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Needs of Children Should Be Put First
Germany’s Insufficient Data Infrastructure

Illustration of Jan Paul Heisig (left) and Paromita Vohra (right)
Illustration of Jan Paul Heisig (left) and Paromita Vohra (right) | Illustration (detail): © Nik Neves

Jan Paul Heisig, professor of sociology at Freie Universität Berlin, answers questions raised by the South Korean Professor of Philosophy Kwang Sun Joo: “In the era of digital learning has the social inequality in Germany increased its influence on education? If so, how has it increased? And what can be done to solve this problem?” While school closings seem to have had negative effects on learning outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged students, there might also be some positive long-term effects of the crisis.

By Jan Paul Heisig

Kwang Sun, you are asking whether remote and digital learning during the pandemic have increased social inequalities in education in Germany.

It is surprisingly difficult to give a clear, empirically grounded answer to that question, as Germany’s infrastructure for monitoring student achievement remains insufficient and patchworky. To me, one major lesson from the pandemic therefore is that we urgently need to improve this infrastructure by implementing regular and standardised assessments and by making them available to the research community.

That being said, we do have some evidence on actual student achievement for selected German states and quite a bit of such evidence for other high-income countries with richer data infrastructures. Taken together, the findings do indeed point towards meaningful learning losses and growing inequalities. In addition, surveys of childrens’ and parents’ experiences during the pandemic have shown that disadvantaged and low-performing students tend to struggle more with remote learning, that they more often lack the necessary digital equipment, and that their parents can offer them less support. Your concerns thus appear to be well-founded, and so does your question what we can do about this. Rather than go through a list of specific measures, I will elaborate a few general points.

Learnings from the Period of Digital Education 

The first is that we need to be faster, more pragmatic, and more creative in addressing the needs of children. A few months may not be much for most adults, but for children it is a long period of time where a lot of developmental progress can or cannot happen depending on the circumstances. As I am writing this letter in the middle of November, 2021, Germany is deep into its fourth wave, with case numbers higher than ever and death and hospitalisation rates on the rise. The question how we can limit viral transmission in schools is high on the agenda again. Yet, due to political and administrative inertia air purifiers are still missing from many classrooms, despite their potentially significant contribution to curbing viral spread.

A second point is that we need to do more to reach the most disadvantaged children. To be fair, there have been substantial efforts to address learning losses through free tutoring, holiday courses, and other measures, but survey data suggest that many of these may not reach the children who need them the most.  While survey data indicate that low-performing students are more likely to take part in such measures, there also seems to be a marked gradient by parental education: children of university-educated parents were more likely than children of non-university-educated parents to participate in remedial courses.

A third and last point is that our efforts to address the impact of the pandemic on children and adolescents should be rooted in a broad understanding of child development. Learning losses in reading, mathematics, and other subjects are important and deserve to be high on the collective agenda. However, we need to realise that school closings and other measures have also deprived young people of opportunities for development and growth in a broader socio-emotional sense. There have been fewer interactions with peers, more with parents and fewer with other adults. By now it is also clear that many children have suffered in terms of psychological well-being and mental health. It may be too early to tell if children are mostly experiencing temporary effects of pandemic stress and lockdown measures or whether the pandemic is for many a traumatising experience that will leave lasting scars, but one way or another these findings are a stark reminder that cognitive development is only one out of many facets of child development and well-being.

Possitive Outlook 

The above points to formidable challenges for months, quite likely even for years to come. So is there anything that would allow me to end on a positive note? Perhaps. Crises can also be an opportunity for renewal, innovation, and growth. In the case of German education, the pandemic has triggered a long overdue move towards digitalisation that may well have lasting positive effects on post-pandemic times.  Students, too, may not only have suffered learning loss and socio-emotional deprivation. They may also have acquired valuable self-organisation and coping skills that will help them succeed in education as well as in life more broadly. These opportunities for growth are likely to be distributed unequally as well, with middle- and upper-class children more often facing the kinds of well-dosed and manageable rather than overwhelming challenges that are most likely to have positive effects - but they are opportunities for growth nonetheless.

Paromita, I am sure that there are many ways in which the pandemic and school closings have had negative effects on and exacerbated inequalities among children in India as well – and I do think that it is important for us to learn about them. At the same time, I am wondering if you, too, can find at least a little light in the dark - some indications of how the experiences of the past months might also lead to changes for the better?