How will school closures impact learning and students' labour market outcomes?

The move to distance teaching may reduce teaching time or hinder the learning of non-cognitive skills necessary in the job market, writes Tuomas Pekkarinen.

The Finnish government decided to close down all educational institutions on 18 March 2020 as part of coronavirus prevention efforts. Except for certain special groups, all students in comprehensive, secondary and tertiary education are now distance learning. In practice, the educational institutions continue to function as normal, but the teaching takes place online.

Although the situation is unprecedented in many respects, research literature indicates that there are costs associated with a lack of classroom education.

Time used on teaching affects learning outcomes

The effects of closing down schools depend significantly on how well distance teaching can replace classroom-based teaching. If we assume that distance teaching is no match for classroom education, the closure of schools may be considered a reduction in teaching time.

The effects of teaching time on learning outcomes have been researched extensively. For example, a study in Sweden explored how the timing of cognitive skill tests in the defence forces affected the results of the recruits. Due to different testing dates, the number of teaching days attended by the recruits varied randomly. According to the study, adding just ten days of teaching increased verbal and arithmetic skills by 1.1 per cent compared to the standard deviation.1 Similar results have been obtained in studies which analysed the differences between national teaching times and PISA results.2

Unplanned closures of educational institutions are nothing new of course. For example, teachers' strikes and unexpected meteorological phenomena have caused closures. Teachers' strikes are very common in certain countries and may cause great differences in teaching time.

In Argentina, the average student loses 88 teaching days during their education due to strikes. As adults, these lost teaching days result in a two percent decrease in their annual income.

For example, the average Argentinian student loses 88 teaching days during their education due to strikes. These lost teaching days result in a two percent decrease in their annual income as adults.3 Closures due to weather also seem to impact learning outcomes. In the United States of America, students in schools with closures due to weather conditions pass reading and mathematical tests at a lower rate than students in schools that were not closed down during the school year.4

Educational institutions also close their doors for long summer holidays every year. Many studies have shown that differences in the students' skill levels increase over summer holidays, as students with lower socio-economic backgrounds start to fall behind.

The impact of family background on learning is likely to increase during distance teaching.

The impact of family background is likely to increase during distance teaching, as more highly educated parents are have better opportunities to work remotely and help their children learn in distance teaching.5

Do children learn social skills in distance teaching?

In the research referenced above, the closure of educational institutions was not replaced by distance teaching. In our current situation, teaching will not cease, it will continue as distance teaching. Therefore, it is vital to know how well distance teaching works compared to ordinary classroom-based teaching in order to assess the impact of school closure.

The effects of distance teaching have been widely studied in pedagogic literature.6 However, applying these results to the current situation is difficult, because presumably distance teaching technology has developed significantly in recent years. Furthermore, the studies used in the meta-analysis did not involve cases where all teaching was carried out as distance teaching.

The effects of distance teaching have been studied widely, but applying the results to the current situation is difficult.

Schools teach more skills than just those related to subjects. Recent publications have emphasised the impact of classroom teaching on non-cognitive skills and personality.7 In the United States, it is possible to graduate from high school "remotely" with a GED test. Those who complete the GED test have equivalent academic skills as those who graduate from high school, but their performance in the job market is no better than that of high school non-graduates.

One interpretation of the results is that classroom teaching improves non-cognitive skills that are important in the job market. These results show that extracurricular skills are learned in the school environment. It remains unclear whether these types of skills can be taught remotely.

References:

1 Carlsson, M., Dahl, G. B., Öckert, B., and D-O. Rooth, (2015): ”The effect of schooling on cognitive skills”, The Review of Economics and Statistics, 97 (3), 533-547.

2 Lavy, V., (2015): “Do differences in instruction time explain differences in international achievement gaps?”, The Economic Journal, 125, F397-F424; Rivkin, S. G. ja J. C. Schiman, (2015): ”Instruction time, classroom quality, and academic achievement”, The Economic Journal, 125, F425-F448.

3 Jaume, D. and A. Willén, (2019): ”The long-run effects of teacher strikes: Evidence from Argentina”, Journal of Labor Economics, 37 (4), 1097-1139

4 Marcott, D. E. and S. W. Hemelt, (2008): ”Unscheduled school closings and student performance”, Education Finance and Policy, 3 (3), 316-338.

5 Alexande, K.A., Entwistle, D. R. and L. S. Olson, (2007): ”Lasting consequences of the summer learnings gap”, American Sociological Review, 72, 167-180.

6 Bernard, R. M., Abrami, P. C., Lou, Y., Borkhovski, E., Wade, A., Wozney, L., Wallet, P. A., Fiset, M., and B. Huang, (2004): ”How does distance education compare with classroom instruction?: A meta-analysis of the empirical literature”, Review of Educational Research, 74 (3), 379-439.

7 Heckman, J. J., Humphries, J. E. and T. Kautz (toim.), The Myth of Achievement Tests: The GED and the Role of Character in American Life, University of Chicago Press, 2014.