The Long Covid of Education
The pandemic has affected all learners, but the more vulnerable the learner, the harder they have been hit. The evidence is very clear that Covid and the response of authorities to it has, in the words of UNESCO , ‘increased inequalities and exacerbated a pre-existing education crisis’. Learning poverty (a term coined by UNESCO and the World Bank), which refers to the ability to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10, is just one way of looking at these inequalities. Before the pandemic, 53% of children in low and middle income countries (and 9% in high income countries) were living in learning poverty. According to the World Bank (Azevedo et al., 2021), the pandemic will amplify this crisis with the figure rising to somewhere between 63% and 70%. The fear is that the recovery from Covid may be ‘similarly inequitable and that the effects of COVID-19 will be long-lasting’ (ibid.).
Inequity was not, of course, the only problem that educational systems faced before the pandemic. Since the turn of the millennium, it has been common to talk about ‘reimagining education’, and use of this phrase peaked in the summer of 2020. Leading the discoursal charge was Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the OECD, who saw the pandemic as ‘a great moment’ for education, since ‘the current wave of school closures offers an opportunity for experimentation and for envisioning new models of education’. Schleicher’s reimagining involves a closely intertwined privatization (by ending state monopolies) and digitalization of education (see this post for more details). Other reimaginings are usually very similar. Yong Zhao, for example, does not share Schleicher’s enthusiasm for standardized tests, but he sees an entrepreneurial, technology-driven, market-oriented approach as the way forward. He outlined this, pre-pandemic, in his book An Education Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste (Zhao et al., 2019), and then picked up on the pandemic (Zhao, 2020) to reiterate his ideas and, no doubt, to sell his book – all ‘in the spirit’, he writes, ‘of never wasting a good crisis’.
It was Churchill who first said ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’, but it is often attributed to Emanuel Rahm, Obama’s Chief of Staff, who said the same thing in reference to the financial crisis of 2009. As we have seen in the last two years, crises can be good opportunities to push through policy changes. Viktor Orbán provides a good example. Crises can also be a way to make a financial killing, a practice known as ‘disaster capitalism’ (Loewenstein, 2017). Sometimes, it’s possible to change policy and turn a tidy profit at the same time. One example from the recent past shows us the way.
Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, education was massively disrupted in New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Arne Duncan, who became Obama’s Secretary for Education a few years after Katrina, had this to say about the disaster: “Let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘We have to do better.’” The reform that followed, inspired by Milton Friedman, involved replacing New Orleans’ public school system with privately run charter schools. The change took place with ‘military speed and precision’, compared to the ‘glacial pace’ with which levees and the electricity grid were repaired (Klein, 2007: 5). Nearly 5000 unionized teachers were fired, although some of the younger ones were rehired on reduced salaries. Most of the city’s poorer residents were still in exile when the changes took place: the impact on the most vulnerable students was entirely predictable. ‘The social and economic situation always bleeds into the school, said one researcher into the impact of the catastrophe.
Disaster capitalism may, then, be a useful lens through which to view the current situation (Moore et al., 2021). Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary for Education, stated that the pandemic was an opportunity to ‘look very seriously at the fact that K-12 education for too long has been very static and very stuck in one method of delivering and making instruction available’ (Ferrari, 2020). What DeVos, who was famous for having described public education as a ‘dead end’, meant by this was privatization and digitalization, and privatization through digitalization. Although the pandemic is far from over, we can already begin to ask: has the crisis been wasted?
Turning from the US to Europe, a fascinating report by Zancajo et al (2022) examines the educational policy responses to Covid in a number of European countries. The first point to note is that the recovery plans of these countries is not fundamentally any different from pre-pandemic educational policy. The Covid-19 pandemic has simply ‘served as a catalyst to accelerate preexisting digitization policies in education systems’. Individual states are supported by the European Commission’s Digital Education Action Plan 2021–2027 (European Commission, 2021) which lists three main priorities: making use of technology, the development of digital skills for teachers and learners, and the increased use of data to improve education. The focus of attention of education policy in the national recovery plans of individual EU countries is almost completely monopolized by digitalization. Covid has not led to any reimagining of education: it has simple been ‘a path accelerator contributing to strengthening policy instruments and solutions that were already on the agenda (Zancajo et al., 2022). Less overtly obvious than digitalization has been the creeping privatization that occurs when a greater proportion of national education budgets is spent on technology provided by private companies.
Creeping privatization has been especially noticeable in British universities, which, for years, have been focusing on the most profitable ‘revenue streams’ and on cutting the costs of academic labour. The pandemic has been used by some (Leicester and Manchester, for example) as a justification for further restructuring, cost-cutting and the development of new digitally-driven business models (Nehring, 2021). In schools, the private technology providers were able to jump in quickly because the public sector was unprepared, and, in so doing, position themselves as essential services. The lack of preparedness of the public sector is not, of course, unsurprising, since it has been underfunded for so long. Underfund – create a crisis – privatize the solution: such has long been the ‘Shock Doctrine’ game plan of disaster capitalists. Naomi Klein has observed that where we have ended up in post-Covid education is probably where we would have ended up anyway: Covid accelerated the process by ten years.
Williamson and Hogan (2020) describe the current situation in the following terms:
The pivot to online learning and ‘emergency remote teaching’ has positioned educational technology (edtech) as an integral component of education globally, bringing private sector and commercial organisations into the centre of essential educational services. […] A global education industry of private and commercial organisations has played a significant role in educational provision during the Covid-19 crisis, working at local, national and international scales to insert edtech into educational systems and practices. It has often set the agenda, offered technical solutions for government departments of education to follow, and is actively pursuing long-term reforms whereby private technology companies would be embedded in public education systems during the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and beyond it in new models of hybrid teaching and learning. […] Supported by multilateral policy influencing organisations and national government departments, these companies have integrated schools, teachers and students into their global cloud systems and online education platforms, raising the prospect of longterm dependencies of public education institutions on private technology infrastructures.
And where is educational equity in all this? Even the OECD is worried – more assessment is needed to identify learning losses, they say! A pandemic tale from California will give us a clue. When schools shut down, 50% of low-income California students lacked the necessary technology to access distance learning (Gutentag, 2020). Big Tech came riding to the rescue: donations from companies like HP, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google made it possible for chromebooks and wifi hotspots to be made available for every student, and California legislators and corporations could congratulate themselves on closing the ‘digital divide’ (ibid.). To compensate for increased problems of homelessness, poverty, hunger, and discrimination, the most vulnerable students now have a laptop or tablet, with which they can generate data to be monetized by the tech vendors (Feathers, 2022).
Azevedo, J. P. W., Rogers, F. H., Ahlgren, S. E., Cloutier, M-H., Chakroun, B., Chang, G-C., Mizunoya, S., Reuge,N. J., Brossard, M., & Bergmann, J. L. (2021) The State of the Global Education Crisis : A Path to Recovery (English). Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/416991638768297704/pdf/The-State-of-the-Global-Education-Crisis-A-Path-to-Recovery.pdf
European Commission. (2021) Digital education action plan 2021-2027. Resetting Education, Brussels
Feathers, T. (2022) This Private Equity Firm Is Amassing Companies That Collect Data on America’s Children. January 11th, 2022 The Markup https://themarkup.org/machine-learning/2022/01/11/this-private-equity-firm-is-amassing-companies-that-collect-data-on-americas-children
Ferrari, K. (2020) Disaster Capitalism Is Coming for Public Education. Jacobin 14 May 2020 https://jacobinmag.com/2020/05/public-education-schools-covid-coronavirus-charter-teachers
Gutentag, A. (2020) The Virtual Education Shock Doctrine. The Bellows https://www.thebellows.org/the-virtual-education-shock-doctrine/
Klein, N. (2007) The Shock Doctrine. New York: Metropolitan Books
Loewenstein, A. (2017) Disaster Capitalism. London: Verso Books
Moore, S. D. M., Jayme, B. D., Black, J. (2021) Disaster capitalism, rampant edtech opportunism, and the advancement of online learning in the era of COVID19. Critical Education, 12(2), 1-21.
Nehring, D. (2021) Is COVID-19 Enabling Academic Disaster Capitalism? Social Science Space 21 July 2021 https://www.socialsciencespace.com/2021/07/is-covid-19-enabling-academic-disaster-capitalism/
Williamson, B., & Hogan, A. (2020). Commercialisation and privatisation in/of education in the context of Covid-19. Education International, Brussels.
Zancajo, A., Verger, A. & Bolea, P. (2022) Digitalization and beyond: the effects of Covid-19 on post-pandemic educational policy and delivery in Europe, Policy and Society, puab016, https://doi.org/10.1093/polsoc/puab016
Zhao, Y. (2020) COVID-19 as a catalyst for educational change. Prospects 49: 29–33. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11125-020-09477-y
Zhao, Y., Emler, T. E., Snethen, A. & Yin, D. (2019) An Education Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste. New York: Teachers College Press