3. Addressing learning gaps now will minimise disruption in students’ educational journeys

A community’s resilience lies in its capacity to care for its most vulnerable members, effectively allocating resources to where they are most needed (Ungar, 2011[1]). The COVID-19 crisis has revealed that, when education systems are not resilient in this way, disruptions disproportionately affect the most vulnerable learners with potentially dramatic and long-lasting implications for individuals and societies. To mitigate such damage, education systems must simultaneously address learning gaps and strengthen learner resilience.

By the end of June 2020, more than half of OECD countries had closed schools for at least three months as part of efforts to contain the pandemic (Schleicher, 2020[2]). Despite the range and scope of emergency education measures, national and international estimates point to widening gaps in learning among students (Maldonado and De Witte, 2020[3]; Dorn et al., 2020[4]; World Bank Group, 2020[5]). This corresponds with previous research indicating that students’ skills, knowledge and engagement are likely to deteriorate during extended absence from education or forced disruption (e.g. due to the summer break, prolonged teacher strike action or natural disasters) (Gibbs et al., 2019[6]; Jaume and Willén, 2019[7]; Kuhfeld and Tarasawa, 2020[8]).

Indeed, the effects of such closures are not felt equally among students. During periods of home-based education, students’ individual needs, their parents’ skills and the household resources available to them have a considerable impact on learning. For example, in the COVID-19 crisis, students with an immigrant background whose parents may lack proficiency in the language of instruction, and those with educational needs or disabilities that require specialist support, face extra challenges due to remote learning. Likewise, reliance on digital education can hinder students in rural or remote locations with less reliable digital infrastructure, and those in vocational programmes unable to develop practical skills remotely – an issue exacerbated by a decline in work-based learning opportunities (World Bank Group, 2020[5]; OECD, 2020[9]). Students from low socio-economic backgrounds may also be at a triple disadvantage, with a home environment less conducive to learning, lower access to digital tools, and greater vulnerability to the health and financial impacts of the pandemic. The intersectionality of these vulnerabilities further exacerbates learning gaps for certain students. These gaps need to be addressed immediately, but education systems will also need to consider how to support learners who have home and community environments that are less conducive to learning to benefit from more flexible approaches to the delivery of learning in the longer term.

Even as educational institutions reopen, equity challenges persist. The economic and health impacts of the pandemic will likely create newly vulnerable children. Moreover, as institutions open and close according to viral trajectory, the habit of attending class may be broken and some students could disengage from their learning and their peers. This could increase rates of school dropout and early school leaving, particularly among disadvantaged students (OECD, 2020[10]; Di Pietro et al., 2020[11]). The risk may be even higher at tertiary level, as increased financial and situational constraints deter students from returning to campus or discourage new enrolments among low-income groups (World Bank, 2020[12]).

In many ways, such challenges are not new; individual circumstances over which students have no control (e.g. place of birth, home language or parents’ occupations) have long been strong predictors of educational achievement in many OECD countries (OECD, 2019[13]). However, these latest disruptions put today’s young people on an unusually volatile path, potentially resulting in lower career earnings across their lifetimes (OECD, 2020[14]; Hanushek and Woessmann, 2020[15]). This means that returning to the status quo is not an option: education systems have the dual task of recovering learning losses and inequalities exacerbated by the emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis while driving education into a better normal where all students are able to thrive, irrespective of their circumstances.

Lesson one of this handbook explored the need for policy makers to enhance resilience in education generally, and to ensure smooth educational pathways that allow each student to reach their own individual potential. In the short term, this requires addressing gaps exacerbated by the pandemic as a matter of urgency; in the longer term, systems need to strengthen learner resilience. Lesson three explores how policy makers can design and implement policy efforts that address these two challenges simultaneously, effectively implementing remedial measures while also building students’ resilience. What do we already know about minimising learning gaps and enhancing learner resilience? What related policy efforts are education systems implementing in the second half of 2020 and how can they be strengthened?

To support education systems in addressing learning gaps and minimising disruption to students’ educational journeys, this section offers highlights of relevant international evidence about learner resilience and bridging learning gaps. Based on evidence of evaluations from selected policies already in place before the pandemic, it also offers insights for policy makers into policy levers and approaches that can promote resilience in students, as well as some ongoing challenges. The section also looks into a selection of relevant policies implemented in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Resilient learners have a strong capacity to adapt to and overcome the challenges they face (OECD, 2019[13]). Over recent decades, the question of learners’ academic resilience (defined by PISA as the share of the most disadvantaged students who are also high-performing) and wider socio-emotional resilience, has attracted a lot of policy attention and research interest. This provides a strong knowledge base for action and, although progress in reducing learning inequalities has been mixed for OECD countries, there is some good news for policy makers.

Firstly, we know that improving equity does not necessarily require high educational spending. Rather, the key lies in allocating resources in a targeted manner (Schleicher, 2019[16]). Secondly, we know that governments do not have to sacrifice excellence in the name of equity; rather, resilience reflects both quality and equity, which some education systems have successfully enhanced simultaneously. Between 2009 and 2018, Ireland and Slovenia reduced the share of low performers and increased the share of high performers in reading while also ensuring that performance increased most substantially among the most disadvantaged students (OECD, 2019[17]; OECD, 2019[13]). Both countries are also relatively low spenders on education: in 2017, Ireland and Slovenia dedicated a lower share of national wealth to educational institutions (primary to tertiary) than on average across the OECD (OECD, 2020[9]).

With the right support, then, student resilience can be strengthened over time. Building on previous OECD and other international research, the Education Policy Outlook’s Framework of Responsiveness and Resilience identifies key policy levers that help establish the conditions under which individuals facing adversity may reach a higher level of well-being and academic achievement. These elements are particularly relevant for the shorter term, as countries work to adapt the current academic year to emerging needs. Firstly, understanding and enhancing the various worlds of the student is crucial. This includes strengthening student well-being, through either improving students’ non-cognitive skills or mind-set, or ensuring a positive learning climate (Agasisti et al., 2018[18]; OECD, 2018[19]). Secondly, adapting evaluation and assessment components for greater real-time clarity emerges as relevant good practice, including realistic but ambitious goal setting at system, school or student level; identifying target students and diagnosing learning needs; and monitoring student progress to ensure interventions remain pertinent and sufficient over time. Moreover, capacity building among educators enables teachers and other staff who directly administer support to identify and address learning difficulties more effectively. It can also help educators foster positive attitudes among disadvantaged students (OECD, 2018[19]). Finally, enhancing home-school links is crucial as resilient students tend to benefit from greater parental involvement in their learning (OECD, 2011[20]).

OECD data offers some insight into aspects of student resilience in the pre-crisis period. For example, while aspects related to student well-being generally garner quite positive responses across the OECD, there appears to be room to improve the way in which students are empowered to use evaluation and assessment to become the drivers of their own learning, as well as on capacity building efforts to help strengthen student resilience. Given the current need for focused efforts to address learning gaps and recover losses, combining our knowledge about building student resilience with what we know about effective remediation could help policy makers achieve some quick wins in this area (See Figure 3.1).

How do education systems effectively address learning gaps? Across previous OECD work on equity in education, three key policy components of initiatives to address learning gaps emerge:

  • Personalised learning interventions: A personalised approach to learning is highly sensitive to individual needs and highly adapted to differences between learners (Istance and Dumont, 2010[23]). This does not mean that learning becomes a solitary endeavour based on individual preferences. It means that both collaborative and autonomous learning opportunities respond to the needs of each learner, under the guidance of learning goals defined by education systems. Intervention approaches of this nature include developing individualised development and learning plans, providing one-on-one or very small group coaching or tuition, and, for older students, providing flexible learning options, pathways and transitions for older students.

  • Additional or specialised instruction for certain students: In order to address a particular need at the individual or small group level, education systems may increase instructional time or employ specially trained professionals (OECD, 2016[24]).

  • Additional resources based on student needs: To address inequalities in a way that is more cost-efficient or in the context of resource constraints, education systems can direct additional financial or human resources where demand is highest, equalising opportunities for learning and achievement (OECD, 2018[19]).

Building on the insights of effective practices for strengthening learner resilience and addressing learning gaps offered by international evidence, policy analysis can help illustrate how such initiatives can be planned and implemented. In previous analysis undertaken by the Education Policy Outlook across 43 education systems, it collected information on 59 policies implemented between 2008 and 2019 that focused on supporting education success for all students; over half of these targeted specific population groups (OECD, 2018[25]; OECD, 2019[26]).

In 2020, the Education Policy Outlook has undertaken further analysis of these policies in order to identify examples of policies and initiatives that successfully address learning gaps while potentially strengthening learner resilience. Table 3.1 lists the main policies selected for this analysis. These all benefit from key policy components aligned with international evidence on bridging learning gaps, as well as policy levers identified by the Education Policy Outlook’s Framework for Responsiveness and Resilience in education. There are also policy evaluation outcomes that indicate positive progress towards policy objectives.

What common traits can we learn from their policy implementation processes? Firstly, flexibility stands out as an important characteristic of any programme aiming to improve outcomes for a specific student group. Flexibility in design or implementation enables support to better match need. For example, school-level actors surveyed about the implementation of Chile’s Preferential School Subsidy appreciated the introduction of more room to modify or adjust school improvement plans throughout the school year (Irarrazaval et al., 2012[27]). In Estonia, staff in the Pathfinder Centres are able to adopt a needs-based approach thanks to flexibility in the various intervention mechanisms on offer (CIVITTA, 2017[28]).

This flexibility is also achieved through another commonly cited strength of these policies: the local or even personal nature of interventions. For example, bringing the focus of control to the school or local level, in policies such as those implemented in Germany and Portugal, appears to have enabled actors who have a connection to the social space of the target group to design bottom-up solutions based on local diagnosis (Verdasca, n.d.[29]; Prognos, 2016[30]). This can also be achieved on a more personalised basis. In Norway, the Certificate of Practice Scheme was found to be most successful where thorough assessment of individual cases preceded admission to the scheme; based on the assessments, suitable alternatives are suggested for students for whom the programme is not deemed suitable (CEDEFOP, n.d.[31]). The evaluations of several policies also emphasise the importance of involving the target group in the programme design or implementation. In Australia and Germany, for instance, this appears to have helped build more genuine, collaborative and sustainable partnerships as well as a stronger understanding of needs and contexts (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia, 2019[32]; Prognos, 2016[30]).

Indeed, establishing meaningful relationships between service providers and targeted students and their families is seen to be critical. Several evaluations, including those for policies implemented in Germany, Nova Scotia (Canada) and Portugal, note that it is through these relationships that new dynamics and innovations develop and that efficiencies can be made (Verdasca, n.d.[29]; Crinean, Donnelly and LeBlanc, 2012[33]; Prognos, 2016[30]). In Norway, the school’s active role in the programme was a key feature of success identified in evaluations as it allowed a close relationship both between schools, staff and students, and between schools, staff and the enterprises (CEDEFOP, n.d.[31]). In both Finland and Slovenia, disseminating information to marginalised learners and their families succeeds best, where delivery is ensured personally by a designated case worker so that stronger relationships can develop (Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland, 2016[34]; Council of Europe, 2017[35]).

Common challenges also come into focus. There is a need for coherent, complementary actions, as well as sustained efforts over a longer period. The challenges facing target groups tend to be multi-dimensional and extremely complex, and cannot be overcome through one initiative. In several cases, these policies have been running for more than ten years and have undergone several iterations, with goals, inputs and outputs adapting over time. These modifications are informed by evidence and feedback gathered through ongoing monitoring and evaluation efforts, as in the cases of those policies implemented in Australia and Ireland (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia, 2019[32]; Weir and Kavanagh, 2019[36]). Indeed, in Australia’s Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Programme, the main recommendation of policy evaluation was to develop a stronger evaluation framework through which data could inform future improvements (ACIL Allen Consulting, 2017[37]).

A related challenge found in several of these policies is the need to estimate more carefully the need or demand for additional support, and consequently the necessary resources, especially in terms of time. This is more evident in institution-based interventions such as Chile’s Preferential School Subsidy, where the implementation burden lies predominantly with pedagogical staff (Irarrazaval et al., 2012[27]). The challenge for policy makers lies in finding the appropriate balance between establishing a level of local autonomy that enables responsiveness and ensuring adequate capacity and fair workloads among implementation actors.

Finally, a challenge identified in several of the evaluations, including those for the selected policies implemented in Finland, Ireland and Nova Scotia (Canada), relates to ensuring consistency in quality across institutions, municipalities and regions (Crinean, Donnelly and LeBlanc, 2012[33]; Suvi Skantz (14 March 2018), 2018[38]; Weir and Kavanagh, 2019[36]). To some extent, quality differences are inevitable given the local or personal nature of many of these interventions and their ultimate aim to facilitate social change processes, which are inherently non-linear. However, some evaluations suggest that stronger oversight and directing capacity building where it is most needed could help limit such variations.

In related discussions at the Education Policy Reform Dialogues 2020, delegates noted that to support more consistency, building engagement and buy-in among implementation actors is important. Delegates noted that this requires ensuring that the initiative offers a clear practical value for those actors themselves and that this value is communicated effectively. It also requires understanding and adapting to the pre-existing assessment culture and keeping in mind that assessment approaches may need to differ for different groups of students. With learner well-being in mind, education systems may need to re-calibrate assessment cultures- particularly high-stakes assessment- although maintaining assessment is necessary to truly understand the impact of crisis and subsequent remediation efforts.

See Annex 10. Selected current policy efforts to address learning gaps

During the COVID-19 crisis, in both the initial phase of disruption and the current phase of recovery, overcoming learning gaps has played a prominent role in the response of education systems. In the first instance, ensuring all learners had access to new forms of educational delivery was the focus.

With most countries mobilising digital resources to provide distance education, several systems introduced initiatives to provide digital devices to disadvantaged students. For example, as schools closed, Latvia conducted a rapid survey to establish the number of children without access to a device or the internet. In partnership with two private companies, the Ministry of Education and Science then donated over 5 000 smart devices in the first week of closures (OECD, 2020[39]).

As the period of closure became more prolonged, specific supports were introduced for certain groups of children. In Norway, based on evidence that immigrant communities were particularly vulnerable during the pandemic, students with an immigrant background were prioritised for school-based learning, alongside children of key workers (OECD, 2020[40]). In Turkey, the Ministry of National Education developed a mobile application providing content targeted towards students with special educational needs and their parents and teachers. Provincial call centres were established to enable teachers to support and communicate with children with special educational needs and their families (OECD, 2020[41]). As education systems move into the recovery phase, addressing learning gaps remains a key feature of plans for reopening educational institutions. In a recent OECD-Harvard survey, 89% of senior government officials and education administrators responded that plans for school reopening definitely include arrangements to assess and remediate learning gaps for students in general. Among teachers and school administrators, the share was slightly lower, at 66%. The key student groups targeted for remedial measures included those transitioning from one education phase to another, those unable to access online learning and disadvantaged students (Reimers and Schleicher, 2020[42]).

The Education Policy Outlook also conducted desk-based research to identify promising initiatives implemented to address learning gaps planned for implementation in the second half of 2020. The selected policies focus on supporting students to catch up on lost learning as they return to in-person teaching, or to overcome learning gaps, either through the provision of additional resources, specialised or additional support, and/or personalised approaches to learning.

They also incorporate at least one of the identified policy levers from the Framework for Responsiveness and Resilience (student well-being, home-school links, evaluation and assessment components, and capacity building). In total, nine policies were selected, all of which focused on schools, with four including provisions for vocational students at upper secondary or post-secondary level, and none focused on higher education (see Table 3.2 and Annex 10).

The majority of policies analysed for this document aim to address learning gaps by mobilising additional funds, to be used by education institutions with some degree of autonomy. In other countries, educational institutions will receive additional financial resources to dedicate to providing extra support to certain students. England’s (United Kingdom) Catch-up Premium, a one-off, universal payment of GBP 80 per student in mainstream schools and GBP 240 for those in special education settings or alternative provision for 2020/21 aims to ensure that schools have sufficient resources to help all students make up for lost teaching time. Schools will receive additional funds in three instalments across the academic year and are encouraged to pool resources to prioritise support according to student need. Schools and secondary VET institutions in the Netherlands can apply for government subsidies to run voluntary interventions between 2020 and 2021. These may take the form of after-school programmes, catch-up programmes during school holidays or extra support during the school day.

However, while additional resources can be helpful for education institutions, other types of support can also help to make a difference. A majority of selected initiatives also include efforts to build capacity among educators; this is particularly positive given the unprecedented nature of institutional closures and their unpredictable impact on students’ learning. Some of these are formal approaches to professional development: in Chile, professional mentors observe trainee teachers during tutoring sessions with students and provide feedback on their professional practice. In another Chilean initiative, school management teams can access video mentoring sessions to support the implementation of diagnostic assessments. Other policies include more informal approaches to capacity building through disseminating international evidence and best practice: the Education Endowment Foundation, England’s (United Kingdom) What Works Centre for education has conducted rapid evidence reviews and produced accessible guides to support schools in making evidence-based spending decisions for the Catch-up Premium. Similarly, in the Netherlands, the Ministry provides schools with research summaries to support catch-up programme design.

Others aim to increase access to specialised or additional support in order to help certain students recover lost learning. This can also help educational staff already in place to focus on a more rounded strategy for student success. For example, Wales (United Kingdom) will recruit additional teachers and teaching assistants throughout 2020/21 to support students in the final years of secondary education, as well as disadvantaged and vulnerable learners of all ages. France is increasing the hours of support available in the first months of the school year through educational assistants and individual support with homework, and the government has doubled a previous commitment by creating 8 000 new support posts for students with disabilities. In Japan, extra school counsellors and social workers have been assigned on a school-by-school basis, according to need.

Indeed, a large number of selected policies encourage educators to implement personalised interventions to address students’ learning needs. This may take the form of small group or one-on-one tuition as in the England’s (United Kingdom) National Tutoring Programme (to be launched in November 2020) or coaching and mentoring as in Wales’ (United Kingdom) deployment of extra staff for students at the end of upper secondary education and Portugal’s promotion of peer mentoring within schools.

Pairing personalised approaches with evaluation and assessment efforts to meet students’ needs appears a particularly promising approach. Chile, France and Portugal have all implemented comprehensive initiatives to ensure that schools diagnose students’ learning needs on the return to in-person teaching. In Chile, this involves specifically designed assessments that cover both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, while France has adapted pre-existing testing arrangements as well as introducing new assessments for the beginning of the academic year. Portugal encourages all schools to identify students’ needs, beginning with an assessment of students’ digital skills and the digital resources available to them, then using curricular documents and essential learning objectives to map where the gaps in learning are. Finally, some countries are providing additional pedagogical tools to support educators in bridging learning gaps. New student assessment tools in Chile and curriculum planning tools in Portugal aim to support schools to prioritise learning tasks in the first weeks of in-person teaching.

A smaller number of selected policies also support students’ well-being or foster a positive learning environment. Japan and Portugal have both increased the availability of school-based support professionals, such as school counsellors and social workers, while Chile’s diagnostic assessments include an assessment of students’ socio-emotional skills. However, given the considerable and ongoing threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to students’ physical and mental health, and to their engagement in education and attendance at school, it is likely that efforts to improve students’ well-being will be increasingly relevant. Establishing an environment – both internal and external – that is conducive to learning is critical to the success of any educational intervention programme.

Among the selected policies, intentions to engage parents in initiatives to address learning gaps were less clearly set out, however. This causes concern for three reasons. Firstly, as seen in the pre-crisis policy experiences, key characteristics of success in policies that address learning gaps include strong relationships between the different actors involved and a strong connection to the social space of the target student; parents are essential to this. Secondly, it is important to capitalise on the elevated role of parents in their children’s education during institutional closures; often acting as de facto instructors during that period, parents may be able to offer valuable insights into students’ needs. Finally, given the unpredictability of the virus’ trajectory, further institutional closures may yet occur, in which case, the parents’ role will once again be central to children’s learning.

All such efforts must be sustainable over the longer term. One reason is that the very real possibility of future institutional closures means that interventions implemented as schools reopen must be flexible enough to endure future emergency scenarios by remaining deliverable through remote means. This will help ensure that learning gaps are not further exacerbated in the short term. Another reason is that, as seen in the pre-crisis period, efforts to redress learning inequalities benefit from being implemented over a sustained period, both to allow them time to overcome the adjustments of initial implementation processes, and to hone and strengthen approaches in response to monitoring data. This will also help to avoid underestimating the scale of demand and the resources required, which was a common pitfall in policies addressing learning inequalities during the pre-crisis period.

Further related challenges were raised in discussions at the Education Policy Reform Dialogues 2020. Delegates highlighted that confronting deepening educational inequalities requires embracing the contributions of all stakeholders, including parents, but also staff, students and actors within the wider education community. In particular, delegates discussed the need to avoid treating these as disparate stakeholder groups, recognising them as part of an educational community and taking advantage of the synergies between them. Delegates also emphasised the importance of policy evaluation and monitoring mechanisms as a means of improving the impact of interventions, noting that assessment cancellations in response to the virus should be avoided in order to enable systems to continue to generate valuable data. Nonetheless, keeping student well-being in mind, such efforts should remain low-stakes for students themselves.

Lesson three has explored the ways in which policy efforts in the second half of 2020 may best address learning gaps to minimise short and long-term disruption to children’s education. Taking into account the specific needs of the current context, as well as the lessons learned from pre-crisis policy efforts and recently implemented initiatives to address learning gaps, three policy pointers emerge:

The closure of educational institutions will have been challenging for the vast majority of students, and particularly so for those from vulnerable population sub-groups, exacerbating learning gaps that already existed. If not addressed now, these inequalities may increase as the crisis period continues, and will have significant social and financial implications for individuals and societies in both the short and long term.

At the same time, previous experience indicates that learning inequalities are too complex to be remedied quickly. Several of the most effective pre-crisis policies considered for this analysis had been in place for more than a decade. Furthermore, the effects of the COVID-19 crisis are likely to be felt well beyond the reopening of education institutions. Therefore, students need urgent support to bridge learning gaps, but governments must also aim for long-term commitment.

Incorporating flexibility into policy design enables implementation actors to better tailor intervention and remediation efforts to the needs of the target audience and to changing contextual demands. Mechanisms of flexibility may include shifting the focus of control to the institution or local level, bringing together professionals with different specialisms to tailor interventions, or providing the tools and resources to enable the use of a variety of delivery methods.

Similarly, education systems need to adopt approaches that take into account the ways in which the different worlds of a student intersect in order to shape his or her learning experience. Approaches include strengthening student well-being, developing a more positive learning climate within education institutions, and enhancing home-school links to establish an educational student-centric eco-system that is conducive to learning and receptive to extra support. Involving students and parents in the design and delivery of learning interventions is a particularly useful way of achieving this.

In contexts of disruption, it is critical to ensure that learners, the broader education community and the system can monitor learning progress in a timely manner and adapt pedagogical processes accordingly. Prior to introducing remedial measures, diagnostic assessments are essential in ensuring that students’ needs are fully met. As the student receives support, ongoing formative assessment provides opportunities for powerful feedback loops to both student and educator. Finally, ongoing monitoring and evaluation efforts of the policy itself at institutional and system level will help hone the approach to optimise impact.

Insights from this OECD work can also help support policy makers’ responses in the current context:

  • The Strength through Diversity project is conducting further analysis to support policy makers to develop equitable and inclusive education systems (see Annex 11). Insights from this work can also help support policy makers shape responses in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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