Updated: Nov 25
In this blog post, I will highlight the various shortcomings of the education system and some promising, evidence-based education innovations that multiple countries have implemented. It should go without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked severe havoc on every facet of society. We were all unprepared to deal with the reverberating fallout of it. The former Trump administration is an example of high official leaders who were downright unprepared and consistently demonstrated a lack of rational thought and planning in keeping the pandemic under control.
Although children have been spared mainly from contracting COVID-19 overall, they were the ones who have unfairly dealt with the brunt of it. When COVID-19 was first publicly declared a global health emergency in March 2020, schools worldwide were shut down for weeks to curb its rapid spread. Subsequently, many countries have quickly pivoted to online learning and other asynchronous learning methods, such as take-home learning materials.
To frame the education crisis in a better context, I'd like to present some grim statistics on the issue. According to UNICEF, 1.6 billion children from 188 countries were severely impacted by being out of school. On average, children were out of school for about 141 days. While this is a relatively large amount, the disparity of school closures can be further disaggregated by region. For example, South Asia had the most prolonged school closures; the total number of days that schools were locked there was 273. The youth of Latin American and Caribbean regions were out of school for about 225 days. Last but not least, the Middle Eastern and North African region's children were out of school for about 183 days on average.
I want to disclaim that the empirical data on the pandemic's role in children's academic and socio-emotional development is still being reviewed and may be inconclusive. I'm confident to say that research on its impacts is exponentially growing. The data I incorporate in this article will be based on baseline statistics obtained years before the onset of the pandemic.
Even though primary school enrollment has exponentially risen worldwide over the decades, multiple blind spots have perpetuated its gradual demise. An example of a blind spot is the high illiteracy rates prevalent among in-school youth and those entirely out of school; another name for this phenomenon is "learning poverty." Learning poverty calculates the proportion of primary school-aged children who cannot read and comprehend simple reading texts by ten years old. The measurement considers the quantifiable share of primary-aged children learning below the standard and those not enrolled at any school level. Empirical research about education and its subsequent COVID-19-related impacts remains sparse. UNESCO introduced the learning poverty measurement in 2019, but even before then, the learning crisis among schoolchildren was grim.
According to UNICEF/UNESCO, over 50% of primary school-aged children, mainly living in low and middle-income countries, were unable to read and understand simple essential reading texts by the time they reached the age of 10 around 2015. This data can be further disaggregated by region/geography and other attributes. For example, Sub-Saharan Africa boasts the most significant proportion of youth with poor literacy skills; their learning poverty rate is over 80%, or 86%, to be exact. The geographic region with the second largest proportion of illiterate children is the Middle East and North Africa; their learning poverty rate is over 50%, or 63%, to be exact. Finally, South Asia and the Latin America and Caribbean regions have a relatively large proportion of youth with poor literacy skills. Their learning poverty rates are 60% and 52%, respectively.
The second example of a blind spot prevalent in education is the wide shortage of teachers. This issue was a constant refrain that I have read about ubiquitously on social media and have seen on different news media outlets. There are myriad contributing factors, such as burnout, job insecurity, taxing work conditions, and the lack of support and prestige educators should have been given for their invaluable role in protecting children from the virus and instilling a sense of normalcy and safety in them I could not imagine the stress teachers endured and continued to face during the pandemic. The admiration that our society showered educators with during the early stages of the pandemic came off to me, in my opinion, as a little disingenuous. I have this sentiment because I felt it was transient Healthcare workers, namely nurses and doctors received the most positive recognition for their work. It bothered me that other helping professionals, namely social workers, did not receive as much credit or respect for their work as nurses, physicians, and doctors do.
A lesson we could all glean from the pandemic is that school is not solely a place for learning. For many children worldwide, school is considered a safe haven for them. Schools are more than just a place to learn. Heartbreakingly, schools could be the only safe place for many children to receive the most love and support through shelter, protection, and healthy meals. Kids should not have to wait to go to school to receive the only form of unconditional love and support they'll probably ever get from their teachers. They have the right to be raised in healthy households with loving and supporting caregivers.
For education to recover from the loss of learning from COVID-19 school lockdowns, the education system needs to be revamped on an individual and systemic level from a human rights and sustainable development lens.
Positive pedagogical developments and policy initiatives in the education sector:
a) Country of focus: New Zealand
Type of practice: curriculum development:
From a curriculum perspective, New Zealand is a case study example with a curriculum framework incorporating a sustainable development and global citizenship lens, formally known as Te Whāriki. It equips students at the pre-primary grade level with various skills centered on inclusion, holistic well-being, environmental exploration, global contribution, and communication development. Within all these learning stages, children are expected to master a cohesive set of goals to be developmentally on track. This curriculum framework exemplifies a solid, noteworthy education practice with intrinsic values of inclusion, quality of life, and holistic well-being, which are fundamental to children's development.
b). Country of focus: India
Type of practice(program integration):
India implements a universally-mandated early childhood development program called Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). It primarily serves mothers(lactating and pregnant), infants, and children under six. ICDS provides a one-stop shop for mothers, infants, and young children to receive high-quality, comprehensive care through nutrition care/counseling, education, health and wellness preventative checks, specialist referral care, and parenting education classes. ICDS is an effective policy initiative because it focuses on integrated care that targets ALL developmental domains(physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional).
c). Country of focus: Iceland
Type of practice: (social service program integration)
Iceland adopted and implemented the Integration of Services Act(around Children's Prosperity) and the Children's Well-Being Dashboard in 2021 to ensure that caregivers and children receive many services. This initiative entails enlisting an individually assigned social service coordinator who primarily serves as a resource bank to help youth and their caregivers navigate the system to access age-appropriate care that targets their developmental needs. A beneficial aspect of this program is that youth/families have unlimited access to social service coordinators for their entire lives until they reach 18 (age of majority). The Iceland Child Welfare Supervisory Authority regulatory body monitors its implementation using five dimensions of child prosperity: education, equity, health and well-being, security and protection, and social participation. A few empirical studies have highlighted its strong potential of achieving relatively decent high fiscal returns that aim to improve children's well-being and development. By 2070, investment returns are projected to soar to about an 11% growth rate.