COVID-19 has exacerbated the learning crisis. This demands bold, systemic action.

Three critical actions to protect children’s long-term life outcomes

Education systems can mitigate the learning losses caused by COVID-19, and even come back stronger than before, through three key actions:

  1. Making a system-wide commitment to prioritise foundational skills,
  2. Assessing children’s learning levels when schools reopen, and
  3. Adapting instruction to meet children where they are.

Why will COVID-19 school closures exacerbate the existing learning crisis?

  • Learning profiles in developing countries are flat, and many children fail to master foundational skills.
  • Learning levels in developing country classrooms vary widely, and COVID is likely to increase variation as students have different learning experiences and parental support at home.
  • The curriculum in many developing countries is overambitious, setting out an agenda that teachers and students cannot effectively cover. This will make recovery more challenging as teachers must help students catch up with where they ought to be in the curriculum while also teaching a more diverse classroom (Cilliers, 2020).

Projections and empirical estimates suggest that the full extent of the COVID-19 learning loss is produced not just by stagnation in learning while schools are closed, but by children continuing to fall behind even after they return to school. Governments should prioritise helping children catch up in order to ensure that learning losses now do not impede learning for years to come, impacting later life outcomes including earnings, health, and empowerment.

Action 1: Make a system-wide commitment to prioritise foundational skills

Foundational skills in reading and math should be a priority, because they unlock children’s ability to access content in more complex subjects. Children who fail to master them are at the greatest risk of long-term learning deficits. Political and educational leaders should make it clear that foundational skills are a priority, and articulate clear, achievable goals to reinforce this point, because education systems perform best when delegation is clear and consistent.

Action 2: Assess children’s learning levels when schools reopen

In order to get children back on track, teachers must know the learning levels of the students in their classrooms. Teachers will need resources to conduct diagnostic assessments and support, from within their school and from education authorities, to process this information and use it to adapt their classroom instruction to children’s learning levels.

Action 3: Adapt instruction to meet children where they are

As schools reopen, teachers should focus on helping students progress in foundational literacy and numeracy rather than on moving through the standard curriculum, and progress should be measured in terms of student improvement from baseline rather than against a curriculum standard. To achieve this, teachers will need information on students’ learning levels; the authorisation, resources, and capability to align teaching to be coherent with students’ abilities; and the support to put new practices into action.

On systems’ prioritisation of importance of foundational skills:

On systems’ response to the crisis:

For more resources, see all RISE research outputs on COVID-19.