The COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions not just to schools but to the lives of kids and families: Lost loved ones, lost jobs, lost homes, food insecurity, and more came with a steep academic and social-emotional toll. With the magnitude of unfinished learning now becoming clear—such as the recently released Education Recovery Scorecard and other national and state data that map out the losses in individual school districts across the country—state and local education leaders must revisit their plans for spending what remains of the more than $190 billion in federal pandemic-relief aid allocated to education.
As always in education spending, it is a question of not just how much but how well districts spend the dollars. Given that federal law required that 90 percent of the money be distributed to local school districts without strings attached, district leaders must scrutinize plans to ensure that the scope and substance of their plans match the scale of the crisis we all face.
If a district’s plan has gotten the scope right, it will prioritize investing in proven strategies: intensive, targeted tutoring; expanded learning time; social-emotional and mental health supports for students; and, of course, a strong and diverse educator workforce that provides rigorous, well-rounded, and empowering instruction.
If the recovery plan is implemented at the necessary scale, prior research shows that districts will be able to get back on track. On the other hand, if a district that suffered substantial achievement losses spends a disproportionate share on facilities improvements, technology, and supplemental instructional support for only a small proportion of students, its leaders will have failed to meet the moment.
Evaluating the substance of a district’s plan will require a deeper inquiry into the nature of the planned interventions. Consider three examples of investments:
- Tutoring: The evidence base for intensive, targeted tutoring calls for well-trained tutors working with students individually or in very small groups over a sustained period, ideally during the school day, using high-quality materials that are aligned to the curriculum. However, some districts say they are investing in tutoring, when in fact, all they have done is purchase licenses for use of an online homework-help platform and sent the link to families if they are interested in accessing it. Or they are providing fewer than the three tutoring sessions per week prior studies have shown to be effective. With either approach, the intended gains simply won’t materialize, particularly for students with the highest needs.
- Summer learning: When districts frame expanded learning time and summer programming as optional remedial support, they are unlikely to get many takers. A recent survey from Education Next shows many families still don’t realize the scope of unfinished learning their children have experienced, with a shocking 43 percent of parents saying they don’t believe their child has experienced any learning loss at all. A purely optional summer academic program without any supplemental elements or free transportation to attract participation won’t work. Evidence and common sense say that even the best summer school teacher can’t make a difference with students who don’t attend regularly. A well-designed summer program will either extend the school year itself—including both core academics and enrichment—or pair “ice cream with broccoli,” using high-engagement offerings like robotics, the arts, or athletics (through partnerships with local community-based organizations) to maximize student attendance while providing high-quality summer academic instruction.
- Core instruction: While districts may say their investments of recovery dollars are designed to strengthen core instruction, the urgent need to address unfinished learning should raise the bar for evaluating the quality of such investments. Replacing a weak reading curriculum that ignores the science of reading with one that reflects the best research on the importance of systematic phonics instruction and building background knowledge and vocabulary would be a prudent investment. So, too, would be professional development for current and incoming teachers on the science of reading. On the other hand, allocations to professional-development activities without proven impact on student learning should be met with deep skepticism.
The Education Trust recently published a guide that highlights promising district plans for the use of recovery dollars and details the kinds of questions equity advocates should be asking district leaders and school board members about their recovery plans. But a good or even a great plan must be the beginning, not the end, of transparency and accountability. Districts need to be tracking the types and amounts of support each student is receiving so that we can all learn which interventions mattered most—and potentially adjust recovery plans next year.
Many schools and districts have been left to find solutions to unfinished learning on their own. This is a missed opportunity. There are decades of research on what works. District and school leaders can build on that knowledge base to implement programs that are aligned with best practices during this summer and fall, with an eye toward scaling up and sustaining the most effective approaches. An iterative process of testing strategies, evaluating the impact, adapting based on continuous learning, and replicating the most effective approaches is the key to progress. It’s not just about short-term pandemic recovery but about using this unprecedented federal investment to change how we do school in the long term, especially for the most underserved students.
Now is not the time to “get back to normal,” when doing so will mean allowing the inequitable impacts of the pandemic to continue to exacerbate existing inequities. If school and district leaders organize themselves to learn over the next two years, they can reinvent summer learning, engage parents in new ways, support educators, transform the way literacy is taught—and ensure that something good emerges from this pandemic.
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as Districts, Now Is Not the Time To ‘Get Back to Normal’