The Luminos Fund recently enjoyed the privilege of hosting a key education dialogue led by Susannah Hares and Dr. Benjamin Piper. Susannah Hares is Senior Policy Fellow and Co-Director of the Global Education Program at Center for Global Development. Dr. Benjamin Piper is Senior Director of Africa Education at RTI International. 

Caitlin Baron, Luminos CEO, opened the discussion by reflecting on how dramatically the world has changed over the six months between February and July 2020. Education has been severely disrupted globally. At the early high point of the Coronavirus pandemic, over 1.6 billion children were out of school, according to UNESCO. School closures still affect over 1 billion children. As national governments and members of the international development community continue to wrestle with how to respond to secure learning opportunities for children and mitigate learning loss, we at Luminos wanted our board, funders, supporters, and friends to hear from two of the world’s foremost education researchers.  

A view of the Luminos Fund webinar featuring Susannah Hares and Dr. Benjamin Piper.

The Coronavirus Pandemic’s Effect on Education

Susannah Hares began with a multifaceted bird’s eye view of how the pandemic has affected education across the globe. While schools are starting to open in parts of the world, Hares pointed out that the pandemic will cast a long shadow on education in at least the following ways:

  1. Finance: We will likely see a reduction in education finance due to deflated national economic growth projections that will squeeze education budgets. Economic experts expect contractions in middle-income countries and slowdowns in low-income countries across Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, and possibly continued stagnancy in global aid to education. In other words, there will be much less money available to support learning.
  2. Access: Important gains in education access over the last ten years may be rolled back significantly. Close to 7 million children could drop out of school, either long-term or permanently, due to household income shocks related to the pandemic. Notably, children from the lowest income households, girls, children with disabilities, and displaced and refugee children will likely suffer the brunt of the shocks.
  3. Ed Tech: While education technology will be harnessed to solve remote learning challenges, the sector has not yet lived up to its hype. As research and experimentation continue regarding the potent contribution teachers can play in boosting ed tech, many low-income households still lack access to internet, radio, and television. As a result, ed tech firms have low usage. For example, in Africa, just two ed tech firms have more than 1 million users.
  4. Inequality: Most obviously, school closures will exacerbate inequality. Many countries were slow to implement distance learning. In many instances, only wealthy families benefit from technology-driven distance learning initiatives. As a result, learning loss will be greater among children from low-income households. A number of countries are returning exam cohorts to school first, which presents unique challenges.
  5. Exam Culture: Many countries are returning their exam cohorts to school first (e.g., Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Ghana). But the practice of high stakes exams will likely further disadvantage certain children. Exams are used as filtering mechanisms as children transition from primary, to secondary, to tertiary education. Even at the best times, this filtering mechanism has an economic bias (children from less wealthy households do not progress as readily as their wealthier counterparts). School closures only make this worse in high stakes testing environments.
  6. Private Education: The pandemic may put vast numbers of private schools out of business or continue with very fragile business models and vulnerable balance sheets as school closures persist. This may disrupt market equilibrium, as demand for private education becomes less price elastic, and supply-side providers are forced to invest less in education quality-enhancing resources. This may also catalyze a significant shift of children away from private education to public education, resulting in permanent closures of private schools.

Learning Loss

Dr. Benjamin Piper followed with a deeper dive into learning loss and its implications for inequality. He also offered thoughts and reflections on what the opportunities might be for funders at this unique moment in history.

Pre-COVID-19, learning loss and, in particular, summer learning loss (the period between grade levels when many children experience a regression in content and skills they may have acquired in their most recently completed grade level) were already matters of concern in the education sector. Research published by Dr. Piper and his colleagues in Malawi revealed that children in transition between Grades 1 and 2 and Grades 3 and 4, were losing between 30-40 percent of their previous year’s learning. The takeaway here, is that gaps in instruction have dramatic impacts on learning.

Dr. Piper’s team then modeled data from pandemic-related school closures in dozens of low and middle income countries. The models suggest that learning loss will not affect the small percent of highest performing children. The children in the middle will lose some learning, commensurate with the amount of instructional time lost. But, for a vast number of children at the bottom of the distribution curve, pandemic-related learning loss will reduce most if not all of the skills and content they would have acquired in the 2020 academic year.  

The point of alarm from Dr. Piper’s research, therefore, is that the protracted time that children spend away from learning due to COVID-19 will have catastrophic implications on their educations and futures. Not only that, those children who are worst off will have the largest learning loss. Donors and implementers need to consider how their support to education systems will not only reduce learning loss but protect those at the bottom of the distribution who are most vulnerable.

A Word to Funders

Dr. Piper concluded his comments with recommendations for funders:

  1. Provide stability to grantees
  2. Don’t fund things that expand inequality
  3. Modest support for emergencies, sure
  4. But spend primarily on building back better
  5. Support structured pedagogical approaches that advance learning
  6. Make direct investments in better teaching
  7. Consider how to help evidence-based success models to scale

Our Gratitude

The Luminos Fund team cannot be more appreciative of Susannah Hares and Dr. Benjamin Piper for the deeply insightful wisdom they shared during this important session. This is the type of thought leadership makes us hopeful that the world will indeed see constructive, agile, and innovative responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: responses that reduce learning poverty, mitigate learning loss, and give all children a chance to unlock the light of learning in their lives.

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