When the pandemic shut down schools across the country, the federal government responded with billions of dollars to help districts support distance learning, serve free meals to students, and safely reopen schools.
In 2021, the Biden administration gave districts an additional $122 billion through its $1.9 trillion stimulus package, an amount it far exceeded previous rounds. The districts were need to spend at least 20 percent of these funds to help students recover academically, while the rest could be used for general efforts to respond to the pandemic.
However, while most schools have since implemented various forms of intervention and some have spent more on tuition than others, there is ample evidence that the money has not been spent in a way that has substantially helped all students of the nation lagging behind.
Recent test scores underscore the staggering effect of the pandemic, which has pushed large numbers of the nation’s students into remote learning for extended periods of time. Students in most states and in nearly every demographic suffered major setbacks in math and reading after many schools closed their doors. In 2022, math scores experienced the largest declines on record in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests a large sample of fourth- and eighth-grade students dating back to the early 1990s.
Researchers and education advocates say recovering from the effects of distance learning should be top priority, but it’s unclear how much of the funding is helping students across the nation fully catch up.
Plans for relief funds have varied across the country. Some districts have invested more extend learning time or offer intensive tutoring in small groups focused on math or English, which research has shown be among the most powerful interventions. Others have used much of their funds for facility upgrades, online tutoring services, transversal bonuses for employees and other measures that education experts have argued are less effective at helping students catch up.
National data on how the money was spent is scarce. The federal government does limited monitoring of the relief funds, which were sent directly to the states. Many states, which distribute money to districts, do not provide detailed expense breakdowns.
Some education experts who have been monitoring relief funds closely said federal guidelines should have been more focused on addressing learning loss and were skeptical that many districts’ recovery plans were robust enough. Although the schools were initially slow to spend the moneyI am now well on its way to running out of funding by the September 2024 deadline for budgeting funds.
Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said the impact of the funding has been « a bit of a black box » and she expected to see different recovery rates across districts. Ms. Lake said give bonuses across the board, complete maintenance projects and plug holes in budgets were less effective interventions.
« In some districts, I think we’ll see that the money has been well spent, » Ms. Lake said. « And many, perhaps most, will not have been as well spent as it should have been, in terms of addressing the urgent need right in front of us. »
He pointed to data showing that many students did not yet have access to the kind of intensive mentoring programs that have been proven effective, with demonstrated great positive effects on achievements in mathematics and reading.
A federal survey conducted in December found that most public schools offered some form of tutoring, but only 37 percent provided students with more intensive « high-dose » tutoring, which is typically done in smaller groups, takes place for at least 30 minutes and includes at least three sessions per week. Of all public schools, only 10% of students participated in that type of tutoring.
Early reports show that schools have had difficulty setting up academic remedial programs. A recent article by Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research found that schools last year he struggled to carry out recovery programs to the extent planned due to staff shortages and lower student involvement. The researchers, who sampled 12 districts, found that some of the estimated effects were positive, but even if the programs were fully established, they still wouldn’t be enough to help all students catch up by 2024.
Thomas Kane, the center’s faculty director and co-author of the papers, said implementation has improved since then, but remains well below needed levels. He expected to see some gains this year, but said a « significant gap » would remain, as not enough schools have extended the academic year or put most students into summer school.
« Each district can describe how it’s spending the money, » Kane said. « But few, if any, districts have a recovery plan specifically sized for their student losses. »
Education Department officials said they were confident that much of the stimulus money was spent on academic recovery.
« The department’s ongoing technical assistance and communications with states indicate that investments in academic recovery, staffing and student mental health make up the majority of local spending, » Adam Schott, deputy assistant professor, said in a statement. secretary.
Sasha Pudelski, director of AASA, the Association of School Superintendents, said districts are prioritizing spending on additional learning time. According to July data of AASA extension68% of districts were spending funds to expand summer learning, 42% were adding learning time by paying staff, and 39% were providing high-intensity mentoring.
In Tennessee, 87 districts participate a program which provides matching grants using federal dollars to districts that offer small-group tutoring in reading or math.
One of the participating districts, Elizabethton City Schools, this year hired 14 full-time staff members to administer English-language arts instruction to 404 elementary and middle school students. Students attended sessions during the school day twice a week for 45 minutes each.
Myra Newman, deputy director of schools for academics, said the district is spending 56 percent of its $5.6 million on academic recovery relief funds. The district has already seen significant improvements: In 2022, 45.6 percent of third through eighth graders were proficient in English, up from 33.9 percent in 2021 and 43 percent in 2019.
« Most of our money has gone to students and has bridged the gap in learning loss, » said Ms Newman.
Other districts have spent more relief funds on facility upgrades. Researchers at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab estimate that a quarter of the latest round of relief funds would be spent on facilities.
Oregon’s Klamath County School District plans to use approximately 30 percent of its federal share of $16.1 million for academic remedial programs and 70 percent for facilities projects. These include purchasing new turf fields, replacing HVAC systems, updating flooring, renovating bleachers at baseball fields, building a gymnasium, and resurfacing an elementary school parking lot.
Glen Szymoniak, district superintendent, said the projects will help improve student safety and well-being. Some bleachers had « studded nails » and planks that broke. Without a new grass field, some students would have nowhere to play during recess, and one of the soccer teams would have to travel half an hour to practice. Officials chose not to spend the funds on staffing because eventually the money would run out.
« We should fire them in three or four years, » Szymoniak said. « That’s no way to treat people. »
Instead, officials have tapped into millions in annual state funding to hire reading specialists, add consultants and expand small-group and project-based instruction, which Szymoniak says has already resulted in improved math skills among students this year. of elementary schools, according to the first evaluations. Last year, 36% of third graders met state-level expectations for English, down from 42% in 2019.
The Cudahy School District of Wisconsin is spending approximately 80 percent of its $4.7 million in relief funds on facility upgrades and 20 percent on academic recovery, which includes professional development for school members. personnel and the recruitment of literacy specialists. Among the district’s third graders, 29.8 percent were proficient in reading in 2022, up from 23.6 percent in 2021 and down from 35.9 percent in 2019.
District superintendent Tina Owen-Moore said officials were concerned about maintaining salaries, so they spent more to upgrade HVAC systems and remodel classrooms to allow for social distancing.
“If we were just doing high-dose tutoring while we had those funds there, well, as soon as those funds are gone, we won’t be able to continue to support students,” Ms. Owen-Moore said.
Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab, said some facility projects like new HVAC systems were reasonable, but others, like parking lot renovations, wouldn’t do much to help students catch up.
While he said he wanted to see improvements in academic recovery efforts, he didn’t expect many districts to revise their plans. With an impending funding deadline and steep enrollment declines expected to hurt some districts’ budgets, he said officials were more focused on preventing school closures and large layoffs.
« Pretty quickly, they’re starting to panic, » Ms. Roza said. « There’s less and less energy on how to leverage these limited dollars. »