02-06-2020: "When should schools re-open?" with
Simon Burgess & Marta De Philippis
Published on coronavirusandtheeconomy.com
The Covid-19 crisis has required governments to make many difficult decisions, all fraught with risk. Among them is the re-opening of schools. This is complex because we lack so much key information. It is relatively easy to list the issues involved in the decision, as we do below, but much harder to quantify these factors – and even harder to weigh the costs and benefits of different options.
Why is it difficult to decide when to re-open?
Many governments decided relatively early on to get some children back at school: by late May, 22 European countries had re-opened schools. Naturally, this involves a health risk from potentially re-starting Covid-19 infection dynamics. But there are also other risks from not opening schools.
While all countries will implement social distancing precautions and enhanced hygiene procedures in schools, greater contact is inevitable – between pupils, pupils and staff, pupils and other parents, both at school and during the commute to school. This in turn can take Covid-19 back to homes and communities.
The difficulty is that there is a lot of uncertainty about what the overall effect will be – for example, how easily do children transmit the virus to other children and to adults? Factors that will influence this include the initial level of infection, the density of population, the availability of space at school, as well as the accessibility of rapid response testing and tracing facilities at a local level (see John Hopkins, 2020).
Educational and inequality risks
The health risk is a key factor in this decision, but it is not the only one. Closing schools results in a loss of skills, and a consequent loss of productivity. Each week of school missed reduces the educational opportunities and achievements of millions of young people (Burgess and Sievertsen, 2020). These losses of skills matters for the future growth and prosperity of the country.
In addition, it is likely that the implications for educational outcomes will be strongly unequal. Experiences of education are now much more polarised than in normal times. Children in more disadvantaged families have less availability of digital devices and a fast internet connection at home. They are also more likely to live in overcrowded housing situations. In addition, less educated parents have probably less time and fewer skills to help their children in their home schooling activities (Bol, 2020).
Schools, moreover, are also important because they provide children with other facilities: food, company, sports and other physical activities. Countries and families face important long-term implications of skill loss and growing educational inequality.
Risks to parents’ work
Schools also offer child-minding services. A large-scale return to work, urgently needed to boost family incomes for those without work and to rebuild businesses, requires large-scale childcare. This is simply not possible without the schools being open, especially in countries with high female labour force participation. In the UK, around half of the workforce has at least one dependent child at home, and so business in general cannot re-open until the schools are open.
What strategies have different countries adopted?
The timing of re-opening schools strongly affects health risks, learning and educational inequality, and jobs, business and poverty. The weighing of these factors cannot be framed simplistically as ‘money versus lives’. Income loss, poverty and unemployment also affect health and influence mortality.
Many European countries have re-opened their schools, without apparent large increases in infection rates, although the re-opening so far has typically been for a small fraction of pupils, and only for a couple of weeks. An early overview of different countries’ policy responses on schools is provided by OECD/PISA, and the Johns Hopkins report provides details of policies on school return.
To illustrate the ways that governments are tackling this issue, here we discuss three countries that have taken very different decisions: Denmark, which only closed schools completely for one month; Italy, where schools will be closed till September; and England, where the situation remains unclear.
On 10 March, Denmark had 262 confirmed Covid-19 cases. The day after, that number had risen to 514. In a reaction to this increase, the prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, announced the first set of lockdown measures, including the closure of all childcare institutions, schools, colleges and universities with effect from 13 March.
The number of Covid-19-related deaths in Denmark peaked at the end of April and the daily number of Covid-19 deaths has been below 10 since 1 May. But already on 6 April, the prime minister announced that childcare institutions and primary school (up to grade 5, children up to the age of 11) would open again on 15 April. On 7 May, it was announced that lower secondary schooling (up to grade 10, children up to the age of 16) would re-open on 18 May.
Children in Denmark do not return to the school day they used to know. The school day is structured such that children (and teachers) can maintain the generally advised distance (initially 2 meters, now 1 meter). Schools are encouraged to assign children to a small number of fixed peers to interact with during breaks and teaching, and to structure the teaching such that children have a minimum number of different teachers.
With the outbreak of the first coronavirus cases, schools were closed in the regions of Lombardy and Veneto where the first cases occurred (21 February). Then, some of the regions where infections were higher gradually announced temporary school closures. From 4 March, all schools were closed in Italy.
In the government’s initial announcement, the plan was to re-open schools by 15 March. But given the increased diffusion of the virus and the intensification of the lockdown measures, the re-opening date has continued to be postponed.
At present, primary schools, secondary schools and universities are expected to re-open, at least partially, only in September. All schools, apart from nurseries, are in any case usually closed in Italy for the summer break from the beginning of June to the beginning of September. The government is considering re-opening nurseries and summer childcare facilities earlier.
Few official details have been released so far on how in practice schools will re-open in September. The government has formed a taskforce in charge of advising on these issues.
In a decree approved in mid-May, the government announced that to tackle the Covid-19 emergency, they will hire many more teachers next year (increasing the number of teachers by 16,000). The government has also allocated funds for that period to provide digital devices to students in need for home schooling, equipment to ensure social distancing at school, and safety and health material to prevent the diffusion of the virus.
Schools in England officially closed on 20 March, although some had taken unilateral decisions to close before then. At that time, there was no official comment on a likely re-opening date, and many probably envisaged a very lengthy closure.
Two months on, as of late May, government policy is that some schools may be able to open from the 1 June on a partial basis, that is, for some of their pupils; but no schools are expected to open fully before September. The re-opening policy is explicitly conditional, depending chiefly on whether the rate of infection is continuing to fall.
The youngest children are in the initial wave of those returning: nursery, reception and year 1 children (those aged 4-6), plus year 6 children (those aged 10-11). The actual practicalities of teaching for these children are being worked out ‘live’, but they are intended to include all appropriate protective procedures including attempting distancing.
Secondary schools will not see a proper return to school before the summer holidays. They are expected to provide some limited ‘face-to-face activity’ for years 10 and 12, the two cohorts that will take exams for key high-stakes qualifications next year. There is currently very little guidance on what that activity should involve.
What does the future hold?
The message from contrasting developments in Denmark, Italy and England is probably representative of the global situation.
First, the strategy towards re-opening schools – in terms of both timing and how it should be done – will vary a great deal from country to country. It is not only the impact and timing of the Covid-19 pandemic that varies across countries, but also the institutional setting.
Important factors include medical and public health preparedness, the ability of schools to deliver effective online teaching, and the implications for schools of the labour supply of parents. For example, comparing the three countries discussed here: in Denmark in 2019, 84% of working households with dependent children have all adults working, in Italy the figures is 55% and in the UK 75%. The social and economic costs of keeping schools closed will vary equally substantially.
Second, children will not return to school as it was before the crisis, but to a ‘new normal’. That new normal is likely to include various measures to reduce infection risk with high demands on the children, their teachers and the school administrators. How long the new normal remains in place we cannot yet know.
- read the full post on coronavirusandtheeconomy.com
14-05-2020: "COVID-19: The expert economist view" with
Published on discovereconomics.ac.uk.
“Give me a one-handed economist”, demanded Harry Truman, the former US President. “All my economists tell me, on the one hand… but on the other…” Economists get a lot of stick when it comes offering diverging views. In a similar vein, George Bernard Shaw joked that if you laid all the economists in the world end to end, you wouldn’t reach a conclusion. Why do people love to mock economists’ ability to give a clear answer? Is it really the case economists can’t agree on anything? This article looks at economists’ views on different issues, including the current COVID crisis, and asks whether there is such a thing as a one-handed economist.
- read the full post on discovereconomics.ac.uk
30-04-2020: "School is out, does it hurt us?"with
Published on discovereconomics.ac.uk.
You are probably reading this at home and not at school or in a library, because schools and universities have been closed around the world because of COVID-19. Teaching has been interrupted, cancelled or moved online, but will this have long-term consequences for the affected students?
- read the full post on discovereconomics.ac.uk
01-04-2020: "Schools, skills, and learning: The impact of COVID-19 on education" with
Published on voxeu.org
The global lockdown of education institutions is going to cause major (and likely unequal) interruption in students’ learning; disruptions in internal assessments; and the cancellation of public assessments for qualifications or their replacement by an inferior alternative. This column discusses what can be done to mitigate these negative impacts.
The COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a health crisis. Many countries have (rightly) decided to close schools, colleges and universities. The crisis crystallises the dilemma policymakers are facing between closing schools (reducing contact and saving lives) and keeping them open (allowing workers to work and maintaining the economy). The severe short-term disruption is felt by many families around the world: home schooling is not only a massive shock to parents’ productivity, but also to children’s social life and learning. Teaching is moving online, on an untested and unprecedented scale. Student assessments are also moving online, with a lot of trial and error and uncertainty for everyone. Many assessments have simply been cancelled. Importantly, these interruptions will not just be a short-term issue, but can also have long-term consequences for the affected cohorts and are likely to increase inequality.
Impacts on education: Schools
Going to school is the best public policy tool available to raise skills. While school time can be fun and can raise social skills and social awareness, 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 time in school does this; even a relatively short period of missed school will have consequences for skill growth. But can we estimate how much the COVID-19 interruption will affect learning? Not very precisely, as we are in a new world; but we can use other studies to get an order of magnitude.
Two pieces of evidence are useful. Carlsson et al. (2015) consider a situation in which young men in Sweden have differing number of days to prepare for important tests. These differences are conditionally random allowing the authors to estimate a causal effect of schooling on skills. The authors show that even just ten days of extra schooling significantly raises scores on tests of the use of knowledge (‘crystallized intelligence’) by 1% of a standard deviation. As an extremely rough measure of the impact of the current school closures, if we were to simply extrapolate those numbers, twelve weeks less schooling (i.e. 60 school days) implies a loss of 6% of a standard deviation, which is non-trivial. They do not find a significant impact on problem-solving skills (an example of ‘fluid intelligence’).
A different way into this question comes from Lavy (2015), who estimates the impact on learning of differences in instructional time across countries. Perhaps surprisingly, there are very substantial differences between countries in hours of teaching. For example, Lavy shows that total weekly hours of instruction in mathematics, language and science is 55% higher in Denmark than in Austria. These differences matter, causing significant differences in test score outcomes: one more hour per week over the school year in the main subjects increases test scores by around 6% of a standard deviation. In our case, the loss of perhaps 3-4 hours per week teaching in maths for 12 weeks may be similar in magnitude to the loss of an hour per week for 30 weeks. So, rather bizarrely and surely coincidentally, we end up with an estimated loss of around 6% of a standard deviation again. Leaving the close similarity aside, these studies possibly suggest a likely effect no greater than 10% of a standard deviation but definitely above zero.
Impacts on education: Families
Perhaps to the disappointment of some, children have not generally been sent home to play. The idea is that they continue their education at home, in the hope of not missing out too much.
Families are central to education and are widely agreed to provide major inputs into a child’s learning, as described by Bjorklund and Salvanes (2011). The current global-scale expansion in home schooling might at first thought be seen quite positively, as likely to be effective. But typically, this role is seen as a complement to the input from school. Parents supplement a child’s maths learning by practising counting or highlighting simple maths problems in everyday life; or they illuminate history lessons with trips to important monuments or museums. 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 generalise over the whole population.
So while global home schooling will surely produce some inspirational moments, some angry moments, some fun moments and some frustrated moments, it seems very unlikely that it will on average replace the learning lost from school. But the bigger point is this: there will likely be substantial disparities between families in the extent to which they can help their children learn. Key differences include (Oreopoulos et al. 2006) 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 lead to an increase in the inequality of human capital growth for the affected cohorts.
The closure of schools, colleges and universities not only interrupts the teaching for students around the world; the closure also coincides with a key assessment period and many exams have been postponed or cancelled.
Internal assessments are perhaps thought to be less important and many have been simply cancelled. But their point is to give information about the child’s progress for families and teachers. The loss of this information delays the recognition of both high potential and learning difficulties and can have harmful long-term consequences for the child. Andersen and Nielsen (2019) look at the consequence of a major IT crash in the testing system in Denmark. As a result of this, some children could not take the test. The authors find that participating in the test increased the score in a reading test two years later by 9% of a standard deviation , with similar effects in mathematics. These effects are largest for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Importantly, the lockdown of institutions not only affects internal assessments. In the UK, for example, all exams for the main public qualifications – GCSEs and A levels – have been cancelled for the entire cohort. Depending on the duration of the lockdown, we will likely observe similar actions around the world. One potential alternative for the cancelled assessments is to use ‘predicted grades’, but Murphy and Wyness (2020) show that these are often inaccurate, and that among high achieving students, the predicted grades for those from disadvantaged backgrounds are lower than those from more advantaged backgrounds. Another solution is to replace blind exams with teacher assessments. Evidence from various settings show systematic deviations between unblind and blind examinations, where the direction of the bias typically depends on whether the child belongs to a group that usually performs well (Burgess and Greaves 2013, Rangvid 2015). For example, if girls usually perform better in a subject, an unblind evaluation of a boy’s performance is likely to be downward biased. Because such assessments are used as a key qualification to enter higher education, the move to unblind subjective assessments can have potential long-term consequences for the equality of opportunity.
It is also possible that some students’ careers might benefit from the interruptions. For example, in Norway it has been decided that all 10th grade students will be awarded a high-school degree. And Maurin and McNally (2008) show that the 1968 abandoning of the normal examination procedures in France (following the student riots) led to positive long-term labour market consequences for the affected cohort.
In higher education many universities and colleges are replacing traditional exams with online assessment tools. This is a new area for both teachers and students, and assessments will likely have larger measurement error than usual. Research shows that employers use educational credentials such as degree classifications and grade point averages to sort applicants (Piopiunik et al. 2020). The increase in the noise of the applicants’ signals will therefore potentially reduce the matching efficiency for new graduates on the labour market, who might experience slower earnings growth and higher job separation rates. This is costly both to the individual and also to society as a whole (Fredriksson et al. 2018).
The careers of this year’s university graduates may be severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. They have experienced major teaching interruptions in the final part of their studies, they are experiencing major interruptions in their assessments, and finally they are likely to graduate at the beginning of a major global recession. Evidence suggests that poor market conditions at labour market entry cause workers to accept lower paid jobs, and that this has permanent effects for the careers of some. Oreopoulos et al. (2012) show that graduates from programmes with high predicted earnings can compensate for their poor starting point through both within- and across-firm earnings gains, but graduates from other programmes have been found to experience permanent earnings losses from graduating in a recession.
The global lockdown of education institutions is going to cause major (and likely unequal) interruption in students’ learning; disruptions in internal assessments; and the cancellation of public assessments for qualifications or their replacement by an inferior alternative.
What can be done to mitigate these negative impacts? Schools need resources to rebuild the loss in learning, once they open again. How these resources are used, and how to target the children who were especially hard hit, is an open question. Given the evidence of the importance of assessments for learning, schools should also consider postponing rather than skipping internal assessments. For new graduates, policies should support their entry to the labour market to avoid longer unemployment periods.
- Andersen, S C, and H S Nielsen (2019), "Learning from Performance Information", Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory.
- Bjorklund, A and K Salvanes (2011), “Education and Family Background: Mechanisms and Policies”, in E Hanushek, S Machin and L Woessmann (eds), Handbook of the Economics of Education, Vol. 3.
- Burgess, S and E Greaves (2013), “Test Scores, Subjective Assessment, and Stereotyping of Ethnic Minorities”, Journal of Labor Economics 31(3): 535–576.
- Carlsson, M, G B Dahl, B Öckert and D Rooth (2015), “The Effect of Schooling on Cognitive Skills”, Review of Economics and Statistics 97(3): 533–547
- Fredriksson, P, L Hensvik, and O Nordström Skans (2018), "Mismatch of Talent: Evidence on Match Quality, Entry Wages, and Job Mobility", American Economic Review 108(11): 3303-38.
- Lavy, V (2015), “Do Differences in Schools' Instruction Time Explain International Achievement Gaps? Evidence from Developed and Developing Countries”, Economic Journal 125.
- Maurin, E and S McNally (2008), "Vive la revolution! Long-term educational returns of 1968 to the angry students", Journal of Labor Economics 26(1): 1-33.
- Murphy, R and G Wyness (2020), “Minority Report: the impact of predicted grades on university admissions of disadvantaged groups”, CEPEO Working Paper Series No 20-07 Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunitites, UCL Institute of Education.
- Oreopoulos, P, M Page and A Stevens (2006), “Does human capital transfer from parent to child? The intergenerational effects of compulsory schooling”, Journal of Labor Economics 24(4): 729–760.
- Oreopoulos, P, T von Wachter, and A Heisz (2012), "The Short- and Long-Term Career Effects of Graduating in a Recession", American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 4(1): 1-29.
- Piopiunik, M, G Schwerdt, L Simon and L Woessman (2020), "Skills, signals, and employability: An experimental investigation", European Economic Review 123: 103374.
- Rangvid, B S (2015), "Systematic differences across evaluation schemes and educational choice", Economics of Education Review 48: 41-55.
31-03-2020: "The long-term consequences of missing a term of school"
Published on IZA World of Labor.
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.
21-10-2016: (in Danish) "Konsekvenser af børnefattigdom–hvad ved vi egentlig" (note that the newspaper changed the title) with Torben Tranæs. Published in Berlingske.
16-12-2015: (in Danish) "Sen skolestart - Ja, måske..." with Rasmus Landersø. Published in Berlingske.
30-10-2015: (in Danish) "Tidens Gave" Published in Weekendavisen.
28-05-2015: (in Danish) "De unge kan vurdere egne styrker" Published in Børsen.
23-09-2014: (in Danish) "Tirsdagsanalyse" with Ulrik Hvidman. Published in Politiken.