Home / Opinion / Columns /  School-goers can recover covid learning losses if we get it right

What is the country’s progress on recovering learning losses through the near-two year shut down of schools during the covid pandemic? Unsurprisingly, the all-India report card seems mixed, with systematic variations across states. Here are a few snapshots, representative of the situation on the ground.

The teacher asks each child to go to the black-board and perform a division on a four-digit number. There are 16 children from class 6 involved in this exercise. Only one child makes an error. I have my usual chat with the children, starting with a story which gets them laughing, moving the story to have them perform mental addition of two-digit numbers, and then on to their writing 2-3 paras of their version of the story.

Only two of the children can add the two-digit numbers, eight can write legibly, but only three of them write even a sentence with minimal cogency. When asked to read what I write, five of them read haltingly; some of the rest recognize letters, and a few, nothing. If they are unable to do these basic tasks of literacy and numeracy, how did they divide a four-digit number? The answer is evident on the pages of their notebooks. They had memorized the steps and dutifully regurgitated it on the blackboard.

We must not miss that this first snapshot is from class 6; and most children are unable to read and do basic math. These children have been coming regularly to school since May, but they were in class 3 when schools shut in March 2020. In the past many months since they have opened, students seem to have recovered little if any of the learning that was lost during those two years.

A class 5 with 11 children in another school in another state. We sit and chat with the kids for about 30 minutes. Most of them can read and write and perform basic math operations expected at their age. Before getting into class 5, I had stopped to chat with class 4, which was sitting in an open veranda in another part of the school. None of the 13 children could read or write. They were in class 1 when schools shut. The gulf between the two classes is because the teacher decided to focus all energy on class 5, “since they will move on to a middle school, while I have another year with class-4."

A third snapshot from a school in the same state as the one with the chasm between classes 4 and 5. In this second school, as we go through classes 3, 4, and 5, it is quite clear that the distribution of learning levels on language and math is below what one would expect if there had been no shutdown of schools. It is equally clear, however, that some recovery has indeed occurred.

Then, a medley of snapshots of 5 schools from a third state shows a variation in the recovery, but none of them is anything like the first school. One of them demonstrates near complete recovery, while two are far behind and the other two somewhere in-between.

What factors determine these differences? The competence and commitment of teachers is a big determinant. Good teachers matter profoundly. What are the other factors? Cross-state differences point to some important ones.

The first school—with almost no recovery of lost learning—is in a state that instructed teachers to work for recovering lost learning for two months at the beginning of this year. Without assessing the reality on the ground, orders were then issued to start teaching the current class syllabus. It is not surprising that the recovery is very poor on the average in that state, while its differences across schools are explained by other factors—mostly teachers.

The second and third schools are in a state which has instructed its teachers to spend half a day on recovering lost learning and the other half on the current class syllabus. The situation in this state is better than the first state.

Instructions to teachers in the third state are very clear. They must recover lost learning, and only then will the current year syllabus be taught. Its average recovery is significantly better.

States have designed and run different sorts of programmes for recovering lost learning, and with varying rigour of execution. Six to nine months into this effort, the most important determinant of success seems to be the clarity of directions given to teachers. Clear instructions such as, “recovering lost learning is priority; get the children to a level where they know enough to start learning the current year syllabus", seem to be the key. With this clarity, most teachers are able to figure out how to proceed. States that declared ‘mission accomplished’ are the worst off; and those that send mixed messages, like the second state (half day spent on recovery), are somewhere in between.

It seems like the simplest and most basic of things to do: give clear directions. But many of our political and administrative leaders are disconnected from reality, even if good intentioned, and many are only bothered about declaring victories, even if false. But then, there are also those who have no hesitation in doing the right thing and have a genuine grasp of reality.

Covid has affected millions of children deeply. But recovery of lost learning is possible. Poor policy responses threaten to derail that, while there are exemplars to follow too. We would be failing our children twice, and for their lifetime, if we don’t get this right.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation.

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