Skip to main content

COVID's Impact on Education in Developing Countries

With COVID causing huge setbacks in education systems around the world, what is the path forward for developing nations?

COVID hit education hard around the world. In many developing countries where education systems were already in a learning crisis, COVID forced huge setbacks. Claudia Costin, the founder and director of the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Education Policies at Getulio Vargas Foundation in Brazil, has spent her career advancing and innovating education around the world. She is also the Chen Yidan Visiting Global Fellow at HGSE where she taught a fall course on Education in the Developing World and the Response to the COVID Crisis. In this episode of the EdCast, Costin shares how COVID has impacted education in Brazil and offers a way to think about moving forward with change in mind. 


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Claudia Costin knows getting back to education during COVID 19 has been hard for many developing countries. She's dedicated much of her career to advancing and innovating education around the world, especially in her home country of Brazil, where she leads the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Education Policies. Many developing countries were already in a learning crisis before COVID. Then the pandemic left billions of children around the world out of school. Many have yet to return. In Brazil, she says this has led to a return of child labor and significant learning losses. I wanted to better understand how COVID has uniquely impacted education in developing countries.

Claudia Costin

Before the pandemic, if you look at PISA data, the data from this external assessment organized by OECD, Latin America is well-known for inequality in learning. It's not only social inequalities, but they translate into learning inequalities. So it is not that COVID introduced inequality into the systems. They were already very unequal. In Africa, I could say the same. Not so much in parts of East Europe, but if I concentrate in Latin America, it's very unequal, Brazil being one of the most unequal countries in education prior to COVID.

When COVID arrived, it on hand illuminated existing problems. And this problems, the learning crisis and the inequalities in education were even deepened. So they become even worse. If you can imagine, for example, in my own country, Brazil, in most municipalities, it was one year and a half of schools closures. And some municipalities, I would say 25% of them haven't even now not been opened yet. So the learning losses are tremendous.

Jill Anderson: Right. And in a lot of these cases, there were severe limits to distance learning and remote learning.

Claudia Costin: Yes, there was no education for many kids. It's not that the school system didn't try to address those problems. It was amazing and even nice to see how teachers struggled to ensure some learning to their students. 82% of the municipalities in Brazil had some kind of educational response to COVID with absolutely no national coordination by the minister of education. Brazil is a federation as Argentina is as well. In Argentina, in one way or the other, the ministry of education coordinated the education response. In my country where many municipal don't have more than five schools, so it's not that they have a department of education able to prepare materials and to ensure some learning through cellular phones, mobile phones or something like that, it was beautiful to see on one side the effort, but limited results, unfortunately.

Jill Anderson: I mean, some of the numbers I've been seeing, not specific to Brazil, but are incredibly shocking. I think I saw like 1.5 billion students were not in school.

Claudia Costin: If I can be more focused on my own country where I know the reality much better, what happens here is that boys stop going to school when they start to work, and girls stop going to school when they get pregnant or get involved in early marriage. But it's not as frequent as boys leaving schools. But during the pandemic, with every school, especially nursery schools being closed, a huge burden was put on girls.

In addition to that, unfortunately, I work for the judiciary for the justice here, the Supreme Court on human rights for children. We have had so many issue with child labor and sexual exploitation of girls. We are talking about kids that are 11 or 12 years old. We have the impression that all the advance that we had over the years in social issues is in danger right now. That's why it was so important for schools to go back to reopen in a safe way, but all the teachers have already been vaccinated with the two shots. And also to ensure that the return to school is mandatory, because for some parents, unfortunately it might have been convenient to have them away from school because they are involved in work.

And there is a cash transfer system in Brazil that pays connected to school attendance. So if schools become mandatory, being present at school is mandatory, then you can ensure that they will be in risk of not receiving the cash transfer system if the kids don't go back to school. And only the kids have some kind of illness that cannot run the risk of getting COVID going back, especially because the cases are going down now in my country.

Jill Anderson: What concerns or worries you the most about some of the changes and setbacks that are happening?

Claudia Costin: Well, a lot of worries. First, access to tertiary education in Brazil and in Argentina and in Colombia has been growing in the years before the pandemic, and probably tertiary education will go back to the past years where it was overly selective connected to income level. The still little diversity, ethnic, and from social income groups that we had in the access of two universities is in risk of being lost. For example, next week, we have a huge exam to access universities. The enrollment for this exam was very limited. And when you look at the social class of the people that are taking the exam, most of them is upper middle class and over, which is very saddening because all the promise that the education brings with it that it might bring social mobility is lost in that. The will to study more, to be persistent and take your studies seriously is also lost in this context.

Jill Anderson: You said lots of worries. So I'm wondering what some of those others might be on the other end; the primary and secondary levels.

Claudia Costin: Brazil was one of the last countries in the American continent to universalize access to middle schools, to a primary, then to middle schools or what we call internationally, the junior secondary or lower secondary schools. And we haven't as yet universalized the access to upper secondary schools or high schools as you call it in the US. So kids were already in schools, but then we had an additional challenge prior to the COVID, is that kids were in school, but they weren't learning as it was supposed to. But even on that front, there were improvements. Too slow, but we have an assessment every two year that is quite serious in the whole country. And we have been improving learning, especially at primary level, but lately also at secondary level as well, at a slow pace, but improving every year. And unfortunately, the initial assessments when schools were reopened is connected to us going back at levels of 11 years ago, for example.

Jill Anderson: Really?

Claudia Costin: Yes. And children in third grade where they are eight to nine years old, and fourth grade, completely illiterate as if they haven't learned to read and write, and we have to start all over again. And there was a trend here in Brazil that I should strongly recommend other countries not to embark in this sad trend, which is to deny that the losses happened so as not to traumatize a whole generation or stigmatize a whole generation. But you have to look at the problems with some sense of urgency. I always say it's as if we were saying after the Second World War, saying we should not talk about the problems that were faced during the Second World War by children because they will get traumatized or stigmatized. No, we have to address those problems, take them seriously, which doesn't mean that we have to build quickly remedial education, eight hours a day. It's not about that, that I'm talking. It's even about working with them on social and emotional skills, preparing them to recover the learning losses that they have during this period.

Jill Anderson: I mean, is that what you want to do? Go back and think we can make up for this lost time, or should you have a different approach?

Claudia Costin: First, we don't need to go back to where we were in 2019. In the US, I see people saying an expression that I love and I'm so saddened that it doesn't translate perfectly into Portuguese, which is building back better. So it is a huge opportunity to look at our problems, our challenges, and rebuilding in a different way. Yes, recovering learning losses, but at the same time discovering how eventually technology, which was the only way many of the students were able to have some kind of synchronous connection can support a different kind of learning, supporting teachers to teach in another way, much more hands-on.

Here in Brazil, in Colombia, in Argentina, we have very traditional way of teaching. So the teachers make some kind of exposition, kids take notes, and then they study for a test and that's teaching and learning. So it's a good opportunity to reinvent teaching and learning and to connect much more the kids to what they are learning.

There is something positive in the timing of this return to schools because Brazil has just delivered its first ever national curriculum, which is a much more contemporary updated curriculum where we discussed student agency, for example, in the process of learning, social and emotional learning is present in our renewed curriculum, digital skills are also addressed there, critical thinking. We are living where artificial intelligence is substituting human labor, even when it demands cognitive skills. So it's a good opportunity looking at this timing of the going back to school, to transform education into something different. Not so traditional, not so much learning, and much more teaching kids to become independent thinkers and even to be much more in charge of their school life.

Jill Anderson: Are those efforts happening now?

Claudia Costin: Not from the ministry of education. Unfortunately, we have a government that is, you would call it extreme right populist government. But on the other hand, since Brazil is a federation, states have autonomy and civil society is very active in the country. And so with the support of some civil society organizations, with lawmakers from the state level and from... and even some of them that were elected to the federal level in the legislative branch, we are trying to build a different kind of education.

And some states that are in poorer states are even ahead of some that are in richer states. We have a state for example, called Pernambuco, which is in the Northeast area of the country, where they decided to have a full day school for secondary schools. Student agency built into the framework was much more hands-on approach to teaching and learning. And other states began to scale up this good practice that they built in Pernambuco. And this is becoming a trend, although the federal government is doing nothing about that, which for us is amazing because sometimes crisis are opportunities and a country that although it has an extreme right president, is able to still keep some autonomy. It's a defense, a protection against autocracy.

Jill Anderson: I mean, I love the idea of not staying focused on the setbacks and looking for the opportunities. I get the feeling that in a lot of countries, especially poor countries, that it may be difficult to do that when the setbacks are so extreme.

Claudia Costin: Yes. The setbacks are huge. But also if you look at the crisis that humanity faced, I was moved to look at the good legacies, looking at the history of the 1918 flu, the great flu. I read a book from John Barry. He mentioned the advances that happened in science connected to this sad moment of history. And I said, "Well, we could look at this kind of thing in this crisis that we are facing." For example, connectivity was a huge issue. Why not put it into the political agenda? And so I'm also a mentor as my, let's say, citizenship effort of a group of young Congress people. And so we decided let's try to pass a law on connectivity, ensuring connectivity for all the teachers and for all the students that are below the poverty line. A law like that was passed in Congress. In the two Houses, we have the same two Houses that you have. Then the president tried to veto what was voted and this veto was dismissed. So the law became a reality. He tried send another substitute law. He didn't succeed again.

And so it shows that connectivity entered the political agenda. And this is quite positive. We also established in the country, the National Board of Education, we of a national board that is semi-autonomous. And they also were able to pass a law saying that digital competencies should be taught at pre-service education, and in continuous or professional development as well. So some things were done, although we are living in such a difficult time. And so many setbacks happened.

Jill Anderson: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

Claudia Costin: Oh, I am the one to thank you for the opportunity to tell my story.

Jill Anderson: Claudia Costin is the founder and director of the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Education Policies at Getulio Vargas Foundation in Brazil. She is also the Chen Yidan Visiting Global Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

Related Articles