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March 31, 2020

The long-term consequences of missing a term of school

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The Covid-19 pandemic is first and foremost a health crisis. Many countries have (rightly) decided to close schools, and teaching is moving online, on an untested and unprecedented scale.

From an economic point of view the primary point of being in school is that it increases a child’s ability; even a relatively short period of missed school will have consequences for skill growth. We cannot estimate precisely the impact of the Covid-19 interruption on learning as we are in a new world, but we can use other studies to get an order of magnitude.

In a Swedish example, young men had differing numbers of days to prepare for important tests. These differences were conditionally random, allowing the authors to estimate a causal effect of schooling on skills. Even just ten days of extra schooling significantly raised scores on tests of the use of knowledge (“crystallized intelligence”) by 1% of a standard deviation (SD). As an extremely rough measure of the impact of the current school closures, if we were to simply extrapolate those numbers, 12 weeks less schooling (60 school days) implies a loss of 6% of an SD, which is non-trivial. The authors do not find a significant impact on problem solving skills (an example of “fluid intelligence”).

A different way into this question is a study that estimated the impact on learning of differences in instructional time across countries. Perhaps surprisingly, there were very substantial differences between countries in hours of teaching. Less surprising is that these differences matter: one more hour per week over the school year in the main subjects increases test scores by around 6% of an SD. In our case, the loss of perhaps three to four hours per week of teaching in maths for 12 weeks may be similar in magnitude to the loss of an hour per week for 30 weeks. So, surely coincidentally, we end up with an estimated loss of around 6% of an SD again. Leaving the close similarity aside, these studies possibly suggest a likely effect no greater than 10% of an SD but definitely above zero.

Families are widely agreed to provide major inputs into a child’s learning. The current global-scale expansion in home schooling might at first thought be seen quite positively, as likely to be effective. But typically, the families’ role is seen as a complement to the schools’ input. Being the prime driver of learning, even in conjunction with online materials, is a different question; and while many parents round the world do successfully school their children at home, this seems unlikely to generalize over the whole population.

Global home schooling will surely produce some inspirational moments, some angry moments, some fun moments and some frustrated moments, but it seems very unlikely that it will on average replace the learning lost from school. The bigger point is this: there will be substantial disparities between families in the extent to which they can help their children learn. Key differences include: the amount of time available to devote to teaching, the non-cognitive skills of the parents, resources (for example, not everyone will have the kit to access the best online material), and also the amount of knowledge—it’s hard to help your child learn something that you may not understand yourself. Consequently, this episode will probably lead to an increase in the inequality of human capital growth for the affected cohorts.

© Simon Burgess and Hans Sievertsen

Simon Burgess is Professor of Economics at Bristol University, UK
Hans Sievertsen is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at Bristol University, UK

Read more on the coronavirus crisis:
"Coronavirus and the labor market," by Daniel S. Hamermesh
"Fighting a coronavirus recession," by Daniel S. Hamermesh
"Pandemics and the labor market—Then and now," by Karen Clay
"Pricing the lives saved by coronavirus policies," by W. Kip Viscusi
"Health effects of the coronavirus recession," by Christopher J. Ruhm 

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