Beyond reopening schools: How education can emerge stronger than before COVID-19

smiling girl getting ready for school

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in at least one positive thing: a much greater appreciation for the importance of public schools. As parents struggle to work with their children at home due to school closures, public recognition of the essential caretaking role schools play in society has skyrocketed. As young people struggle to learn from home, parents’ gratitude for teachers, their skills, and their invaluable role in student well-being, has risen. As communities struggle to take care of their vulnerable children and youth, decisionmakers are having to devise new mechanisms for delivering essential services from food to education to health care.

We believe it is also valuable to look beyond these immediate concerns to what may be possible for education on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is hard to imagine there will be another moment in history when the central role of education in the economic, social, and political prosperity and stability of nations is so obvious and well understood by the general population. Now is the time to chart a vision for how education can emerge stronger from this global crisis than ever before and propose a path for capitalizing on education’s newfound support in virtually every community across the globe.

It is in this spirit that we have developed this report. We intend to start a dialogue about what could be achieved in the medium to long term if leaders around the world took seriously the public’s demand for safe, quality schools for their children. Ultimately, we argue that strong and inclusive public education systems are essential to the short- and long-term recovery of society and that there is an opportunity to leapfrog toward powered-up schools.

A powered-up school could be one that puts a strong public school at the center of a community and leverages the most effective partnerships, including those that have emerged during COVID-19, to help learners grow and develop a broad range of competencies and skills in and out of school. For example, such a school would crowd in supports, including technology, that would allow for allies in the community from parents to employers to reinforce, complement, and bring to life learning experiences in and outside the classroom. It would recognize and adapt to the learning that takes place beyond its walls, regularly assessing students’ skills and tailoring learning opportunities to meet students at their skill level. These new allies in children’s learning would complement and support teachers and could support children’s healthy mental and physical development. It quite literally is the school at the center of the community that powers student learning and development using every path possible (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Powered-up schools

Powered-up schoolAdapted from Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

While this vision is aspirational, it is by no means impractical. Schools at the center of a community ecosystem of learning and support is an idea whose time has come, and some of the emerging practices amid COVID-19, such as empowering parents to support their children’s education, should be sustained when the pandemic subsides. In this report we draw upon: 1) the latest evidence emerging on both the dire effects of the pandemic on children’s schooling and on the new strategies that hold promise for strengthening children’s education post-pandemic; 2) a series of dialogues between March to August 2020 with former heads of state and education leaders from around the globe on the big questions facing education in the pandemic response and recovery; and 3) our ongoing research on harnessing innovation to leapfrog education toward a more equitable and relevant learning ecosystem for all young people.

This central question has guided our inquiry: “Is it possible to realistically envision education emerging from the novel coronavirus pandemic stronger than it was before?” To spark the discussion around this question, we describe four key emerging trends resulting from the impact of COVID-19 on education globally and propose five actions to guide the transformation of education systems after the pandemic.

Four emerging global trends in education from COVID-19

1. Accelerating education inequality: Education inequality is accelerating in an unprecedented fashion, especially where before the pandemic it was already high

Even before COVID-19 left as many as 1.5 billion students out of school in early 2019, there was a global consensus that education systems in too many countries were not delivering the quality education needed to ensure that all have the skills necessary to thrive. It is the poorest children across the globe that carry the heaviest burden, with pre-pandemic analysis estimating that 90 percent of children in low-income countries, 50 percent of children in middle-income countries, and 30 percent of children in high-income countries fail to master the basic secondary-level skills needed to thrive in work and life. It is children in the poorest countries who have been left the furthest behind. As economist Lant Pritchett explained in his 2013 book “The rebirth of education,” although countries in the developing world had largely succeeded in getting almost all primary-aged children into schools, too many students were not learning even the basic literacy and numeracy skills necessary to continue learning. The World Bank’s “2018 World Development Report” called it a “learning crisis,” and the global community mobilized to seek more funding to support education systems across the world. The Education Commission’s 2016 report, “The learning generation: Investing in education for a changing world,” emphasized that technology was changing the nature of work, and that growing skills gaps would stunt economic growth in low- and middle-income countries; it called for increasing investment in education in these countries.

Yet, for a few young people in wealthy communities around the globe, schooling has never been better than during the pandemic. They are taught in their homes with a handful of their favorite friends by a teacher hired by their parents. Some parents have connected via social media platforms to form learning pods that instruct only a few students at a time with agreed-upon teaching schedules and activities. These parents argue that the pods encourage social interaction, improve learning, and reduce the burden of child care during the pandemic. However, they often exclude lower income families, as they can cost up to $100 per hour.

There is nothing new about families doing all they can for their children’s education; one only has to look at the explosion of the $100 billion global tutoring market over the last decade. While the learning experiences for these particular children may be good in and of themselves, they represent a worrisome trend for the world: the massive acceleration of education inequality.

While by mid-April of 2020, less than 25 percent of low-income countries were providing any type of remote learning and a majority that did used TV and radio, close to 90 percent of high-income countries were providing remote learning opportunities. On top of cross-country differences in access to remote learning opportunities, within-country differences are also staggering. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, during the COVID-19 school closures, 1 in 10 of the poorest children in the world’s largest economy had little or no access to technology for learning. And UNICEF estimates that 463 million children—at least one-third of the world total, the majority of whom are in the developing world—had no chance at remote learning via radio, television, or online content. However, this does not take into account the creative use of text messages, phone calls, and offline e-learning that many teachers and education leaders are putting to use in rural and under-resourced communities. Indeed, these innovative practices suggest that the school closures from COVID-19 are setting the stage for leapfrogging in education, as we discuss next.

2. A leapfrog moment: Innovation has suddenly moved from the margins to the center of many education systems, and there is an opportunity to identify new strategies, that if sustained, can help young people get an education that prepares them for our changing times.

This unprecedented acceleration of education inequality requires new responses. In our ongoing work on education innovation, we have argued that there are examples of new strategies or approaches that could, if scaled up, have the potential to rapidly accelerate, or leapfrog, progress. Two years ago, in “Leapfrogging inequality: Remaking education to help young people thrive,” we set forth a leapfrog pathway laying out a map to harness education innovations to much more quickly close the gap in education inequality. We argued that at two decades into the 21st century, the goal should be for all children to become lifelong learners and develop the full breadth of skills and competencies—from literacy to problem-solving to collaboration—that they will need to access a changing world of work and be constructive citizens in society. We defined education innovation as an idea or technology that is new to a current context, if not new to the world. And we proposed that those innovations that could help provide a broader menu of options for delivering learning were those with the potential to help leapfrog education, namely: 1) innovative pedagogical approaches alongside direct instruction to help young people not only remember and understand but analyze and create; 2) new ways of recognizing learning alongside traditional measures and pathways; 3) crowding in a diversity of people and places alongside professional teachers to help support learning in school; and 4) smart use of technology and data that allowed for real-time adaptation and did not simply replace analog approaches.

When we surveyed almost 3,000 education innovations across over 160 countries, we found that some innovations had the potential to help leapfrog progress, as defined along our four dimensions, and many did not. We also found that many of the promising innovations were on the margins of education systems and not at the center of how learning takes place. We argued that to rapidly accelerate progress and close the equity gaps in education, the wide range of actors involved in delivering education to young people would need to spend more time documenting, learning from, evaluating, and scaling those innovative approaches that held the most leapfrog potential.

Today we are facing a very different context. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced education innovation into the heart of almost every education system around the globe. Based on a recent 59-country survey of educators and education administrators, Fernando Reimers and Andreas Schleicher note that: “The crisis has revealed the enormous potential for innovation that is dormant in many education systems.” The question is no longer how to scale innovations from the margin to the center of education systems but how to transform education systems so that they will source, support, and sustain those innovations that address inequality and provide all young people with the skills to build a better future for themselves and their communities. By doing this, we ultimately hope not only that those who are left behind can catch up, but that a new, more equal education system can emerge out of the crisis. Fortunately, across the world, communities are increasingly valuing the role that schools play, not only for student learning, but also for the livelihoods of educators, parents, and others, as we discuss below.

3. Rising public support: There is newfound public recognition of how essential schools are in society and a window of opportunity to leverage this support for making them stronger

March 2020 will forever be known as the time all the world’s schools closed their doors. As teachers and school leaders around the world struggled with hardly any forewarning to pivot to some form of remote learning, parents and families around the globe who had relied on schools as an anchor around which they organized their daily schedule faced the shock of life without school. An outpouring of appreciation on social media for teachers from parents deciding between caring for their children and earning money quickly followed. To underscore this sentiment of appreciation, Gabriel Zinny of the Buenos Aires government says: “Societies are recognizing that schools and teachers are heroes … that schools are the place not only where we get to learn and progress, fulfill our hopes and dreams, but also where we learn to live in community. Just recently in Buenos Aires, families went out to their balconies to applaud not only doctors and nurses, but teachers.”

This broad recognition and support for the essential role of education in daily life can be found on the pages of newspapers across the globe. It can be found in emerging coalitions of advocates urging that education be prioritized across communities and countries. The global education community is also mobilizing from UNESCO’s broad consortium with the newly formed Save Our Future campaign that brings together a broad coalition of actors in the international development sphere to advocate for sustained education funding, especially among international aid donors, for low- and middle-income countries.

Ultimately, today for the first time since the advent of universal education, the majority of parents and families around the world share the long-standing concerns of the most vulnerable families: They are in urgent need of a safe and good enough school to send their children to. This reality, which is so well known to the families of the 258 million out-of-school children, has brought the issue of education into the living rooms of middle class and elite parents around the globe. And they are forging, at least for a moment, common cause between many of the parents of the 1.9 billion school-aged children around the world. As a result, new stakeholders are getting involved in supporting education, an emerging trend we describe next.

4. New education allies: The pandemic has galvanized new actors in the community—from parents to social welfare organizations—to support children’s learning like never before.

Alongside increasing recognition of the essential role of public schools, the pandemic has galvanized parts of communities that traditionally are not actively involved in children’s education. As school buildings closed, teachers began to partner with parents in ways never done before, schools formed new relationships with community health and social welfare organizations, media companies worked with education leaders, technology companies partnered with nonprofits and governments, and local nonprofits and businesses contributed to supporting children’s learning in new ways.

The idea of children’s education being supported by an ecosystem of learning opportunities in and outside of school is not new among educationalists. The community schools movement envisions schools as the hub of children’s education and development, with strong partnerships among other sectors from health to social welfare. Schools remain open all day and are centers for community engagement, services, and problem-solving. Proponents of “life-wide” learning approaches point out that children from birth to 18 years of age spend only up to 20 percent of their waking hours at school and argue that the fabric of the community offers many enriching learning experiences alongside school. In our own work on leapfrogging in education, we argue that diversifying the educators and places where children learn can crowd in innovative pedagogical approaches and complement and enrich classroom-based learning. More recently, the concept of local learning ecoystems has emerged to describe learning opportunities provided through a web of collaboration among schools, community organizations, businesses, and government agencies that often pair direct instruction with innovative pedagogies allowing for experimentation.

There is evidence ranging from the U.K. to Nicaragua that young people engaging in diverse learning opportunities outside of school—from classic extracurricular activities such as music lessons to nonformal education programming—can be quite helpful in boosting the skills and academic competencies of marginalized children. But until recently there has been only limited empirical examples of local learning ecosystems. Emerging models are appearing in places such as Catalonia, Spain with its Educacio360 initiative and Western Pennsylvania, where several U.S. school districts have engaged in a multiyear Remake Learning initiative to offer life-wide learning opportunities to families and children. One of the opportunities emerging out of the COVID-19 pandemic may just be the chance to harness the new energies and mindsets between schools and communities to work together to support children’s learning.

Five proposed actions to guide the transformation of education systems

Given these four emerging trends and building on previous research, we put forth five proposed actions for decisionmakers to seize this moment to transform education systems to better serve all children and youth, especially the most disadvantaged. We argue that because of their responsibility to all children, public schools must be at the center of any education system that seeks to close widening inequality gaps. We highlight the creative use of technology—especially through mobile phone communication with parents—as examples of strategies that have emerged amid the pandemic that, if sustained, could complement and strengthen children’s learning in public schools. We acknowledge that the highlighted examples are just emerging, and there is more to learn about how they work and other examples to consider as events unfold. For this reason, we propose guidance for identifying which new approaches should potentially be continued. We argue that innovations that support and strengthen the instructional core, namely the interactions in the teaching and learning process, will have a greater chance at sustainably supporting a powered-up school. We also argue that the urgency of the moment calls for an adaptive and iterative approach to learning what works in real time; hence, improvement science principles should accompany any leapfrogging effort to build evidence and correct course in real time.

1. Leverage public schools: Put public schools at the center of education systems given their essential role in equalizing opportunity across dimensions within society

Public schools play a critical role in reducing inequality and strengthening social cohesion. By having the mandate to serve all children and youth regardless of background, public schools in many countries can bring together individuals from diverse backgrounds and needs, providing the social benefit of allowing individuals to grow up with a set of common values and knowledge that can make communities more cohesive and unified.

The private sector has an important role to play in education—from advocating that governments invest in high-quality public schools because they help power economies and social stability to helping test innovative pedagogical models in independent schools. In many low-income countries, low-cost private schools have expanded in recent years, helping to address the challenge that fiscally- and/or capacity-constrained governments have long faced in expanding access to education. Many families in developing countries, ranging from Chile to India to Nigeria to Kenya, opt to send their children to these low-cost, often for-profit, private schools. Indeed, the expansion of private schools in low-income countries has in some locations played a role in increasing universal access to primary education.

However, there are a range of concerns with private schools, both in terms of their effectiveness as well as their impact on inequality. For example, the extent to which private schools might provide a better education, the so-called “private school advantage,” has been a long-standing debate. While it is difficult to isolate the impact of private schools, a recent analysis of over 40 countries that participated in the OECD’s 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) concludes that public schools outperform both publicly subsidized private schools, as well as independent schools, in a majority of countries.

In addition, in many countries, the expansion of private schools has not been accompanied by regulations to guide student selection processes or the fees schools may charge (which also directly affect selection). A troubling unintended consequence of the unregulated expansion of private schooling is an increase in segregation of students by socioeconomic and other background characteristics. In many countries, private schools select students based on multiple factors, including academic ability, religious affiliation, and socioeconomic background. As a result, private schools tend to be less diverse than public schools. Further, entry into private school may not be entirely merit-based. In middle- and high-income countries, the private sector has stepped in to provide services to help students gain admission into selective education institutions. Since these services are costly, they select for wealthier families that can afford the help to get their students into the “right” schools, further excluding low-income families. In the U.S., for example, data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that public schools are much more diverse than private schools: In 2017, 67 percent of private school students were white, compared with just 48 percent of their public school counterparts.

A growing body of research shows that segregation can have a negative impact on children’s academic and social outcomes. For example, in Chile, where a school choice program was introduced in 1981, there has been a steady exodus from public schools over time, and today more than half of its students are enrolled in private schools. Not only did national average test scores stagnate, but unfettered school choice also led to student segregation into private and public schools based on parental education and income. Achievement gaps between affluent and disadvantaged students began to decline after a reform to the per-student subsidy (or voucher)—called the Preferential School Subsidy Law—was introduced in 2008. The reform introduced higher value per-student subsidies to schools serving low-income students and required schools who accepted the higher value vouchers to take part in a new accountability system. Students from socioeconomically disadvantaged households soon improved their performance, leading to an increase in national average test scores and a reduction in the income-based achievement gaps.

In many countries, a central debate is whether education should be seen as a public good or a private consumable. Advocates of expanding private school choice see education as a private consumable. Advocates who argue that education is a public good put forth that schools are about more than preparing individuals for the labor market, and that they have an irreplaceable role in generating multiple public benefits, including public health and in developing citizens to participate in democratic societies.

We follow Levin (1987) in arguing that schools play a crucial role in fostering the skills individuals need to succeed in a rapidly changing labor market, and they play a major role in equalizing opportunities for individuals of diverse backgrounds. Moreover, schools address a variety of social needs that serve communities, regions, and entire nations. And while a few private schools can and do play these multiple roles, public education is the main conduit for doing so at scale. Hence, we argue that public schools must be at the center of any effort to build back better or, in the words of UNICEF’s chief of education Robert Jenkins, “build back equal,” after the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. A laser focus on the instructional core: Emphasize the instructional core, the heart of the teaching and learning process.

To develop powered-up schools, it will be essential to figure out how to identify what strategies, among the many that communities are deploying amid the pandemic, should be sustained to power up a school as the crisis subsides. We argue that decisionmakers should ground their actions on rigorous evidence of what works to improve student learning, as well as how school change happens and ultimately should include a heavy emphasis on the heart of the teaching and learning process, what is often called the instructional or pedagogical core. Indeed, how educators engage with students and instructional materials, including education technology, is crucial for learning given the strong evidence that educators are the most important school-side factor in student learning.

In our forthcoming CUE publication co-authored by Alejandro Ganimian, Emiliana Vegas, and Frederick Hess, “Realizing the promise: How can education technology improve learning for all?,” the authors note that significant research has shown that one of the main reasons many education innovations and reforms have failed, despite serious effort, is that they have paid insufficient attention to the instructional core. While there have been several variations and terms associated with the instructional core, at its heart is the understanding that it is the interactions among educators, learners, and educational materials that matter most in improving student learning. For example, higher quality learning materials—whether they are new online resources or revamped curriculum—will not on their own improve student learning. Only when educators use them to improve their instruction can students have an improved experience. The authors build on this model of the instructional core to integrate parents, given not only their predominant role in children’s lives but also the new ways in which they have supported children’s learning amid the pandemic (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. The instructional core

Figure 2. The instructional core

Using the instructional core as a guide can help us identify what types of new strategies or innovations could become community-based supports in children’s learning journey. Indeed, even after only several months of experimentation around the globe on keeping learning going amid a pandemic, there are some clear strategies that have the potential, if continued, to contribute to a powered-up school, and many of them involve engaging learners, educators, and parents in new ways using some form of technology.

Grounding decisions on existing evidence is necessary, but not sufficient. It will also be essential to ask people—students, families, teachers, school leaders—what their experience has been and what new educational practices they hope will continue post pandemic. The Just Ask Us Movement in the U.S., for example, aims to discover and share at least a million student and family perspectives on how school systems should respond to the pandemic and its effects. Communities will certainly identify important strategies that fall outside the instructional core, such as essential collaboration between health and social protection services, that could be vital to developing a powered-up school. For example, Sierra Leone’s new “radical inclusion” policy aims to bring together health and banking services to help marginalized girls stay in school. Or in the U.S., where David Miyashiro, the superintendent of Cajon Valley, a school district with one of the highest populations of refugee students in California, has heard from parents that they need more help with child care and hence has established a new Extended Day Program.

While we focus in this report primarily on those innovations that support the interactions in the instructional core, we recognize that there will be a myriad of strategies needed to support marginalized children and bring a powered-up school to life. Ultimately, communities should have a view on what these strategies should be. Grounding decisions in the lived experience of the people at the center of education, especially students and teachers, is one of the central principles of designing for scale and will be an essential component of developing a powered-up school. When asked what her one piece of advice would be to heads of state today, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president of Liberia, said “Listen to your people, they may not be educated but they are knowledgeable.”

3. Harness education technology: Deploy education technology to power up schools long term in a way that meets the teaching and learning needs of students and educators; otherwise, technology risks becoming a costly distraction.

Leveraging technology to help with educational continuity is a topic front and center in schools around the world. Countries are using whatever they have at their disposal—from radios to televisions to computers to mobile phones. For many families, accessing educational content through technology is not easy. For example, a nationally representative survey in Senegal conducted approximately three weeks after schools closed found that children were far more likely to continue their education through work assigned by their parents than accessed through any technology. Less than 11 percent of survey respondents said students accessed educational material using either radio, television, or web-based resources.

This is not necessarily surprising given education’s past record of using technology to support learning. Indeed, while there has been the expectation that ed tech would radically transform teaching and learning, the impact of ed-tech interventions on student learning has been mostly disappointing. But, as put forth in “Realizing the promise: How can education technology improve learning for all?,” this is most likely because most ed-tech interventions have paid limited attention to the instructional core. However, when we consider rigorous evidence on the comparative advantages of technology vis-a-vis traditional instruction, we find that ed tech can help improve learning by supporting the crucial interactions in the instructional core through: (1) scaling up quality instruction (by, for example, prerecorded lessons of high-quality teaching); (2) facilitating differentiated instruction (through, for example, computer-adaptive learning or live one-on-one tutoring); (3) expanding opportunities for student practice; and (4) increasing student engagement (through, for example, videos and games).

While we envision powered-up schools after COVID-19 using technology in these four ways to improve learning, we emphasize the need to support educators to embrace the comparative advantages of technology. Without involving and supporting educators in innovation, efforts will not be sustainable over time. Indeed, throughout the global school closures, we have seen the heroic efforts of educators, many of whom are in poor communities with limited ed-tech resources, and yet have innovated to continue engaging students in learning. For example, from Chile to the United Kingdom, we have seen teachers coming together to rapidly lend their expertise to develop relevant remote-learning content for students. In Chile, a network of teachers came together to develop a series of 30-minute radio lessons for secondary students who had no access to online learning. The initiative, which the teachers dubbed La Radio Enseña, is supported by the civil society organization Enseña Chile, and the radio lessons went from being distributed by a handful of radio stations to over 240 only one month after schools closed. Similarly in the U.K., a group of teachers worried about learning continuity for their students when schools were about to close, developed within two weeks an online classroom and resource hub to help educators and parents help their children learn. As of the end of July, users accessed lessons 17 million times and this initiative, called Oak National Academy, has been a significant feature of the government’s remote learning strategy.

Listening to educators as technology is deployed for learning and responding to their concerns with real-time iteration is also essential in helping make ed-tech rollouts successful. In response to the school closures, Peru’s ministry of education embarked on an ambitious national-scale remote-learning strategy called Aprendo en Casa using multiple channels—television, radio, and online resources. Curriculum-aligned lessons were recorded, and, to make the content engaging, the ministry hired actors to serve as content facilitators. After the initial rollout, the government requested feedback from school leaders, teachers, and parents, which led to the inclusion of a teacher and a student in each lesson. Additionally, reporting requirements of teachers were initially quite onerous leading to overburdening already stretched teachers and were adapted to a more manageable streamlined approach. Feedback from users was solicited regularly, not only on usage (which was reported to be as high as 74 percent among students), but also on quality (59 percent of parents reported being satisfied with the program). In addition, over 90 percent of teachers reported having been in regular communication with principals and students.Interestingly, a very recent study confirms that teachers’ sense of success was higher in school systems that had strong remote working conditions, including communication, training, collaboration, fair expectations, and recognition of their efforts.

These examples are just a few of the education technology experiments underway during the pandemic. Some rely on good internet and connectivity, and the OECD and HundrED have curated a list of online learning resources for schools. Others utilize offline technology or basic cellphones to facilitate learning for those less-resourced communities. Ultimately, the evidence is clear that there is no single “ed-tech” initiative that will achieve the same results everywhere because school systems vary in multiple ways. However, after COVID-19, one thing is certain: School systems that are best prepared to use education technology effectively will be better positioned to continue offering quality education in the face of school closures. Learning about those strategies that have emerged due to the closures and that have forced school leaders, educators, parents, and students to engage with technology in new and productive way will be important for developing powered-up schools in the long term. One such strategy is how technology, often through low-tech texts and phone calls, has helped engage parents in a whole new way, which is where we turn to next.

4. Parent engagement: Forge stronger, more trusting relationships between parents and teachers.

Rarely is the topic of parent engagement at the top of the “to do” list for education administrators and educators whose days are filled with numerous decisions—from bell schedules to safety to lesson plans—around how to deliver education to children. In the recent OECD-Harvard survey of educators and education administrators across 59 countries on school reopening strategies, three-quarters of the respondents stated that the reopening plans were developed collaboratively with teachers, but only 25 percent said that collaboration included parents as well.

This limited engagement with parents and families should come as no surprise given that before the COVID-19 pandemic, the topic of parent engagement occupied a relatively marginal place in the education discussions. Practitioners working with schools and families to build strong parent-teacher relationships frequently point out that strategies for community outreach and collaboration are frequently missing in teacher preparation programs and are given short shrift in professional development courses for administrators. Additionally, researchers are much more likely to focus their study on school-based factors such as curriculum development or assessment policies. In a recent search of the Education Resources Information Center database, which has close to 20 years of articles, the citation “teachers” was used almost four times the amount that the citation “parents” was used.

But the coronavirus pandemic has put the topic of engagement with parents and families at the center of today’s education debates, and education leaders across the globe are finding out just what powerful allies parents can be in their children’s learning—including parents from the most marginalized communities. From Asia to Africa to North America, examples are emerging of new ways of partnering with parents and families that provide real promise for supporting children’s learning in and out of school over the long term.

For example, creative mechanisms for real-time guidance to parents on their children’s education are popping up around the globe using the low-tech but, in many places, ubiquitous ability to make a phone call. In Argentina, the government of the State of Buenos Aires developed a call-in center staffed by the Ministry of Education to provide real-time information and guidance to any parent with concerns or information requests about their children’s education during the pandemic. In the first five months, over 100,000 calls were received. In some places, civil society organizations are collaborating to provide this type of live, real-time support to parents. In the U.S. for example, the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative, a coalition of over 50 local organizations serving families and children, has created a family hotline to help provide parents and families with guidance and resources to assist with their children’s learning. In its first month, the hotline received 1,000 calls.

Mobile phones have also helped parents directly facilitate their children’s learning in India. In Himachal Pradesh, a state of almost 7 million people, the government is using a multilayered approach to remote learning that engages parents in a new way. In response to pandemic-related school closures, in April the government launched the Har Ghar Pathshala initiative. The initiative developed thousands of videos and digital worksheets and then deployed 48,000 teachers to connect to all parents in the state through WhatsApp. The goal was to develop a clear understanding among parents of the materials children should be accessing, including taking a weekly WhatsApp assessment that would come to their phones. Students themselves are unlikely to have electronic devices and a family phone—the main avenue for accessing online learning—so the materials are shared between parents and the children in the household. Over 92 percent of parents engaged with teachers through “ePTMs,” electronic Parent Teacher Meetings, and ultimately 70-80 percent of students in the state have engaged with the digital materials and 50 percent of students are taking the WhatsApp assessments.

Perhaps the most significant part of the government’s strategy, and the component that holds the most promise for powering up schools long term, has been building a relationship between students’ caregivers and their teachers and schools.“Until now, in India we have not been able to establish the parent-to-teacher connection for first-generation learners at scale,” said Prachi Windlass, director of India Programs at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. “The pandemic has brought to light how parents of first-generation learners can—and now clearly do—help with their children’s learning.”Parents themselves are eager to continue being allies in their children’s learning, with 88 percent of parents saying they would like to attend future ePTMs.

It is not only the government that is realizing what is possible when they invite parents and families into the teaching and learning process. Civil society organizations such as Pratham pivoted during school closures to engage directly with parents and families on children’s learning by using a combination of daily WhatsApp or text messages and weekly phone calls. “While we are further away physically, we have gotten closer,” says Samyukta Subramanian, a Pratham team lead and former CUE Echidna Global Scholar. The text messages provide activities to keep children engaged in learning and can include fun and interactive activities such as asking children to count how many teeth their parents have or how many buckets of water their family uses and text the answers back. The Pratham staff members call each family once a week to see how the activities are going, and by June they were sending over 100,000 text messages and reaching parents in over 12,000 rural communities. Noting that this approach to engaging parents is something they hope to continue after schools reopen, the Pratham Education Foundation CEO Rukmini Banerji says she hopes “there is a celebration for parents when children return to school to recognize all that they have done to continue their children’s learning and to give parents the confidence to stay engaged.”

The Ministry of Basic Education of Botswana has also learned the power of harnessing mobile phone technology to partner with parents and boost children’s learning. Prior to the school closures, the Ministry had been working closely with a coalition of partners to scale up an approach to teaching numeracy that involved interactive teaching methods geared to students’ learning levels rather than their grade. This Teaching at the Right Level initiative brings together a range of partners, including a Botswanan nonprofit called Young 1ove working with the government and university partners to implement and evaluate the approach, and the Real-Time Scaling Lab team at Brookings to help guide and document the scaling process.

During the closures, Young 1ove worked with the government to rapidly pivot from working with teachers to deliver numeracy lessons to working with parents. They reached out to over 7,000 parents and invited them to take part in remote learning during school closures—60 percent of whom accepted the invitation. While they tested several approaches, the most successful included a weekly math problem sent to parents by text message and followed up with a weekly 15-20 minute phone call. On the phone call, Young 1ove facilitators would ask parents to get their child and put the phone on speaker so they could ask if they had seen the math problem and then discuss it. A rapid and rigorous evaluation of the intervention, which included a control group, showed startling results. For the children whose parents received text messages and phone calls from Young 1ove, the drop in innumeracy levels was 52 percent. Clearly, when invited in as partners to their children’s learning, parents in Botswana also showed how powerful their partnership can be for children’s schooling.

While likely surprising to many, these examples of the capability of low-income or marginalized parents and families to be powerful allies in support of their children’s learning aligns with existing evidence on effective parent engagement and will come as no surprise to the select group of practitioners, researchers, and advocates working on this issue around the globe. In the U.S., for example, several decades of research have shown that parents, especially for low-income students, have a positive influence on student academic achievement largely through equipping parents to support their children’s learning at home. Rigorous evaluations in Ghana and the U.K. also demonstrate this.

When a respectful relationship among parents, teachers, families, and schools is at the center of engagement activities, powerful support to children’s learning can occur. A thread running across the above examples is schools inviting families to be allies in their children’s learning by using easy-to-understand information communicated through mechanisms that adapt to parents’ schedules and that provide parents with an active but feasible role. The nature of the invitation and the relationship is what is so essential to bringing parents on board.

Getting this relationship right is no easy task, and there are many dimensions to parental involvement in their children’s schooling, which can also reflect tension and power dynamics active in society writ large. Schools and teachers can find it difficult to navigate the range of expectations, many of them conflicting. At times, engaging parents does not always lead to desirable outcomes for children’s learning. For example, a randomized control trial using longitudinal data in Ghana’s preschools found marked improvement in student outcomes that were sustained over several years in schools that received a yearlong teacher training and coaching program aimed at making classrooms more student-centered. The program incorporated play-based learning approaches and influenced the instructional core by improving teacher-child interactions. But this improvement was only seen when the busy working-class parents of the students were not informed about the shift in the teaching approach. In the schools where the teacher training was paired with discussion sessions with parents about the purpose of the training and what the new teaching methods entailed, the opposite happened. The parent awareness sessions counteracted any of the benefits of the teacher training, and the children’s outcomes were worse than those in the control group. Ultimately, the parents who took part in the information sessions had a cooling effect on the teachers, leading them to stop using many of the techniques learned in the training. The researchers posited that rather than building support for the new pedagogical approach, the information sessions, which were infrequent and passive, raised concern among parents that the teaching was becoming less rigorous. This phenomena is not unique to Ghana. Through our own Brookings research initiative on parents and education, we have found stories of this parental cooling effect in interviews with educators and education leaders across 50 countries.

Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to forge stronger, more trusting relationships between parents and teachers. It is an opportunity for parents and families to gain insight into the skill that is involved in teaching and for teachers and schools to realize what powerful allies parents can be. Parents around the world are not interested in becoming their child’s teacher, but they are, based on several large-scale surveys, asking to be engaged in a different more active way in the future. Perhaps the most important insight for supporting a powered-up school is challenging the mindset of those in the education sector that parents and families with the least opportunities are not capable or willing to help their children learn.

5. An iterative approach: Embrace the principles of improvement science required to evaluate, course correct, document, and scale new approaches that can help power up schools over time.

As we have seen above, there are some promising new approaches that have the potential to enable a broader learning ecosystem to support children’s schooling. However, in most countries around the world, there is a long road to travel before we fully understand how to leverage technology or transform parent engagement to realize a powered-up school for each community. The speed and depth of change mean that it will be essential to take an iterative approach to learning what works, for whom, and under what enabling conditions. In other words, this is a moment to employ the principles of improvement science. Traditional research methods will need to be complemented by real-time documentation, reflection, quick feedback loops, and course correction. Rapid sharing of early insights and testing of potential change ideas will need to come alongside the longer-term rigorous reviews. CUE’s own work on system transformation and scaling change in education provides one possible model for doing just this. Through our Real-Time Scaling Labs, teams of practice-oriented researchers are working to scale and sustain transformative change in education systems. These teams learn, document, and share emerging insights in rapid, iterative cycles making sure peers across the different components of an education system are included in the process and that failures, one of the most valuable insights, are documented alongside successes.

A key principle underlying the Real-time Scaling Labs is that scaling is an iterative process that requires ongoing adaptation based on new data and changes in the broader environment. The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has indeed brought this reality front and center. In the Real-time Scaling Labs, two categories of adaptation have emerged: (1) adaptations and simplifications to the model being scaled itself and (2) adaptations and adjustments to the scaling approach and strategy. While both are critical to scaling, adapting the scaling strategy is especially challenging, requiring not only timely data, a thorough understanding of the context, and space for reflection, but also willingness and capacity to act on this learning and make changes accordingly.

Conclusion: Having a vision of the change we want to see matters and can help guide discussion, debate, and—ultimately—action.

We acknowledge that emerging from this global pandemic with a stronger public education system is an ambitious vision, and one that will require both financial and human resources. But we argue that articulating such a vision is essential, and that amid the myriad of decisions education leaders are making every day, it can guide the future. With the dire consequences of the pandemic hitting the most vulnerable young people the hardest, it is tempting to revert to a global education narrative that privileges access to school above all else. This, however, would be a mistake. There are enough examples of education innovations that provide access to relevant learning for those in and out of a school building to set our sights higher. A powered-up public school in every community is what the world’s children deserve, and indeed is possible if all stakeholders can collectively work together to harness the opportunities presented by this crisis to truly leapfrog education forward.

Note: The authors are grateful to Brian Fowler for his valuable research assistance in preparing this paper.


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  • Footnotes
    1. Fernando M. Reimers and Andrews Schleicher. “Schooling disrupted, schooling rethought: How the Covid-19 pandemic is changing education” OECD, 2020. p.7.
    2. See Chetty et al. 2005; Chetty, 2014; Rivkin et al., 2005.
    3. Cohen and Ball, who originated the idea of the instructional core, used the terms teachers, students, and content.  The OECD’s initiative on Innovative Learning Environments later adapted the framework using the terms educators, learners, and resources to represent educational materials and adding a new element of content to represent the choices around skills and competencies and how to assess them. Here we have pulled from elements that we like of both framework using the term instructional core as the relationships between educators, learners, and content and adding parents. 
    4.  Le Nestour, A., L. Moscoviz, and S. Mbaye. “Phone survey on the Covid crisis in Senegal.” Center for Global Development, 2020. https://www. cgdev. org/blog/five-findings-new-phonesurvey-senegal.
    5. See Bulman & Fairlie, 2016; Escueta, Nickow, Oreopoulos, & Quan, forthcoming; Tauson & Stannard, 2018.
    6. See Alberto Munoz-Najar L. “Peru: Aprendo en Casa (I Learn at Home).”
    7. Personal Communication, Gabriel Sanchez Zinny, May 26, 2020.
    8. “Parent Engagement: Himachal Pradesh.” Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Internal report: unpublished, 2020.
    9. “Large Scale Assessments Common Report.” Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. Internal report: unpublished, 2020.
    10. Personal Communication, Prachi Jain Windlass, August 28, 2020.
    11. See for example, Henderson, A. and Mapp, K., “A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement.“ National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools, 2002.; 
    12. See for example and 
    13. Wolf, Sharon. “Year 3 follow-up of the ‘Quality Preschool for Ghana: interventions on child development.” Developmental Psychology 55.12 (2019): 2587.