Challenging times for Education in Kazakhstan due to the pandemic

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The economic crisis is only the tip of the iceberg of the problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its underwater part is damage to national educational systems, human capital due to the interruption of the traditional learning process in secondary schools. The problems of countries (including Kazakhstan) with the transition to distance education resulted in a decrease in educational level. The education system in Kazakhstan faced challenges even before the outbreak of the pandemic. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, 6 out of 10 students in Kazakhstan were functionally illiterate - in an upper-middle-income country where the average child completes 13.7 years of schooling. The pandemic threatens to lead to functional illiteracy in more than 100,000 more students. This will especially hit children from poor families, countries, and regions with high poverty. In the long run, inequality in education will translate into inequality in income. The only alternative is distance education. But an urgent transition to it is associated with a host of problems, which was not easy even for developed countries to solve.

The loss of knowledge

According to the World Bank, the coronavirus pandemic inflicted a "destructive blow" on the education system, the consequences of which will "be felt for decades to come." In Central Asia, economic losses, according to the bank's calculations, will amount to at least 44 billion USD dollars. Students’ learning losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic will average 30-50% of those acquired in the previous year when compared to a typical school year. Losses from summer vacations should also be taken into account - on average, the lack of knowledge over the summer is equivalent to 0.25 years of study. The impact of the forced transition to distance learning on the educational level of students will have a cumulative effect, when the objective decline in the level of knowledge over the summer will be increased critically, up to two years of study.

The decline in knowledge is even higher for children from low-income families or remote rural areas, who have no computer, no Internet access, and often no parental support.

All the consequences of the impact of COVID-19 on education systems and human capital can be roughly divided into short-term and long-term patterns.

The consequences of a short-term nature include a slowdown in the learning process, a weakening of students' desire to learn. The results of a study conducted in Russia showed that half of the children in school perceived distance learning as a vacation. School closures deteriorate the nutrition of students (those who had free meals in schools), their mental health, a possible increase in students' vulnerability to violence and other threats, as well as the prevalence of risky behavior and childbearing among adolescents. There is a reduction in public spending on education, a decrease in the quality of teaching, the closure of private schools.

There may be significant school dropouts. This is especially true for children from poor or disadvantaged families, the growth of child labor, underage marriages, commercial sex, and a reduction in parental investment in the education of children. A clear example: due to the global economic crisis in Romania, the number of children out of school in 2009-2018 doubled from 192 thousand to 378 thousand - even with a decline in demographic indicators.

The long-term impact of the pandemic has a bigger impact. The closure of schools and the decline in the educational level of some children led to an increase in the level of educational inequality. Recent World Bank report estimates that Kazakhstan will also show that the pandemic will reduce learning outcomes by 8 on the PISA scale. PISA is the International Student Assessment Program that assesses the math, reading, and science skills of 15-year-olds.

There is a high risk of declining academic performance for students with learning difficulties; many students may not return to school, which will increase the incidence of “educational poverty” and could reduce the future productivity of an entire generation.

The learning outcome gap between 104 million students from high-income countries (HICs) and 59 million students from middle-income countries (LICs) will widen. So far, the gap between the average HICC and SDI Human Capital Index is 13%.

School dropouts and declining educational quality lead to declines in productivity and income throughout life, which are reflected at the macro level. If an extra year of schooling increases income by about 8-10%, and students on average miss a quarter of school hours a year, then school closings could lead to a steady 2-2.5% decline in income.

All these factors threaten to exacerbate the problem of social inequality. Since, as noted above, students from wealthier families tend to learn online more effectively, and the decline in their educational level over the summer is less critical than children from poor families.

Remote education

The coronavirus pandemic has forced a complete reformation of the education sector on a tight schedule. Countries were not ready for the transition to digital distance learning, which was used to ensure lifelong learning in the vast majority of countries, and faced great difficulties. As a result of the pandemic, schools were closed in 191 countries, affecting more than 90% of students worldwide, half of whom did not have access to a home computer, 43% did not have an access to the Internet.

In Kazakhstan, during the transition to distance education, out of 3 million children, about 700 thousand (23%) need computers, although, since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 250 thousand computers have been given to students for temporary use. Children from low-income families, with special educational needs and primary school students, lack resources for efficient studying.

The head of UNICEF in Kazakhstan, Arthur van Diesen, believes that Kazakhstan is well prepared for digital education. He argues that 78% of the population have access to the Internet and with “very cheap” tariffs for mobile data transmission, the presence of an Internet connection in most schools, digital educational platforms in the country, it is possible to provide quality education to the children.

However, Internet penetration is uneven across regions, the quality of data transmission also raises questions, as well as the quality of distance education. Both teachers and students were not ready for the emergency transition to the remote control.

Distance education: obstacles

Lack of computers. The first and most important problem for many countries was the problem of equipping students with computers. With almost one-fourth of children without access to technology, Kazakhstan faces a huge challenge of ensuring access to the technology and thus, education.

Unavailability of teachers. According to UNICEF, the transition to distance learning is a major challenge for teachers, even in the best of circumstances, adding stress and confusion to their work. As Tatiana Klyachko, director of the Center for the Economics of Continuing Education of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, noted, not all teachers know how to work remotely and technical problems became a big obstacle for the older generation of teachers. According to the Minister of Education of the Republic of Kazakhstan Askhat Aimagambetov, Kazakhstan had a lack of human resources in the education system even before the pandemic, and with online learning, this problem became only worse.

Technical problems. Distance education should be provided with appropriate infrastructure and educational platforms should not be too complex. These rules are not enforced in all countries. In Kazakhstan, which has the highest Internet penetration in Central Asia, according to a 2018 survey, 54 percent of students lack the necessary skills to use digital technologies in education.

Aimagambetov also highlighted the lack of domestic IT platforms for organizing simultaneous streaming connections for a large number of students as well as the lack of digital educational content and full-fledged software for conducting classes via the Internet.

So far, distance education remains inaccessible for poor and rural schoolchildren. This means a potential increase in educational inequality, which will eventually translate into wealth inequality.

What’s next?

Researchers are considering various options for the development of the situation with the need to switch to a distance format in education. All of them predict negative consequences for education. On the agenda in all countries is the question of what are the optimal strategies for coping with a pandemic situation, which can reduce or minimize the scale of losses.

In Kazakhstan, in the next academic year, at least one-quarter of schoolchildren will again study remotely, therefore, it is necessary to expand the possibilities of distance learning on a scale, ensure its reliability and sustainability, digitalize education with ensuring inclusiveness for children with special educational needs.

Another problem is social inequality as geographic inequality often exacerbates social inequality. The uneven landscape of human capital development in Kazakhstan was presented by the Center for Research and Consulting during the discussion of the Human Capital Index organized by the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Research under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan in early october last year. According to the Center's analysis, “four Kazakhstan” phenomenon exists in the country, each of which has a different level of income, fertility and life expectancy, and other indicators that affect the Index. It is striking to see the huge differences between the four regions: for example, in income levels, there is a fourfold difference between high and low regions, infertility the north of the country can be compared to Europe, while the south reflects the trends of low-income countries, and northwest Kazakhstan is similar in life expectancy to African countries.

PISA results similarly confirm the differences in the level of human capital across Kazakhstan - according to the study, regions with low academic performance lag behind regions with a high academic performance by an average of 4 years of study, showing weak results in both rural and urban schools, while in regions with the highest academic performance have the largest gap between rural and urban schools.To combat this problem, the government with the support of The World Bank is currently working on the Education Modernization Project. The project focuses on improving quality and equity, especially among vulnerable schools. The initial design of the project is aimed at improving the quality and equity in primary and secondary education as well as finding ways to adapt the project to help address the specific issues of educational equality posed by the COVID-19 crisis.

More posts by Ardana Izimova.
Challenging times for Education in Kazakhstan due to the pandemic
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