The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education system has been an area of interest. India too, saw schools and universities moving to online learning, so much so that it gave a rise to the ed-tech moment in the country. However, from what it seems, the case was a lot different in more developed nations such as the United States (US). It is believed that the pandemic has caused a further divide in the education system of the country. In a conversation with FE Education, Daniel Markovits, Guido Calabresi Professor of Law, Yale Law School, spoke about how the US suffers from inequality in education. (Edited Excerpts)
How has education changed post pandemic?
I believe there are some similarities in how the education system has changed post the pandemic in the US and India. In the US, the single most important consequence of the pandemic for education has been that it has massively increased educational inequality. The richest students who attended richest schools basically kept going to school throughout the pandemic. Some of these schools continued to remain open. They purchased testing equipment, tested their students, purchased masks, and changed their ventilation systems.
And even when schools closed, they closed in a way that enabled them to deliver extremely intensive and high quality remote learning. So they had teachers who were trained to teach remotely, they had students whose houses were big enough that they could sit in a quiet room and work over Zoom. They had students whose parents had the time to help them with homework. So for very rich students the effect of the pandemic on their education in terms of academic learning and skill building was almost zero, they just kept going.
On the other hand, for many poor students the academic effect of the pandemic was such that online learning or Zoom school meant no school at all. Data in the US from large scale national surveys show that the number of days on which students who went to Zoom school had no contact at all with their school, not physical contacts, also no live Zoom lessons, not to mention not a telephone call or an email. And I think the average student in the poorest third of the population lost something like half a year of school days with no contact at all.
When compared to other nations how did the US perform in maintaining a robust education system especially in the pandemic?
I think the US performed extremely badly. In fact, its education system did worse than most other countries in managing the pandemic. But I would also like to say that there is pretty widespread data across countries, that remote learning doesn’t work as well as in person learning. Data further shows that richest and most privileged students do best at remote learning. It’s not just a question of who has broadband connectivity, or who has a good screen or laptop, it’s that in order to study effectively, remotely, you need a quiet room besides the skills on how to study. And those things are rich, rich kids have a quiet room. Poor kids have siblings running around, they’re in a small apartment. They’re in cramped quarters. So it doesn’t matter how good the quality of the thing which is delivered to you if you’re sitting and doing it when your three year old brother is climbing on you. You’re not going to learn.
What is the government doing to bridge the gap in equality in education in the US?
In the US, there are regular standardised tests that are used to assess what students have learned. What these show is that the pandemic costed an enormous amount of learning. Students progressed much less quickly than they otherwise would have. Data shows that the poorest students lost the most.
As it is anticipated that the recession will soon hit the market, to what extent will this further have an adverse impact on the US education system?
I want to separate that from the current circumstances for two reasons. First, it’s not obvious to me there’s going to be a recession. The labour market in the US is actually relatively robust right now. So there are more job openings than job seekers, labour market participation is going up again, a little bit. Wages are going up not as fast as prices. At the moment, although it’s an interesting moment, politically, because the perceptions of most Americans are that the economy is really bad but if you look at the objective data, real wages, employment rates, it’s not a boom time. In terms of skills the results of this are going to hit in 10 years.
So it’s a scary future in terms of education, especially in terms of decline in skills in the US?
It’s a scary future in terms of inequality. In terms of education and skills, when it comes to long term historical trends, people are more educated than they were a generation ago. Their skills are better than they were a generation ago. But the inequality is enormous and it’s both unjust and threatening the stability of the system.
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