Education policy cannot be business as usual after Covid
The writer is a philanthropist and the founding chairman of the Central Square Foundation of India
In low- and middle-income countries, more than half of children cannot read and understand a simple story after five years of schooling. It only got worse when the Covid pandemic caused schools to close. Not only did the children lose the in-person learning, but they also forgot what they had learned the previous year.
In India, for example, more than 90% of students in grades 2-6 lost at least one specific language skill in 2021, on average, compared to the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Similarly, more than four-fifths lost at least one specific mathematical ability. In developing countries, this “learning poverty” has increased by almost a third since the start of the pandemic. This risks massively reducing the potential earnings of these children for life.
To enable them to focus on learning recovery, we need to be aware of their social and emotional needs, especially the needs of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, as the pandemic continues to disrupt their lives.
Reading meaningfully and solving basic math problems by the end of Grade 3 (age 8) are foundational skills that every child should be proficient in. People assume that high school leaving exams can make or break a student’s life, but they won’t succeed unless they first learn the essential reading, writing and numeracy skills in the early years. . And there is a growing realization that, in education, “business as usual” will no longer suffice in a post-pandemic world.
Policy makers react. India’s National Education Policy 2020 places the highest priority on basic learning – and underscores the need for urgent action. It has set itself the goal of raising the level of achievement of schoolchildren by 2026-2027.
However, for core learning programs to have a meaningful impact, they must be evidence-based and implemented at scale. That’s why the Central Square Foundation works with federal and state governments to implement foundational literacy and numeracy programs.
Given the acute learning crisis, we need to learn from best practices around the world. All countries need to adopt a systems approach that engages everyone in education – from leaders to teachers to parents – to understand and prioritize the following five elements to improve outcomes.
Goal setting. We need to establish a common understanding of narrowly defined learning objectives for Grades 1-3. Uttar Pradesh, for example, has stated that every child in Grade 2 should be able to solve addition and subtraction problems. Defining what children should know and be able to do at each level will lead to structured learning. This facilitates monitoring, holds stakeholders accountable and quantifies progress. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has thrown his weight behind goals such as oral reading fluency – the number of words a child can read per minute with fluency, accuracy and meaning.
Pedagogical approach and resources. To ensure consistent and high standards in every classroom, we need to create a strong set of teaching and learning resources and teacher support systems. These include materials for students, such as workbooks and step-by-step lesson plans for teachers, as well as ongoing coaching and support. Such a structured pedagogical approach can improve learning outcomes on a large scale, as demonstrated by programs like Tusome in Kenya and Room to Read in India.
Learn at home with Edtech. With schools closed during the pandemic, governments, teachers and parents have turned to educational technology to continue learning. We must not lose this momentum. Edtech has the potential to improve outcomes by allowing children to learn at their own level and pace. We need to make better use of it at home to help children learn and practice what is taught in the classroom – an approach taken by Rocket Learning, an Indian non-profit organization.
Monitoring and evaluation. Constant monitoring against core literacy and numeracy goals is essential to assess progress and adopt course-correcting measures. Uttar Pradesh, for example, uses many technological tools to monitor classroom observations and teacher mentoring. It presents multiple metrics in a user-friendly, color-coded, single-page report that can be easily interpreted by administrators.
Student assessments. India conducts the largest large-scale, sample-based assessment in the world: the National Achievement Survey. Such systems provide a useful snapshot of how the education system is doing, indicating what is working and what needs improvement. Classroom assessments should be “low-stakes”: not pass or fail students, nor measure teacher performance, but rather help adjust teacher approaches for better results. We must continue to support and hold teachers accountable, as many factors are beyond their control in the classroom.
Any national effort must also extend to private schools. Almost half of Indian children study in private schools, most of which cater to children from low-income communities. But these schools do not have external exams until grades 10 and 12, making it difficult for parents to understand how their children are achieving learning outcomes. India’s national education policy calls for assessments for all children at the end of grades 3, 5 and 8 – much like Australia’s national assessment curriculum. These reviews help parents make informed school choices.
Today’s primary school children will join the workforce by 2035. If India and other developing countries prioritize better educational outcomes, we can reap the demographic dividend for decades to come.