Perspectives on How Schools Should Spend Covid Relief Aid

Billions of dollars in federal Covid recovery funding are flowing to the nation’s schools: money from the March 2020 CARES Act, much of which has been obligated or already spent, and billions more soon to arrive from relief packages passed by congress in December and earlier this month. State and local educators will have until 2024 to spend the money. Their challenge: to spend the windfall in ways that serve students—and taxpayers—best. FutureEd asked our senior fellows and research advisors for their thoughts on how education leaders should approach this rare opportunity.

Rely on Community Input, Evidence

By Andrew Buher and Mario Ramirez

Districts and schools should be intentional about creating an inclusive and transparent process in developing a Covid recovery strategy based on what works, for which students, and under what set of circumstances.

To that end, the first step for any district or school is to systematically collect feedback from stakeholders—students, teachers, school staff, school leaders, parents and guardians—to understand community expectations for next school year (fall 2021) and share that information publicly, ensuring that it is accessible, responsive, and culturally sensitive.

Second, districts and schools should ground their comprehensive recovery planning in evidence. Before allocating funds to a specific intervention, districts and schools should review all available student-level data to understand the extent of the problems they are trying to address.

They should then formulate SMARTE—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant time-based, and equitable—goals that address those problems and settle on evidence-based or evidence-informed interventions to achieve the agreed upon goals.

Finally, districts and schools should communicate with stakeholders their comprehensive recovery strategy and spending priorities, with clear metrics to measure success.

Andrew Buher is the founder of Opportunity Labs, and Mario Ramirez is managing director.

Target Resources to Underserved Students, Including English Learners

By Amanda Fernandez

Since Black and Latino students, including English Learners, are among those most impacted by the pandemic, Covid relief should target students and educators of color. And because our nation’s education system failed many low-income students before the pandemic, school district leaders must avoid a “race back to normal,” and instead ask How do we move forward in a more equitable way in public education?

In the short term, state and district leaders should prioritize three things: tech equity, mental health supports and preschool for all children from low-income families.

Millions of students still lack the tech devices and broadband needed to participate in virtual learning. Even after schools return to in-person instruction, tech will continue to play a key role in students’ learning and their ability to navigate our post-COVID world. The internet is the gateway to success in the 21st Century; without it, a student has very little chance to succeed. School districts must ensure that every one of their students has a device and broadband access. The stories of a family sharing one cell phone for school should quickly become a relic of the past.

What’s more, our COVID-19 family surveys tell us that most Latino parents are concerned with the mental health impact that the pandemic and virtual learning are having on their children, citing a decline in socialization and emotional well-being. As the pandemic continues to place economic burdens on Latino families, and Latino children are losing loved ones, school districts need to ensure these students have access to counselors and mental health services so they can be better positioned to learn. We know that schools in lower-income communities have less access to counselors; that must end.

Finally, we know that many young students have had a tough start on their educational journey, as many of the hands-on supports they get in pre-K and kindergarten were not easily replicated in a virtual classroom. School districts should enroll all low-income children in pre-K programs, especially Latino children, and extend summer programming for kindergarten students so they can start their academic work on the right foot. We know that for English Learners and Latino students, early childhood education can make a difference in helping them excel academically; this should be a no-brainer for school district leaders.

Amanda Fernandez is the CEO and co-founder of Latinos for Education.

Look for Cures, Not Band-aids

By Joanne Weiss

Health and safety have gotten the lion’s share of the attention and the stimulus funding so far—PPE, HVAC, vaccinations. That’s understandable; the needs are concrete and the work is urgent. But it is time to turn our attention to teaching and learning.

School systems have been given the gift of massive, one-time, once-in-a-lifetime funding to be used over three years to address the inadequacies and inequities exposed by COVID. These stimulus funds will allow educators to stop Band-aiding gaping wounds and instead look for cures. Now is the time to invest in building the teaching and learning structures we want, the systems that our students need and deserve.

The place to start is with a coherent vision for teaching and learning. My vision (yours may be different) is to engage every student, every day, in meaningful, affirming, grade-level instruction. Once the vision is clear, districts can assess where they are relative to the vision, and can then focus their investments to drive the vision forward.

[Webinar with SREB: How States and Schools Can Use New Federal Relief Funds]

What might districts do to understand the assets and gaps in their current system and to focus spending strategically?

The first step is to engage families and students in an ongoing fashion to find out what’s working, what isn’t, and what they’ve learned from experience prior to and during COVID.

Districts also need to engage with teachers, review their opportunity-to-learn and academic data, learn what’s working, and prioritize areas of need.

They should  develop partnerships—with community organizations, businesses, higher education, and health and service providers—so students are surrounded with supports, access, and opportunities.

In addition, they need to ensure that each school’s culture and structures—schedules, staffing, and continuous improvement systems—support and keep the focus on teaching and learning. That includes monitoring and supporting students’ well-being.

Districts need to put high-quality instructional materials—and an internet-connected device—in the hands of every teacher and student, purchasing new materials if necessary. Along with new materials, districts should provide the professional development needed to deliver the curriculum and should structure teachers’ time so they can work together to better support their students’ learning needs.

Few districts can do this work alone—it’s too new, and they are too overwhelmed. States can support their school systems by sharing their vision and offering frameworks that systems can use to organize their design and planning work. They can also write guidance that supports systems’ planning and implementation; and they can issue statewide purchasing agreements that make it easier for school systems to design and implement with quality.

The stimulus funding, if used well, could alter the trajectory of K-12 education for decades to come. Our students and families are counting on us to make this possibility a reality.

Joanne Weiss is the president of Weiss Associates LLC.

Invest in Curriculum, In-Person and On-Line

By Morgan Polikoff

I’m writing this 366 days since the COVID-19 crisis began in earnest in the U.S. It goes without saying it’s been a traumatic year for American schools and the people affected by them (parents, students, teachers, and everyone who relies on them). The American Rescue Plan offers real, equitable, and very substantial funding to schools to address some of the worst effects of the crisis, and they should think big in using this money to support students.

It will surprise no one that I think one of the most important investments schools can make emerging from the pandemic is high-quality, well-supported, distance learning-ready curriculum materials (including adequate supports for teachers to understand and use those materials). There are several important considerations in selecting these materials.

First, states should play a role in helping local schools and districts make these decisions. This means things like evaluating available materials or relying on existing evaluations like those done by EdReports, establishing incentives (or requirements) for schools and districts to adopt only approved materials, and supporting districts with implementation. Louisiana has been a model in this kind of work. More generally, there are existing online/virtual curriculum options that have established track records and could be borrowed or adapted, such as the Florida Virtual School).

Second, schools need to be well prepared if the worst happens and new lockdowns or closures are needed in the fall. Sending teachers home with packets of materials from TeachersPayTeachers won’t cut it—and neither will giving teachers digital materials they don’t like or don’t think are well aligned with their kids’ needs. Schools must be ready to transition instruction back and forth as needed without massive disruption to teaching and learning. This means choosing comprehensive instructional materials, rather than piecemeal solutions.

Importantly, whatever is chosen should be part of a long-term strategy, not a short-term Band-aid. We may have concerns about the quality of online or hybrid teaching, but it is clear that, at least for some students, it is here to stay. Only with a quality, online-friendly curriculum can districts possibly hope to provide adequate educational opportunity to kids in the online setting.

Morgan Polikoff is an associate professor of education at the USC Rossier School of Education.

Use Tutors as Mentors, Mentors as Tutors

By Matthew A. Kraft

I’ve had a lot of conversations with inspiring leaders in the tutoring and mentoring space over the past few months, and one thing has struck me. When I talk to folks on the ground who know mentoring they emphasize that mentors value having a concrete, focused way to use their time, such as supporting students in their academic work, i.e. tutoring.

We typically think about mentors and students just socializing, but many programs are moving toward mentorship models that wrap these relationships around a core activity of what is sometimes called academic coaching. At the same time, many tutoring experts talk about the fundamental value of sustained tutor-student relationships underlying the instructional emphasis of tutoring. Students are more willing to engage with challenging material when they trust their tutor and don’t want to let them down.

What does this mean for how districts and schools might leverage new federal dollars to expand tutoring and mentor supports for students? I think it means that when implemented well in K-12 settings, tutoring and mentoring become highly overlapping and should be seen as a single initiative. I think it means we cannot narrowly focus on unfinished academic learning simply because we have academic assessments but don’t have large-scale data on the scale of student trauma, stress, and isolation.

As we look to support students, let’s think about building systems that provide time, space, and support for developing caring relationships between students and teachers, non-instructional school staff, and tutors.

Matthew A. Kraft, FutureEd’s research director, is an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University.

Measure What Matters Most

By Stephen L. Pruitt

 How can we make sure the massive new investment in education goes for what matters most?

One way is for the new administration to work with states to expand how we measure whether schools succeed, a strategy allowed under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Student achievement should remain paramount, but test scores only tell us so much—and that’s coming from an advocate for high-quality state tests.

The biggest problem in my view, however, is in how we use those test scores. Haven’t we been reminded during the pandemic that many other factors are more critical than ever to a child’s education?

I propose that states adjust their school-accountability systems to show for every school the most important measures of quality and equity.

Can every student prepare for and take advanced courses? How about career-tech programs that lead into postsecondary education and meaningful careers? A rich education that includes the arts? Is technology and broadband access available to all?

Are schools seeing about students social-and-emotional health? Is mental health counseling available for anyone who needs it?

Does every classroom have competent, caring, fully credentialed teachers—and if not, why? What’s the responsibility of the local school system and the state in recruiting, compensating and supporting educators better?

How do students’ opportunities break down by race and ethnicity, family income and location?

The new federal funds emphasize evidence-based summer learning, extended-day and extended-school year programs to respond to students’ academic, social, and emotional needs during and following the pandemic. We should show the public what’s happening on that front, too.

Counting what matters most—student achievement and the additional components of quality all of us want in our children’s schools—could help us close the opportunity gap and make clear the local school systems’ and states’ responsibilities in addressing serious, persistent inequities in education. Focusing on students also is an economic necessity, with more good jobs requiring  more education and training.

Pruitt is the president of the nonpartisan Southern Regional Education Board (SREB).

Change the Way We Spend Money in Schools

By David Rosenberg

Children across the country now need more opportunities for differentiated, high-quality learning, stronger relationships with the adults in their schools, and more streamlined access to social-emotional support. These needs are most deeply felt in our lowest-income communities and by Black and Latinx students, English language learners, and students with disabilities.

The massive infusion of new federal K-12 funding is crucial to addressing these needs. The money also poses a huge risk to the long-term sustainability of our public schools.

How does more funding threaten financial sustainability?

Some investments will add long-term costs without fundamentally improving students’ experience. For example, in light of the challenges teachers have faced before and during COVID, it may be tempting to allocate federal funds to across-the-board, permanent staffing and salary increases. But in just a few years, districts would be left with inflated and unfunded budget obligations—and potentially little academic growth to show for it.

Instead, education leaders should focus on investments that address student needs and change underlying cost structures by shifting traditional staffing, scheduling and student-teacher assignment practices. Near-term strategic investments should be ones that lay the groundwork for deeper, structural change over time.

For example, a strategic vision for improving the teaching job could include more time for teachers to reflect, collaborate and build individual connections with students, lower student loads for core teachers in middle and high school, and significantly reduce class sizes in high-priority and high-need subjects, such as 9th grade English language arts. It could also include scaling meaningful leadership opportunities for teachers with the most expertise. And It could mean compensating teacher leaders with stipends and/or additional time for planning and observation.

School districts can also expand partnerships with institutions of higher education to establish tutor-to-teacher models and provide seed investments in “grow your own” staffing strategies—all of which can help reinvent how teachers enter, and then stay in, the profession.

Schools like Brookside Elementary in Indianapolis and Lander Elementary in Mayfield Heights, OH have piloted models that show how to make these and other shifts. New funding creates the space to develop new models and build the capacity and systems required to implement and scale them. 

David Rosenberg is a partner at Education Resource Strategies.

Address Students’ Social-Emotional Needs

By Laura Hamilton

Surveys of teachers, school leaders, families and others on the educational front lines point to the importance of using pandemic relief resources to address learning loss. But students’ social and emotional learning (SEL) is an equally high, if not higher, priority to them. That’s hardly surprising, given that the pandemic left many students isolated and created stressful conditions for students and educators alike.

At the same time, the spread of misinformation, mistrust of previously respected information sources, a national reckoning with racial injustice, and the threats these developments pose to the well-being of our communities point to a need for schools to emphasize civic learning post-pandemic.

A growing number of strategies and resources are available to promote social-emotional and civic learning. And research demonstrates the value of these priorities for educational and career success.

Efforts to support students’ social-emotional and civic learning should reflect the local context and needs of both students and educators. But there are steps local policymakers can take to provide a good foundation.

Educators should begin by gathering input from students, families, and educators about how recent experiences have shaped student engagement and opportunities to learn, and about what supports each group is likely to need. Regular check-ins with students and families can supplement system-wide surveys or other assessments to track social, emotional, and civic learning in ways that will inform instructional decisions.

Importantly, schools can’t be expected to tackle these challenges on their own. Partnering with expert advisors and other community-based organizations can create opportunities for students to engage in evidence-based activities that promote SEL and civic learning. approaches.

An emphasis on SEL and civics can be controversial, especially when many policymakers are deeply concerned about students’ academic learning. Education leaders will need to help community members understand how SEL and civics can support the development of English Language Arts skills and quantitative and scientific literacy while simultaneously enhancing student well-being.

Laura Hamilton is associate vice president of research centers for the ETS.

Tackle Student Absenteeism

By Phyllis W. Jordan and Hedy Chang

The stimulus package just approved by Congress requires states to spend money on summer learning and extended school day programs, among other approaches. But students won’t benefit from these programs—or the tutoring initiatives launching around the country—if they aren’t in school or online to take advantage of them. Reducing chronic absenteeism, which has spiraled during the pandemic, must be an essential part of recovery efforts.

The numbers we’re seeing show that absenteeism has risen dramatically during the pandemic. Connecticut records show, for instance, that the share of students who are chronically absent—missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason—has nearly doubled this school year, to 21 percent.

The most recent rounds of funding recommend “tracking student attendance and improving student engagement in distance learning” as a strategy for addressing learning loss, particularly among students with disabilities and others that schools have struggled to serve effectively during the pandemic. But there are plenty of other ways that education leaders can use the money to improve both in-person and online student attendance and get students learning again.

Expand student and family engagement: Relief funding could help facilitate the relationship-building activities that help children and families feel a connection to schools. That can take the form of teachers sending postcards or texts or can be a personal call or visit to a family’s home to identify barriers to attending class. It can mean telehealth connections for students suffering physical or mental problems. The Attendance Playbook- Covid 19 edition shares these and other evidence-based practices.

Improve data systems: State-of-the-art attendance and engagement tracking systems would be a smart investment at the state or local level. Attendance data has historically been captured in a district’s student-information system. But when learning is remote, information capturing whether a student attends, logs in or submits an assignment often exists elsewhere, or is captured by a virtual platform such as Zoom. Upgrades could allow such data to be combined electronically, rather than manually, to avoid an undue data-entry burden on teachers. Systems could also be updated to code synchronous, asynchronous or in-person learning.

Train staff: A key to combating student absenteeism are school and district staff who are trained to respond to absenteeism data effectively and work as teams to implement a multi-tiered, problem-solving approach to reducing absences. A strategy team at the school or district level can support school-wide responses to absenteeism that address the school climate, behavior and academic dimensions of the problem.

Support Community Schools: Districts could use federal dollars to create community schools, which pull together nonprofit organizations and local agencies to support disadvantaged students. These programs often provide extended learning and summer programs the federal bill is advocating. And they have proven effective in reducing absenteeism.

Tutoring, mentoring: Some students will need extra academic support to recover learning lost during the pandemic. Relief aid could pay for tutoring or mentoring programs, which can catch kids up and create the kind of personal connection that research has shown leads to better attendance. These efforts could include creating individual student attendance plans and mental health supports.

Ventilation upgrades: Improving ventilation systems could improve attendance for students with asthma or allergies to mold and mildew. 

Phyllis Jordan is FutureEd’s editorial director, and Hedy Chang is executive director of Attendance Works.

Start With Questions, Not Answers

By Nora Gordon

The stimulus package’s financial commitment to K-12 schools creates unprecedented possibilities. Many districts are seizing the moment to create new initiatives or scale expensive but cost-effective options that had seemed doomed to dwell forever in a proof-of-concept purgatory, such as high-dosage tutoring. (I am a consultant to the National Student Support Accelerator, which supports high-dosage tutoring, and I’m all for it.)

As districts ponder where to invest, they should first assess what their schools and students need. That may lead to more mundane—but important—options to strengthen school quality.

For some, this cash infusion will be a good time to adopt a new core curriculum—or provide meaningful implementation support for an existing one. Schools might choose to train staff in positive behavior strategies or to increase counseling staff. Districts could make long-overdue capital investments to improve indoor air quality, directly responding to COVID while also promoting student health and achievement for years to come.

Given the compressed timeline, it is tempting to start with answers from lists of “approved” educational products or evidence clearinghouses, rather than the question of what is needed. But leading with the answers instead of the question can mean the best options never even get considered.

A careful needs assessment could point toward an approach that research has found to be effective, but that doesn’t show up a list of approved products. This is especially true for many educational practices that require funding to staff, but do not involve the purchase of proprietary products or programs.

Luckily, the lists are not the only sources for discussions of research findings on educational practices. The What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guides take a broader view of what “counts” as evidence than other parts of the U.S. Education Department clearinghouse. And COVID has spurred the education research community into high gear when it comes to outreach. Look for short briefs synthesizing what we know from places like the Annenberg Institute’s Ed Research for Recovery, the Evidence Project at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, and FutureEd.

Adopting easy answers may appeal to administrators tasked with the challenge of spending an infusion of new funding. But it’s not the best way to help students. 

Nora Gordon is an economist and an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

Create Education Savings Accounts

By Michael Goldstein

Let’s admit that schools struggle to spend one-time funds effectively. Really, really struggle.

School budgets are mostly people earning salaries: people who need to be found, onboarded, trained, deployed. As a result, when schools receive one-time infusions of funding, they tend to spend it on jobs, short-term jobs often filled though rushed/shoddy search, onboarding, training, and deployment. But even when schools make smart hires, results are often short-lived because the short-term jobs end.

Let’s also acknowledge that even some progressive economists think that the full $1.9 trillion federal stimulus isn’t “fiscally needed” right now. If some of the money is distributed but not spent, that’s okay, from a macro point of view.

So here’s a thought: Let’s take all the unspent Trump and new Biden stimulus and allocate it to poor students, in the form of an Education Savings Account to be spent no sooner than age 25.

Say that works out to $5,000 per student in today’s dollars. If we care about economic justice, there’s just no way a marginal few thousand in one-time K-12 spending (all done as a “Rush Job”) is going to pay off for kids later.

But imagine a 10-year-old today waking up in 15 years to his or her own vocational training account worth, say, $10,000 after their pandemic relief grows in a TIAA or other pension account over that time. That might come in handy to navigate a totally different, robot-dominated workplace, with totally different, AI-dominated workplace training.

I know this idea has no chance of being adopted.

But let’s say we had an economist compare the results of my proposed “vocational training ESA” to what education leaders are going to actually do: waste Covid relief money on unsustainable one-time programs. Just as a thought experiment, if the outcome metric was “Long Term Poverty Reduction For Students,” which approach would you pick to win?

Mike Goldstein is the founder of Match Education in Boston.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.