BIG SHOCKS HAVE SOMETIMES CHANGED schooling for the better. The Second World War midwifed the Butler Act in Britain, which increased years of compulsory schooling and abolished fees still charged by many government schools. After Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, officials there embarked on sweeping school reforms. Nine years later, graduation rates have increased by 9-13 percentage points.
Covid-19 has disrupted education on a scale never seen before. By mid-April 2020, more than 90 percent of the world’s learners had been locked out of classrooms. Closures have lasted months, harming children’s learning, safety and well-being. Yet as youngsters in rich countries — the focus of this report — return to their classrooms, reformers hope the shock will lead to changes that will make schools more efficient, flexible and fair.
Critics of modern schools like to argue that they have barely changed since the 19th century, when teachers began abandoning one-room schoolhouses for large institutions that divided pupils into cohorts by age. That is an exaggeration. But traditional models of school have proved remarkably enduring, says Larry Cuban, an education historian at Stanford University. He says parents value the efficiency and orderliness of the old-fashioned age-graded school. “People want that and like it, even though they complain about it.”
Yet even before the pandemic, there were reasons to wonder if the rich world’s schools were running out of puff. In tests carried out across rich countries by the OECD, an inter-governmental group, children are, on the whole, scoring no better than they did two decades ago even though per-pupil spending has been rising. Many are bored. In 2017, pollsters at Gallup concluded that only one-third of older high-schoolers in America felt ‘engaged’ by their classes.
Covid-19 and the closing of school buildings forced teachers to shift to remote learning in a matter of days, cobbling together online teaching platforms out of business tools. Curriculums were stripped back. Britain, France and Ireland, among others, cancelled big exams. For part of 2020, many American schools eschewed grades entirely, reverting to pass or fail.
For the vast majority of families in America, online teaching has been “something between disappointing and disastrous,” says Justin Reich of the Teaching Systems Lab at the Boston-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Data from around the world suggests that, on average, children have learned much less than they would usually have done. By March 2021, primary-school pupils in England had fallen nearly three months behind. Last summer tests of children in Belgium found similar lags. A study of pupils in the Netherlands found that during an eight-week period of remote learning in the first half of 2020, the average pupil learned nothing new at all.
Children who were already disadvantaged have suffered most. The Dutch study found that learning loss was more than 50 percent greater for children with poorly educated parents. By autumn 2020, eight and nine-year-olds in Ohio were behind in English by about a third of a year’s worth of learning, compared with children in earlier years. The test scores of black students declined by nearly 50 percent more than those of white pupils.
School closures have also underlined the importance of in-person schooling for children’s mental and physical health. Youngsters in Italy ate less healthily when their school buildings were shut. Reports of child abuse have fallen largely because teachers — often the first to spot it — have not been seeing their pupils in the flesh.
(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist and Times Higher Education)