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OPINION November 3, 2021

Interview with Fadia Saadah, Human Development Director for Europe and Central Asia

What are the effects of the pandemic on Romanian education, as measured by World Bank experts on key indices (school dropouts, increasing gap between rural and urban areas, educational losses, skill development etc)?

The COVID-19 crisis significantly impacts learning and will widen existing inequalities in the education systems across the world, Romania included. The pressure on education services will create a wider gap for vulnerable groups. School closures are likely to reverse gains in learning and increase dropouts and early school leaving, especially for the most vulnerable students, who are expected to be impacted more. The crisis may increase the share of functionally illiterate students by up to 10 percent in Romania. These are predictions, of course, but reporting on learning losses in Western European countries (e.g., England, Germany, Italy)  shows significant losses, especially for the most disadvantaged students. It is important that Romania measures the learning levels of students and compares them to the situation pre-COVID-19.

What impact will these educational losses have on the economy, according to World Bank expectations, in terms of labor earnings over the work life of current students? (as in this global estimate)

The effect of COVID-19 on education will have a decades-long impact on the economy unless authorities act to recover learning losses and protect the human capital of affected cohorts. Learning losses and reduced years of schooling for student cohorts affected by COVID-19 will lower their expected earnings by an estimated 3.6 percent. This is based on the assumption that a year of schooling increases earnings by 8 percent on average.  Less learning now means less productivity, income, and economic growth in the future.

In the absence of effective policy action for primary and secondary students today, we expect Romanian secondary school graduates to earn US $9,000 less during their productive lifetime because of the learning loss brought about by COVID. This figure is much larger for those poor and vulnerable who suffered a larger learning loss and, therefore, will experience a larger reduction in future income. If we look at this in aggregate terms, learning losses due to COVID may amount to an overall economic loss of up to US$1.4 billion (2011 PPP) every year. In this context, Romania needs to safeguard the education budget, ensure remediation to recover learning losses, prevent student dropouts, and invest in building a resilient education system that is better equipped to confront future crises.

The school dropout rate in Romania is very high. It is measured by the early school leaving index for the age of 18-24, which in 2020 stood at 15.6% (youth who finished 8th grade). What do you think the Romanian Government should focus on to counteract such structural problems properly?

Early school leaving and dropouts have significant societal and individual consequences such as increased unemployment risk, reduced lifetime earnings, poverty, and social exclusion. These can cause large public and social costs such as lower tax revenues and higher costs of public services such as healthcare, criminal justice, and social benefit payments.

Romania has not achieved the early school leaving (ESL) targets set for 2020, and we are seeing worrisome discrepancies between the share of early leavers in cities (4 percent), versus those from towns (15 percent) and rural areas (23 percent). Also concerning is the proportion of youth neither working nor in school, which has increased in 2021 from 17 percent to 22 percent. Romania has also registered the largest gender difference among the proportion of early leavers not wanting to work, which is 6.6 percentage points higher for young women than young men.

Given Romania’s current status against these targets, reducing ESL should remain a priority for the Government. Reducing ESL is also essential for achieving important European and national objectives.

Governments now need to design and implement a learning recovery plan centered around three critical elements:

Prioritization of the achievement of early reading and numeracy skills.

Measurement of learning through standardized tests.

Remediation of learning gaps through a range of compensatory interventions with special emphasis on disadvantaged students, for example, tutoring facilitated by schools, or the use of digital technologies to personalize the learning experience.   

The learning recovery plan could be supported by an Early Warning Mechanism that is implemented over the next few years in schools with a high share of vulnerable students at risk of dropping out. Such an integrated prevention, intervention, and compensation system is developed with World Bank support under a European Commission - Directorate-General for Structural Reform Support (DG REFORM) project. The project will alert authorities about children at risk of dropping out, facilitate the necessary measures to increase school participation, and monitor results.

What sort of measures do you recommend for teachers, many of whom are still struggling with developing new skills when it comes to the new ways of teaching and evaluating students? International studies have shown that the style of teaching in Romania remains the traditional Eastern-European one with a focus on teachers, instead of pupils. (

Skilled teachers are one of the most important ingredients for a successful education system.  There are several options to consider here. First, Romania can initiate a “teacher career path (TCP)”. This can cover the whole range of teachers’ selections and promotions as well as performance evaluation. The TCP should include the evaluation of incumbent teachers and link its results to teacher professional development (training) and incentives (economic or non-economic ones). Of course, retaining qualified teachers is also important and we need to have the right incentives for achieving that.  

Second, rethinking teacher training programs is needed to help teachers address challenges they face.  The World Bank advises training needs to be aligned with future educational needs, including digital instruction, as well as with content and subject-specific knowledge sessions and sufficient practical preparation in instructional practice and assessment.

Third, it is important to examine the challenges of teachers working in hard-to-staff schools.  In such cases, we need to also look at how to provide the right support and incentives for teachers. There is a range of options that the Government can consider, building on lessons from Romania and other countries.  For instance, in Estonia, teachers are entrusted with managing independently the syllabus (mainly class structure, schedule, the pace of lessons and topics), freedom that translates into a greater sense of responsibility towards students. Clearly, teachers are given the remunerative importance they deserve. Classroom practices are being heavily student-centered and interactive, and display a democratic space for students. Estonia hosts one of the most innovative education models globally that can provide quality learning to all students, especially to the less well-off.

Another example comes from Denmark where teachers receive special allowances, including free accommodation and home computers, for their willingness to teach in remote areas. In Romania, promotion opportunities are linked to performance, and top-performing teachers receive a merit bonus. However, teachers that work with low-performing students are not adequately recognized. Promoting examples of successful teachers nationwide  - and these are many in Romania - could develop a culture of good practices and role models.

Romania keeps at the start of this new school year the measure of moving school to remote teaching in whole towns and cities, once they reach a certain infection threshold (6 cases / 1000 people). Most European countries have dropped such measures and would try to keep schools open no matter the pandemic. What are the World Bank recommendations in this regard and why?

After a pandemic across two school years, Romanian children who were already struggling were hit even harder and will need further support to benefit from quality education. It is important to do everything possible to open schools and to maximize the chances of keeping them open in the future. When open, schools need to ensure that proper safety measures are introduced and respected by both school staff and children. Key protection measures to be taken by schools include masking, distancing, and air purification.

Increasing vaccination rates is key to keeping schools open. Vaccinations should be prioritized for teachers and eligible students. Currently, Romania has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the European Union. Encouraging both teachers and students to get vaccinated could help Romania reach a comforting vaccination threshold that is critical to both safely reopening schools and keeping them open. Higher vaccination rates would also provide the central and local governments with the necessary bandwidth to level up their efforts dedicated to ensuring high-quality learning opportunities in an inclusive way for all children.