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Reversing the global learning crisis before it derails a generation of children

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The latest U.S. math and reading scores showed worrisome declines due to the pandemic’s toll and related school closures.

For many developing countries, the impacts of this shock are even worse, amounting to a crisis in learning that threatens a generation of children.

As many as 70% of 10 year-olds in low- and middle-income economies can’t read and understand a basic text—what we call “learning poverty.”  

Learning deficits were already large before the pandemic but were deepened as COVID-19 brought education systems around the world to a standstill. This could result in massive productivity and earnings potential losses and endanger the future welfare of a generation of children and youth.

Governments and the international development community must act quickly and decisively.

During the pandemic, students made none of the usual learning gains while schools were closed, despite attempts to reach them with remote learning. 

For example, students in Malawi lost 18 months of learning during seven months of closures because they failed to learn new skills and forgot some of what they had already learned.  

And in São Paulo, Brazil, one of the first large jurisdictions to rigorously measure learning losses, the declines were so large that scores regressed to learning levels measured 14 years ago in math and 10 years ago in reading. Large losses have also been documented in India, Bangladesh, and Mexico.

A chance to recover learning losses, if we act

Most schools have already re-opened, but returning to the same way of teaching as before the pandemic will not be enough to recover these losses. Students are finding it difficult to keep up with their teachers and lessons. They are at risk of becoming disengaged and falling so far behind that they might drop out. Girls are at particular risk.

Four steps are needed to recover learning losses and transform education:

  1. Countries need to keep schools open and increase the hours per week of instruction.  In Kenya and Mexico, for example, governments have expanded the academic calendar by shortening holidays.
  2. To accelerate learning, institutions should be carefully matched with a student’s level of learning.  An example of this is the Teach at the Right Level program pioneered in India, grouping children by instructional needs rather than age or grade.
  3. A strong focus on foundational learning is critical. Overloaded curricula can be a big barrier to learning recovery. Focusing on literacy, numeracy, and social skills would help teachers and students target their efforts more effectively.  Countries including South Africa and Chile are working to focus their curricula to enhance foundational learning.
  4. Finally – most important – we must make recovering from the learning crisis a top political priority, with the funding to support it.  Many countries reduced education budgets when they closed schools during COVID-19.  Countries need to build focused programs to improve educational outcomes and skills aimed at employment opportunities for youth. Facing overlapping development crises, we know that governments and communities are struggling to prioritize limited resources. Yet we also know that the chances for a better future are defined by current education investments.

With partners UNICEF, UNESCO, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Sierra Leone, the United Kingdom and others, we are urgently calling for a commitment to action on foundational learning.  Through this joint effort, countries commit to invest the financial and human resources needed to achieve their own national learning targets, while international institutions commit to actively supporting governments to reduce global learning poverty by half. 

Unaddressed, the learning crisis could become the worst shock to human capital in recent history. But we can prevent further damage. Families, educators, governments, donors, civil society, and the private sector must work together to support students, teachers, and schools.

The stakes could not be higher. With strong commitment, we have the chance to recover the learning losses  – and to help put a generation of children and youth back on track toward developing the foundational skills they need for a bright future.

By DAVID MALPASS

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