Assessing the damage on the school system

Is it really a success story?

This is the text of my intervention during the policy talk organized by Ponlok Chomnes in November 2021. I will update it with additional data, whenever I can get some. Several students of NGPRC have collected useful testimonies to write their thesis. I’ll try to synthesize their findings as soon as possible.

Anecdotal success and systemic failures

I wish I could share a success story about distance learning. After all, the New Generation Pedagogical Research Center has been able to carry on its activities during the Covid crisis. It took us one day to shift to an online setting. We have even designed a remote practicum when it was time to do so, with the observation of pre-recorded lessons, and role-plays, to replace real classroom observations and conferences between mentors and teachers. But it wouldn’t be honest during a policy talk. We worked under exceptionally favorable circumstances. All of our students are experienced teachers. All of them are proficient with ICT. All of them can speak English. And most importantly, they are all volunteers. It is pretty much like a lab experiment. In research, we know that we should never use lab conditions to make decisions about the real world. Such favorable circumstances don’t exist for normal classes, especially in K12 education.

Making decisions with incomplete data

We have talked extensively about the need to collect accurate data to inspire public policies. We don’t have all the information that we would like. For instance, it is too soon to have the dropout rates among Cambodian students, until the situation is stabilized. However, we can already make some estimates, based on the available sources and on logic. After all, in order to make a decision, an order of magnitude is often sufficient.

The trick is to Interpret correctly the figures that we have. A survey in August 2020 indicated that 69% of the students had access to a smartphone. This is an amazing achievement for a poor country, if we consider that smartphones are a very recent technology. However, we must understand what it means for teachers who want to conduct e-learning activities. A smartphone is a necessary condition for e-learning. If you don’t have it, you are automatically excluded. It means that 30% of the students are excluded from the beginning! But there is worse. It isn’t the only condition. 69% is a cap, the upper limit of what we can expect. Then you need a stable Internet connection, a reliable supply of electricity and so on. Each new condition comes with a significant loss of efficiency. Even more, “having access to” doesn’t mean that all those 69% of students own their smartphones. It just means that someone in the household possesses one. They have to share it with siblings. The more siblings you have, the less time you can spend learning on the smartphone. Therefore, we can probably expect only a half or a third of that figure. The students who can actually partake in synchronous distance learning are a minority. Just because of material constraints.

I’m not talking about the other requirements such as ICT skills, commitment, school management and so on. I let you imagine how easy it is for a student to shut down their camera and do something else after connecting to the lesson. He just has to pretend that the connectivity is bad.

If I’m looking at the alternatives to synchronous online learning, the situation isn’t better. According to the same survey, worksheets were used by around 45% of the students. But it meant a lot of delays. Only 58% of the teachers were in touch with their students 2 times a week or more. 75% of the teachers reported that the students don’t complete their worksheet. And who should be surprised? Any experienced teacher knows that collecting homework is a painful and unreliable process, even in normal times. When a large proportion of your students live far away from the school, going to the villages to collect material or provide support is clearly unpractical. Even worse, only 19% of the teachers gave the worksheets back after correction.

All in all, in August 2020, only 16% of the students declared working more than 5 hours a week. It’s an astonishing low threshold, if we think about it. Not even one fourth or one fifth of a normal school week. It means that the learning loss during school closure is more than 90%, just by considering the amount of time.

Let’s say that the schools reopen partially, and that they organize double or triple shifts in order to keep social distancing in a classroom. Then, you are facing a loss of 50% or 66%, by design. In fact, complementary activities are not really possible. Even though the students are learning only part-time, the teachers, on the other hand, are working full-time.

Since the beginning of the crisis, the distance learning strategies have improved somewhat. But in any case, the outcome cannot be higher that what the smallest choke point allows. An optimistic estimate would place the learning loss between 50% and 90%. That’s assuming that Cambodian teachers do their job and try actively to find solutions.

Sunken costs

There will be a lot of work to do to fix the damage on the school system. Some damages are just unfixable. Of course, we need to think of dropout teenagers, girls who get married sooner than planned, or even boys who decided to get a paying job, instead of wasting their time waiting for an uncertain reopening. Many of them didn’t even have a choice, with the economic disruption that struck their family. We don’t have the dropout data yet, because we need the situation to stabilize before. I’ve had anecdotal reports from teachers saying that 15%, 30% of their students didn’t attend the remote class, or even much more. Of them, a large proportion will come back when it’s possible. But how many won’t?

We have talked a lot about the inclusion of disadvantaged students. We can pinpoint the situation of the girls who are much more likely to do the chores instead of learning. But don’t miss the big picture. In the current circumstances most of the children, boys and girls, are at risk of being excluded from school, one way or another. As an educator, I must also remind you about a very important fact. There is a time to learn certain things. If language is not acquired at a younger age, the missing lessons will never be recuperated entirely. Those who missed the right time to learn how to read might never be able to learn it as well as they should have. Bad beginnings lead to discouragement, and other troubles. There will be long-lasting effects.

Back to school?

For all those reasons, I salute the decision of the Royal Government of Cambodia to reopen the schools. We simply cannot go on like this for an undetermined period of time. For many years to come, there will be a lot of work to help the students catch up with the curriculum. The priority is to conduct diagnostic assessments, exactly like we diagnose a patient to identify his illness and evaluate his general health. But it is not enough. Evaluating is useless, if the evaluation doesn’t serve to make decisions. Since the situations are extremely diverse, it’s at the school level that most of the decisions must be made. Teachers and school directors will have to be much more flexible than they use to be in order to offer a treatment to the real students that they have in front of them. Prioritizing some parts of the curriculum is unavoidable, in order to ensure solid foundations. It’s pointless to teach a lesson that the students cannot understand, under the pretext that we have a textbook to follow. Teachers will have to take initiatives. It is critical that all the institutions acknowledge their duty and their right to do so. I pray that we won’t have to close the schools again.

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