Loss of learning during the pandemic

A few months ago, I came across a comment from a K-12 teacher talking about students falling behind during the pandemic. I can’t seem to follow the comment, but it was quite positive and uplifting, stating that the school system knows what needs to be done to help these students catch up. Maybe I’m just a sullen negative thinking smirker, but I didn’t believe it. After all, there are many students who were falling behind even before the pandemic, and this pattern has been going on for a long time. It seems clear to me that the school system has not really shown that it knows what it takes to help students catch up.

The problem is real. HOURAnthony Patrinos, Emiliana Vegas, Rohan Carter-Rau present an overview of research to date on learning loss in the first two years of the COVID pandemic in “Analysis of Student Loss Due to COVID-19”. (May 2022, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 10033). BUT a brief, readable overview of the authors’ study available here.

This article is a review of existing research. The authors searched for research papers from around the world that offered estimates of COVID-related learning loss for K-12 students. They found 61 articles, but some of them simply compared before and after tests, sometimes with very small samples or without any effort to adjust for potentially confounding variables. For example, if schools serving certain student groups were more or less likely to close during the pandemic, or if families of certain student groups responded differently to the pandemic, such differences should be taken into account. Thus, the authors focused mainly on 35 studies with large sample sizes in which some effort was made to sort other factors. They write:

Our final database consists of 35 robust studies and reports documenting learning loss,
representing data from 20 countries… Most studies (32) find evidence of learning
the loss. Of the 35 studies reporting learning loss, 27 report results in a comparable effect size format. As shown in Figure 1, in most studies, learning loss was in the range of 0.25 to 0.12 SD. In five studies, learning losses were even greater. The mean learning loss in these studies is 0.17 SD, corresponding to more than half a year of learning loss.

Research consistently finds heterogeneous effects of learning loss depending on socioeconomic status, past academic background, and subject of study. In our review, 20 studies examined learning loss by socioeconomic status. Of these, 15 show large learning losses among students or schools of lower socioeconomic status, and 5 show no statistically significant difference. Many studies have also shown that learning losses were more severe for students who experienced learning difficulties before the pandemic. …

Learning losses are significant in countries reporting losses through descriptive statistics. For example, in Bangladesh, literacy and enumeration rates for adolescent girls have declined by more than 6 percent (Amin et al 2021). In India, the proportion of 3rd grade children in public schools who can do simple subtraction fell from 24 percent in 2018 to just 16 percent in 2020, and the proportion of those who could read 2nd grade text fell from 19 percent in 2018 to 10 percent in 2020. 2020 (ASER 2021a). In Pakistan, the proportion of children in grades 1-5 who can read a story has dropped from 24 percent in 2019 to 22 percent in 2021 (ASER 2021b). There is a reported loss of tuition at one college in Sri Lanka (Sayejan and Nithlavarnan, 2018). In Uganda, the percentage of students who are proficient in English and numeracy fell by 5 percent in 2021, and
13 percent compared to 2018 (NAPE 2021). In Canada, grades 2 and 3 reading scores dropped by 4–5 points (Georgiou 2021). In the Republic of Korea, the scores of medical students have dropped significantly (Kim et al., 2021).

Consulting firm McKinsey provides more information in its report “How COVID-19 Caused a Global Learning Crisis.” (April 2022). Here is a chart showing the patterns of school closures around the world.

The McKinsey authors describe global patterns as follows:

  • High-performing, relatively high-achieving pre-COVID-19 systems where students can be one to five months behind due to the pandemic (e.g. North America and Europe where students are four months behind on average) .
  • Low-income systems struggling before the pandemic, with very low learning rates before COVID-19, where students can be three to eight months behind due to the pandemic (e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa where students average six months of schooling ). behind).
  • Pandemic-hit middle-income systems with moderate pre-COVID-19 learning where students can be nine to 15 months behind (e.g. Latin America and South Asia where students are on average 12 months behind).

These changes may seem minor, but they are there. For example, imagine for a moment how much it would cost if, on average, each student completed the equivalent of an additional year of academic study after graduation. For politicians involved in education reform, such an outcome would be like angels singing. Now let’s consider an alternative where, on average, students are half a year or a year behind.

The learning losses associated with the pandemic should be viewed as a national disaster with an aggressive response that goes far beyond the return of children to face-to-face education. Curricula need to be adjusted because many students will not be ready for what they are usually taught. There should be plans and funding for longer study days and summer sessions over the next few years, especially for students who were already falling behind even before the pandemic. Small group tutoring and in-person tutoring is one method that seems to help students catch up, and such programs are drastically expanding to include volunteers from retirees to parents, college and high school students who can work both in person and and on-line, it is very necessary. But my sullen, negative-minded smirking self suspects that we are simply going to deal with the challenges of the learning loss pandemic without drastic changes, and this will be a costly and long-term mistake.

Interested readers can also check out a review article that discusses these and other studies. in Economist magazine (July 7, 2022).