy, are moving towards a general pass for the academic year. Such measures are risky as they tend to perpetuate the gap between students’ socioeconomic backgrounds unless accompanied by remedial measures. For example, the Italian Government has opted for an early start to the next academic year and agreed to the provision of additional classes to those students who need extra help.

The Spanish experience with the PROA programme (Plan de Refuerzo, Orientación y Apoyo en centros de Educación Primaria y Educación Secundaria) a decade ago provides some relevant evidence to guide the COVID-19 response. During the Great Recession, the PROA programme provided extra support to disadvantaged students who would have been most affected by school closures and in so doing, improved academic performance in reading and learning by 8.5%. Regions like Galicia or Murcia, which tailored the programme by signing school-based contracts for schools that needed more support had better learning outcomes and a long-lasting impact. Other regional governments offered different measures, such as a fiscal stimulus to provide laptops and subsidize home connectivity for low-income students.

In periods of crisis, history reminds us that much is at stake. Governments have the ability to reduce the negative impacts of school closures by attending specifically to those students who are most at risk. Many countries are home to the same type of students who are already vulnerable (i.e. those living in rural areas and from lower socioeconomic groups) and who need supportive education policies to succeed. Improving distance learning policies with these students in mind as the PROA programme has done – can provide a strong remedy to the current crisis in education.

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