COVID-19 is Poised to Exacerbate the Learning Crisis, Evidence from Long-term School Closures in Pakistan

written by Marla Spivack

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and of the policies adopted to mitigate its spread will be drastic everywhere and particularly grim in low- and middle-income countries.1 As economies shrink, up to a decade of progress in poverty reduction could be undone. As health systems struggle, millions could go without treatment for preventable infectious diseases and childhood vaccination rates could plummet. And as schools are shuttered, millions of children will fall further behind in school with devastating effects on their outcomes later in life.

A leaky roof is a small problem on a sunny day and a big, urgent problem on a rainy one. The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a rainy day for education systems in low- and middle-income countries, it is a one-hundred-year flood. A new paper from the RISE Pakistan Country Research Team (CRT) shows that children in these countries are especially vulnerable since they are embedded in already dysfunctional education systems. The paper also shows that some of the worst damage to children’s long term learning from these closures may come after schools start up again. If children have fallen behind, they may never catch up even after they return to school.

New study of the learning effects of the 2005 Pakistan Earthquake has important lessons for COVID-19 related school closures

In the paper, RISE Pakistan Team members (Tahir Andrabi of LUMS and Pomona College, and Jishnu Das and Benjamin Daniels of Georgetown University) use a survey conducted four years after the 2005 Pakistan earthquake to measure how the disaster affected children’s learning and other human capital outcomes.

The 2005 earthquake was severe, with an epicenter in the Himalayan region, it registered 7.6 on the Richter scale, caused more than 80,000 deaths, and destroyed the vast majority of infrastructure in the area. As a result, children were out of school in the affected areas for an average of 14 weeks.

The researchers studied the effect of the school closures on children’s learning, and the findings have important implications for how we can expect the COVID-19 related closures to affect learning outcomes for children in education systems with similar constraints to Pakistan’s—and what can be done to mitigate these effects.

If countries reopen to business as usual, short-term school closures can produce outsized, long-run learning loss

The results of the paper add further evidence to the established finding that interruptions to human capital accumulation due to disasters can be severe. In this case, they show that the disaster can leave long-lasting scars on children, even when government interventions compensate households for the shock and facilitate a speedy economic recovery.

Four years after the earthquake, school enrolments had fully rebounded, infrastructure had been rebuilt, household incomes had rebounded, and adult’s health outcomes had returned to pre-quake levels, but children were still suffering the effects of school closures. Test scores of children in the affected areas put them 1.5 to 2 years behind their peers in unaffected. This lost learning could result in children earning 15% less in every year of their adult lives. 

Losses to human capital may well continue to accumulate further after children return to school, if they fall behind and are not able to catch up with the curriculum. Children fall behind, the over-ambitious curriculum races ahead, and children can’t catch up. In the aftermath of the earthquake, Andrabi et al find that school closures accounted for only 10% of the gap in test scores. Much more was lost after children returned to school. This is likely because children fell behind the standard curriculum during the closure period and then failed to catch up. This reinforces findings from RISE work in India which shows that when children fall behind in school they struggle to catch up later, due in part to overambitious curricula.

If steps are not taken to prevent children from falling farther behind when they return to school, the crisis will likely further exacerbate inequalities

Many commentators have noted that COVID is likely to exacerbate inequalities. The findings from the aftermath of the earthquake suggest that long term school closures can reduce inter-generational educational mobility. Andrabi et al found that in the aftermath of the earthquake children with educated mothers were fully able to fully catch up with their peers from unaffected areas. This finding is troubling considering pre-COVID work from the RISE Ethiopia CRT, which shows that first generation learners are already among the most disadvantaged in terms of learning outcomes.

Pedagogical approaches that focus on teaching children where they are will be critical to averting permanent learning deficits

The compounding of learning loss that was seen in the years following the earthquake in Pakistan suggests that assessing children when they return to school and teaching them from where they are will be vital to mitigating the long-term effect of school closures. The effectiveness of approaches like these often called teaching at the right level, have been well established. When they reopen, school systems should leverage approaches like these, and focus on helping children catch up and solidify their basic skills.

Reopening to business as usual would compound the disastrous effects of the COVID related closures. This catastrophe can be avoided if education systems embrace the opportunity to take on systemic changes, as part of their response to the crisis.


1 Incidentally, the May 23 edition also includes a laudatory and well deserved profile of RISE Nigeria CRT PI Leonard Watchekon and RISE implementing partner African School of Economics, which Watchekon founded.

This blog first appeared on the RISE blog.

New Online Program: Budgeting in a Time of Crisis

Governments across the world are facing a major budgeting crisis in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This crisis raises important questions:

  • How do governments manage revenue shortfalls?
  • How do you address new expenditure demands?
  • How do you forecast in the presence of multiple uncertainties?

All of these questions, and more, need to be addressed in the few months governments have left to develop their 2021 budgets. However, many of the processes and approaches to budgeting do not hold in this current circumstance. This means that new techniques and methods for budgeting in times of crisis are necessary.

Budgeting in a Time of Crisis, a new executive Education program at Harvard Kennedy School taught by Matt Andrews and Ricardo Hausmann, garners lessons from past crises, as well as cutting-edge thinking about the COVID-19 situation, to offer budgeting professionals new ideas and perspectives to apply in developing 2021 budget proposals.

These ideas relate to technical and political processes of delivering a budget (how do you forecast and build a budget technically in this trying time AND how do you communicate and engage with others about this budget) and also to the challenge of implementing that budget in coming years (what kind of flexibility might you need, what information do you need to collect, how can you manage expectations). To learn more, visit the course page.

Listen to Faculty Chair, Matt Andrews discuss the online program.

Charting a new course: Education systems after COVID-19

Written by Dzingai Mutumbuka and Marla Spivack

An ordinary classroom in an African school.

We know that time away from school due to COVID-19 has undermined learning. Children are depending on education leaders – from high level officials to classroom teachers – to start planning now for a new focus on foundational skills. With bold action, and clear focus education systems can mitigate the long term effects of this crisis and set out on a new course towards sustainable improvement in learning. 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has upended our lives and our education systems. Education has been adversely impacted in two significant ways: schools have been closed, in some cases for a whole year; and economic production, the major source of education funding through budgets, has declined precipitously.  In Africa, where there was already a learning crisis characterized by millions of children out of school and for those enrolled completing primary education without minimum competency in literacy – 86% of children reach the end of primary school without basic literacy according to the World Bank – and numeracy, COVID-19 school closures have turned the crisis into a nightmare.

Insights from research on education systems suggest that by making a system-wide commitment to prioritizing foundational skills, assessing children’s learning levels when schools reopen, and adapting instruction to children’s learning levels, education systems can mitigate learning loss and even come back stronger than before.

Several features of the learning crisis set the stage for COVID-19 school closures to severely impact long-term learning outcomes. Learning profiles in African countries are flat, meaning that children acquire little new learning with each additional year in school. Many fail to master foundational skills early on and then struggle to keep up or catch up as the curriculum progresses. For children who learn little during school closures, catching up will be even more challenging. Learning levels in classrooms can vary widely and are likely to likely to increase in the aftermath of COVID-19 closures

COVID-19 closures are also poised to exacerbate learning inequality. The majority of children in African countries do not have access to virtual learning, but those that do are likely to be urban and better off. Better off children are also more likely to have parents who can support and supplement remote learning from the school system.  

Continue reading Charting a new course: Education systems after COVID-19

COVID Act Two: Look beyond your borders to navigate what comes next

Guest blog written by Peter Harrington and Ben French

Act One of Covid is over. In places it has been frightening, in others orderly, and everywhere completely unprecedented. As we move into Act Two of this astonishing global drama, and a global recession on a scale not seen before, governments and leaders need to prepare themselves for what comes next and the big questions that will define whether countries sink or swim.

A defining feature of Act One was the seeming uniformity of the pandemic. It felt like the whole world was brought together by a shared experience – fighting a merciless enemy that swept the world and respected no language or national boundary. This feeling was also often matched by a striking uniformity of response – regardless of context, governments in almost every country pulled the lockdown lever to suffocate and slow the virus.

With the curtain coming down on Act One, we find ourselves wondering: was this uniformity of experience real or imagined? It may have been a mirage. Looking closely Act One has been a vastly different experience across countries. Whereas Europe and the US have seen massive caseloads, the predicted tsunami in Africa has yet failed to materialize, even after acknowledging the lack of data. In other places like Pakistan or Indonesia the crisis looks set to smoulder, with periodic flare ups. This divergence belies the impression of uniformity – an impression that may have had more to do with where headlines are generated than any true homogeneity of experience. The reality of Covid has been extremely heterogenous.

This brings us to Act Two. So far, the policy debate has focused on how to manage the pandemic and economic shocks. The result has been a narrow focus on managing the pandemic and its economic consequences in the present, and within countries’ own borders. As governments move into the recovery phase and start thinking about the subsequent waves, a more nuanced view of the evolving situation must take hold.

In the early stages of this crisis, it was the hyper-connected parts of the world that were impacted most. The more connected a country and its economy were to the rest of the world, the higher and faster the caseload. This is common sense – places with a huge through-traffic of travellers and visitors (like London, New York, Hong Kong), and more infrastructure, had far greater probability of transmission than Lilongwe or Lapland. In Act One, interconnectedness was a risk factor – it created vulnerability as travellers, tourists and flights became disease carriers. And to compound things, interconnected economies have suffered more initially – from loss of exports, loss of remittances, loss of investment. Meanwhile, those places with less inter-connection were sheltered from the storm, or at least suffered a slower spread. Continue reading COVID Act Two: Look beyond your borders to navigate what comes next

Listen to our sixth virtual discussion on Leadership Through Crisis

Screen Shot 2020-04-17 at 9.58.55 AM

On May 1st, 2020, we hosted a sixth virtual discussion with Matt Andrews, who answered audience questions on his new Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series.

Thank you to ALL those who attended our sixth session and for engaging with us. If you missed the session, you can listen to it here or in the player below.


BSC’s new Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in crises. Each blog offers a few ideas as well as questions for reflection, thus creating a space for learning and contextual reflection.

Growth after the Coronavirus: Thoughts and Questions

written by Matt Andrews

A lot of  people ask me how governments should support economic growth in the period ‘After Coronavirus’. It is a vital question that I wrestle with daily in preparing  for the forthcoming Leading Economic Growth Online executive education program (which I teach with my amazing colleague, Ricardo  Hausmann). Here are some of my personal thoughts on the issue.

1.  I believe we must focus on future growth, even if it seems misplaced in the current crisis

At times in the last few weeks I  have found myself asking if I am a little tone deaf focusing on how governments should be supporting growth tomorrow when many people are dying, starving or falling into deep poverty today. Then I remember that economic growth is actually key to helping those who are suffering today have better lives in the future. As my colleague Dani Rodrik wrote in One Economics, Many Recipes,  ‘Historically nothing has worked better than economic growth in enabling societies to improve the life chances of their members, including those at the very bottom.’ Dani’s comments echo studies that find many connections between growth, jobs, prosperity and well-being. I can’t see why these connections will matter less tomorrow than they did in the past, so we need to keep focusing on growth as a key to getting lots of other stuff right. To keep motivated in this work, I recommend that everyone focused on growth scour the literature to identify how growth does connect to other improvements in their country, city, or region.

2.  We should focus on growth as a means, not an end

We who work on growth should consider growth as a means to various ends, not an end in itself. Growth matters because it helps us achieve other ends we really care about—like ensuring our people have high quality work or access to education or better health care or (building on Dani  Rodrik’s words)  ‘improved life chances for our members’. When we develop our growth strategies it should be with these ends in mind, such that we promote the kind of growth that our society needs. This is really important because governments can foster growth in ways that undermine their real objectives. For example, I worked in a country where officials told me their biggest problem was that twenty-something university graduates were emigrating because they  did not  have good quality jobs (where the implied policy ‘end’ would be ‘more jobs for recent university graduates’ so that ‘college educated twenty-somethings emigrate less’). A consulting firm encouraged the country to pursue growth in tourism and mining, which it did, and which led to growth. Very few jobs in the newly expanded tourism and mining sectors went to the target population, however. As a result, the country’s growth did not achieve the needed objective or end. To ensure we focus our growth strategies on ends we really care about, I  recommend developing an ends means growth chart that (i) lists the key problems we hope growth will help to solve; (ii) suggests a simple theory on how growth can help address each problem; and (iii) we use to guide our choice of which growth opportunities to pursue and which to pass on. Continue reading Growth after the Coronavirus: Thoughts and Questions

Listen to our fifth virtual discussion on Leadership Through Crisis

On April 24th, 2020, we hosted a fourth virtual discussion with Matt Andrews, who answered audience questions on his new Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series.

Here are some of the questions he answered:

    • Since the pandemic requires quick decision making at the national level, this might pose a threat for democracies and citizen inclusiveness, how can countries (especially Developing ones) improve the inclusive decision making process especially when we see more digitalization in many areas of our lives.. perhaps big investments will be required on digital government.
    • Interesting point about more junior people being hired at this point. As the economy is slated to open up in stages (those with immunity first), my suspicion is that the younger, less risk population (likely fewer pre-existing conditions…age is one of them) will be allowed out first. What will this do for economic equality for middle-aged, older people whose retirement savings are likely decimated at this point?

Thank you to ALL those who attended our third session and for engaging with us. If you missed the session, you can listen to it here. We are now holding these virtual sessions every Friday morning at 9am EST. Follow our blog to get registration information!

BSC’s new Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in crises. Each blog offers a few ideas as well as questions for reflection, thus creating a space for learning and contextual reflection.

COVID-19: Planning for Tomorrow’s Problems Today

Guest blog written by Peter Harrington

When he started his blog series on crisis leadership on these pages, Matt Andrews asked: can public leaders navigate high winds and big waves in little boats? We could add to that question: how do you build the boat when you are already at sea and the storm is raging?

For most governments, the mechanisms to deal with this crisis did not exist, and existing ones were not designed for it. As a result, much of the response is being improvised in the middle of a hurricane, and more recent blog posts on  Liberia and Bahrain have explored this.

This challenge gives rise to a very common pattern: crisis responders will focus on the problems that have to be solved right now. It is a natural way to go about the job; prioritise what is urgent and solve the problem, then move on to the next. But anyone will familiar with the so-called Eisenhower matrix (‘Urgent versus Important’ 2×2 shown below) will know that we ignore ‘important but not urgent’ issues at our peril.

Screen Shot 2020-04-17 at 4.51.03 PM

Source: Vinita Bansal’s excellent Techtello article on ‘How to  Prioritise and  Master Productivity’

The current crisis is no different, and this post is dedicated to the problems which will become critical in the next few weeks and months as the crisis evolves, and which must be planned for (those in quadrant 2 of the matrix and need to be scheduled for action through strategic thinking  NOW). Leaders need to make sure they put in place resources to tackle these ‘tomorrow problems’.

COVID-19 is impacting every sector. But for simplicity’s sake, I am going to focus on the two main, broad dimensions of the crisis: the medical (or public health) side in this blog post, and the economic side in the next post. These two dimensions are intimately connected – what happens in one, including the policies implemented, profoundly affects the other. It’s vital to consider how these interdependencies will play out as the crisis evolves, and some countries are doing that already. But forward planning will be especially important in developing and transitional countries which have yet to bear the full brunt of the pandemic. Continue reading COVID-19: Planning for Tomorrow’s Problems Today

Public Leadership Through Crisis 19: How do political leaders commonly structure their roles?

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).


This is the second of four blogs addressing questions about political engagement in crisis response organization. The questions are: Who are political  leaders and what roles do they play in crises?  How do political leaders commonly structure their roles? How can political leaders structure their roles more effectively? I will offer some thoughts on the second of these questions here and, as usual, ask questions for you to reflect on.

How do political leaders commonly structure their roles in crisis?

Let’s start with recognizing that political leaders differ in a myriad of ways, and  political  leaders organize themselves quite differently in response to crises as well (as shown in studies like this one from Christensen et al). Different structures often  reflect different personalities, political cultures, available tools, and more.

Even with the differences, some fairly commonly observed ways politicians respond to crises. One of these ‘common responses’ pertains to how they organize their response: Many politicians centralize and try to move towards a command and control deciding and operating mode.

This is the core observation of Paul ‘t Hart, Uriel Rosenthal and Alexander Kouzmin in their 1993 classic: “One of the more enduring ideas about governmental response to crisis is the expectation that government decision making becomes highly centralized.” Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 19: How do political leaders commonly structure their roles?

Public Leadership Through Crisis 18: Who are Political Leaders and What is their Role?

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).


I have used a few blogs to discuss the need for governments to reorganize when facing crisis, adopting flat, fast and flexible structures. There are various versions of such structures but I propose a snowflake mechanism that allows one to have a central coordinating team (like a snowflake nucleus) that interact with organically emergent set of relating teams, all acting, learning and sharing with the full system.

I see this kind of mechanism operating in crisis responses like the 2014 Ebola experience in Liberia and the 2020 Covid-19 experience in Bahrain. These mechanisms allow for what Mark Moore calls the ‘decentralized mobilization of  energy’ where the entire governmental system works together to solve the crisis. Some might think this sounds like chaos, but it is the kind of mechanism needed when you face huge tasks fraught with unknowns and need rapid work and learning at scale.

A key question can be raised in designing such mechanism: “Where do political  leaders fit in?”

I will address four issues related to this question in the next set of blog posts:

  1. Who are political  leaders and what roles do they play in crises? 
  2. How do political leaders commonly structure their roles?
  3. How can political leaders structure their roles more effectively? And
  4. Is it ever appropriate to criticize political leaders during times of crisis?

In this blog I offer some thoughts on the first question and, as usual, ask questions for you to reflect on—thinking about the political leaders in your crisis situation and the roles they play.

Who are ‘political leaders’ and what roles do  they play  in crises?

There are many sets of political leaders in government. Perhaps the most obvious are the formal politicians who have been elected to run the executive operation of government (the President or Prime Minister, Governor or Mayor) and the formal politicians who have been elected to run the legislative branch of government (the Congress or Parliament or Town Council). Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 18: Who are Political Leaders and What is their Role?