The standard of school education in India is said to have declined to an alarming degree due to the coronavirus pandemic, not to forget the relentless discord over online and offline modes of instruction. There is no agreeable consensus yet. At another remove, the results of a national test in the United States of America points to the disastrous impact on 9-year-old children, quite the most vulnerable segment. The disaster has been acute in the irreplaceable habit of reading and the study of mathematics. The survey is explicit on the point that the coronavirus pandemic has “erased two decades of progress in math and reading”. The sharp decline in the national test scores covers almost all races and income levels.
High and low performers had been “diverging” even before the pandemic, but now, “the students are dropping faster.” The test results offered a snapshot for just one group ~ 9-year-olds, who are typically in the third or fourth grade. Over time, scores in reading and especially mathematics have generally “tended upward or held steady since the test was first administered in the early 1970s.” And that included a period of strong progress from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. But over the last decade or so, student scores have leveled off rather than gained, while gaps widened between low and high-performing students. In certain parts of the country, the worst of the disruptions was marginal with schools reopening after fall.
Rightly has it been remarked that the national tests recount a story of a decade of progress, followed by a decade of inequality, and then the shock of the pandemic, which “came with a one-two punch”. There are indications that students ~ fully back in schools ~ have begun to learn at a normal pace yet again. However, experts say it will take more than the typical school day to make up gaps created by the pandemic. The results should be a rallying cry, one that is riveted to getting students back on track. Small wonder there are suggestions to invoke the Marshall Plan, the American initiative to help rebuild Europe after the Second World War.
The solutions may be rather basic, if difficult to carry out. The low-performing students simply need to spend more time learning in the form of tutoring, extended school days or summer schools. The federal government has budgeted $122 billion to help students recover. This must rank as the largest single investment in American schools, and the certitudes would suggest that at least 20 per cent of the money must be spent on what they call “academic catchup”. There is no “silver bullet” beyond finding a way to increase “instructional time”.
A version of this story appears in the print edition of the September 6, 2022, issue.