Learning gains and equity during COVID-19 school closures

Phil Roeder, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Phil Roeder, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Although studies suggest that schools are not a primary driver of COVID-19 infections, in some countries schools have remained closed, while in others, such as Switzerland, there are ongoing discussions on the merits of closing them once again. Fortunately, we now have empirical evidence that will be helpful in making these decisions, drawn from studies of students’ learning gains while schools were closed in the spring of 2020.

A study of almost 30,000 students

A comparison of students’ academic growth before and during the COVID-19 school closures provides valuable insight into the impact of those closures on learning.

Together with my colleagues at the Institute for Educational Evaluation in Zurich, I analysed data collected from almost 30,000 students using a computer-based formative feedback system (Mindsteps). The system is designed to provide teachers with an independent assessment of student performance and enable students to practice on their own. Students completed adaptive tests in mathematics and German and we subsequently compared their learning gains (in terms of progress on standardized competence scales) during the two eight-week periods just before and during the closures.

A dramatic decrease in learning gains

While primary-school students made some progress while schools were closed, their learning gains were only half as large as they had been during regular in-person instruction in the preceding eight-week period. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that schools were required to move quickly to ad-hoc distance learning – during an emergency and at a time of great uncertainty for individuals and society at large.

Even more important than this decrease in learning is the striking increase in the extent to which the learning gains of primary-school students diverged. During the eight weeks before the schools closed, learning took place in a fairly uniform way and there were few observable differences in the gains of individual students. However, those differences increased dramatically during the – relatively short – period when the schools were shut down.

The analyses, conducted separately by school level, do not support sweeping generalizations about the impacts of school closures. In fact, little seemed to change for students at the lower secondary school level; there was no statistically significant difference in their learning gains before and during the school closures, nor did the heterogeneity of those gains increase.

The role of family and age

This study provides no additional information about students and their learning environments, for reasons of data protection, but it is evident that families played a significant role in the only modest learning gains of young students and the increase in heterogeneity. As the institutional influence of schools declines, the family environment becomes more important.

“It is evident that families played a significant role in the only modest learning gains of young students and the increase in heterogeneity.”

Adolescents, who are more mature and thus less influenced by their families than younger children, may be better equipped to cope with the situation and play a more independent role in managing their lives. The younger the child, the greater the need for cognitive activation and situation-based instruction that takes into account the child’s existing knowledge. It should also be noted that young children have not yet fully developed the capacity for self-regulated learning, and many lack adequate ICT literacy skills. Yet both of these things are essential for successful distance learning.

Finally, younger students may be particularly vulnerable to stress and the burdens of the pandemic. Similar age-specific effects have been observed in an entirely different context: In his acclaimed work, American sociologist Glen Elder showed that during the Great Depression of the 1930s, older children were able to gain autonomy and acquire new skills, while younger children were more affected by their families’ straitened economic circumstances and more likely to be the victims of marital discord and even violence within the family.

“Primary school students, as well as older children, could be successful at distance learning – but they will need more support from schools if it is not available at home.”

Targeted support is needed

This study shows that if closures are necessary, they should be limited to secondary schools if possible, where we found no evidence of negative effects on learning gains. But if closing primary schools turns out to be unavoidable, it is crucial to focus attention on weaker and disadvantaged students, and to offer targeted support to the children who are at greatest risk of losing ground or being left behind entirely. The study provides some cause for hope that primary school students, as well as older children, could be successful at distance learning – but they will need more support from schools if it is not available at home.

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