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Asia's post-COVID education catch-up

May 09,2022 - Last updated at May 09,2022

MANILA — Across Asia and the Pacific, students and parents are breathing a sigh of relief as schools reopen and in-person classes gradually resume. But now comes the reckoning: Failure to make up for students’ significant education losses during the COVID-19 pandemic could diminish their lifetime earning potential and substantially damage economic equity throughout the region.

With the new academic year in many Asian countries starting in a matter of months, governments must urgently mitigate these learning shortfalls by strengthening schools and social safety nets. While many schools offered remote learning during the pandemic, this was a poor substitute for in-person instruction, especially in developing countries. According to Asian Development Bank estimates, students in developing Asia lost over half a year of effective learning on average.

The costs of doing nothing are steep. If not remedied, students’ lost education will reduce their productivity throughout their working lives and translate into estimated aggregate forgone earnings of $3.2 trillion in constant 2020 dollars, equivalent to 13 per cent of developing Asia’s GDP in 2020.

Learning losses during the pandemic were not borne evenly, which makes reversing them even more challenging. Girls and students from poorer households struggle disproportionately with remote learning, owing to less access to computers, the internet, a parent or other adult who can help them, and a conducive home study environment. Moreover, they are often taken out of school in response to economic hardship, which many Asian households experienced during the pandemic.

As a result, estimated learning losses for students from the poorest 20 per cent of households in developing Asia are one-third higher than for students from the richest 20 per cent, corresponding to a projected 47 per cent greater loss of lifetime earnings. Girls are expected to lose 28 per cent more than boys in future earnings.

To shrink these disparities and reduce overall losses, the region’s governments need to improve the quality of instruction, make up for learning gaps, and support disadvantaged students. As a first step, ensuring that in-person classes can resume safely, thereby preventing further loss of learning, is vital. This may mean expanding classrooms to enable adequate social distancing, ensuring proper ventilation, installing handwashing and sanitation stations, scheduling meals to avoid crowding, and monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms. Schools that mainly serve low-income students are in greater need of investment to make these improvements and should receive more financial support.

A second step is to use targeted instruction and regular tracking of student progress to offset lost learning. In Bangladesh, for example, individual mentoring during the pandemic improved numeracy by 33 per cent and English literacy by 52 per cent relative to students who did not receive it, and the gains were greater for poor, lagging students with less-educated parents.

Even before COVID-19, randomized controlled trials in India, Ghana, and Kenya showed that educational programs matching instruction to individual students’ learning levels (instead of using a uniform, fixed syllabus) significantly improved test scores. Technology such as MindSpark software can customise educational content for students and deliver highly effective, individualised teaching. Experience during the pandemic also showed that mobilising families, communities, and volunteers to support education outcomes can speed children’s learning.

Improving poorer students’ learning opportunities and hence life chances also requires narrowing the digital divide. The pandemic has made digital infrastructure even more central to education and communication, and disadvantaged students are more likely to prosper if they have adequate access to the hardware, software, and connectivity they need.

Digital literacy campaigns can target girls, and governments can work with internet service providers to offer more affordable access, including by providing subsidies. In Sri Lanka, the government struck a deal with ISPs to give students free access to university-based learning-management systems while schools were closed, increasing higher-education students’ participation rate in online learning to more than 90 per cent.

Strengthening social safety nets to encourage school attendance is critical, too. School-feeding programs and cash transfers for education expenses can reduce dropout rates among disadvantaged students and encourage those who have stopped attending school to re-enroll. Before the pandemic, a cash-transfer programme earmarked for girls’ education in Bangladesh increased participants’ schooling by more than three years on average.

Finally, Asian policymakers must build flexibility and emergency resilience into education systems. Disruptions will occur again. Countries must have the capacity to shift to remote schooling on short notice, and everyone, teachers, parents, students and administrators, needs to be prepared. Innovations in education sparked by pandemic-induced school closures, like phone mentoring of students, can be blended into the regular curriculum to prepare students for the next break in physical classes.

The choice is clear. We can let a generation of Asian students fall further behind and pay the price for lost learning, or we can make sure that all students receive the education they need. Helping today’s young people realise their potential is the surest path to a more equitable and prosperous region for everyone.


Albert Park is chief economist at the Asian Development Bank. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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