Students worldwide remain more than a third of a typical school year behind their pre-pandemic academic pace, according to a new global research analysis, and experts say countries should do more to learn from each other on ways to speed students’ academic recovery.
“We need to do something beyond just going back to normal,” said Bastian Betthäuser, an assistant sociology professor at the Sciences Po Center for Research on Social Inequalities in France and an associate researcher in public policy at the University of Oxford, England. He is the lead author of a study released earlier this week that found overall, countries have stopped learning deficits from increasing, but have not yet recovered the ground students lost in the first year of the pandemic.
“It’s very hard to recover learning deficits once they’re there. It really takes a huge amount of investment, from a policy perspective, the necessary manpower in terms of qualified teacher personnel, and opportunities for kids to learn outside of the normal school year,” he said.
“There’s a tricky balance to strike here because, of course, kids only have so much capacity to take in new material to learn new skills,” Betthäuser said.
A broad group of international organizations, including UNESCO, the World Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, have launched what they call a RAPID framework for recovery efforts, for reach, assess, prioritize, increase, and develop:
Reach every child to keep them in school
More than a year after schools have reopened in person, absenteeism in many areas remains higher than it was pre-COVID. The OECD found only 60 percent of counties have consistently collected data on student absences in all three years of the pandemic.
Experts called for education system leaders to expand outreach campaigns for parents both before and during the school year, highlighting information about both the importance of attendance in academic recovery and the health and safety measures being taken in the schools to prevent outbreaks.
Ghana, for example, trained more than 260,000 staff in more than 160 districts to make a push to reenroll girls, who showed lower rates of return to school than boys after the pandemic and higher rates of teen pregnancy after the pandemic.
Assess learning levels regularly
District leaders should analyze systemwide test data not just for overall achievement levels, but to identify specific content areas that have gaps for different grades and students, and tailor professional development and other supports for teachers in those areas.
“I think part of the problem with the policy interventions we’ve seen is that they haven’t been targeted enough at the most disadvantaged kids who were also the ones who lost out the most,” Betthäuser said.
Prioritize teaching foundational skills
Experts called for school leaders to focus on boosting key foundational skills that students may have missed, by updating teacher guides and curricular materials for quick interventions, rather than trying to overhaul curriculums wholesale.
For example, Chile has started to distribute “curricular prioritization updates” that include standards, webinars, and professional development tools for teachers in topic areas where students have fallen short.
Increase instructional efficiency
Teachers now cope with students of more varied achievement levels and special education or language needs, and schools need ways to scale up models for extended learning, tutoring, and student-paced interventions.
For example, Brazil has started to scale up a program in which students who need help with particular skills or content areas receive targeted instruction during four periods of each school day, over two-week cycles.
Develop psychological health and well-being
Studies worldwide find worsening mental health and psychological development for children and adolescents during the pandemic, including higher rates of depression and anxiety, behavioral problems, and substance abuse. Research suggests schools are still struggling to increase capacity for student mental health services.
India has launched a national helpline for students in need of mental health services and counseling. In Liberia, the government partnered with the nonprofit group Read Liberia to make a series of 30-min radio lessons, which both covered early literacy skills and provided prompts for children to reflect on their emotions and identify healthy ways to cope with stress.
More than 80 percent of countries also have implemented contact tracing, and more than 60 percent now have protocols to assess the risk of COVID-19 or other outbreaks to reduce the need for full-scale school closures.