Schools Reopen with Federal Dollars

Remedy for "Unfinished Learning" Remains Uncertain

As schools open their doors this fall, the last 18 months of virtual education and a large population of unvaccinated students leave educators, parents and students grappling with how the upcoming school year might unfold.

A third-quarter 2021 analysis from McKinsey showed that the pandemic made a forceful impact on K-12 student learning, with students on average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading education at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Historically disadvantaged and low-income students face even greater consequences on average, with estimated impact of six to seven months of unfinished learning. Students tested generally in the spring of 2021 were also approximately ten points behind in math and nine points behind in reading when compared with similar cohorts from 2017, 2018 and 2019. McKinsey further estimates that unless unfinished learning is formally addressed at state and district levels, today’s students could earn $49,000 to $61,000 less over their lifetimes, amounting to a $128-billion to $188-billion impact on the U.S. economy every year as the “pandemic cohort” joins the workforce.

Unprecedented federal funding is available to address critical issues of unfinished learning and associated inequities, although beyond earmarking funds, Congress has left specific actions up to district- and state-level policymakers. The American Rescue Plan (ARP); Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES); and Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA) have cumulatively committed $200 billion to K-12 education in the United States. About $122 billion of that total was earmarked by the ARP and must be obligated by Sept. 30, 2023. This leaves districts with little time to choose which programs to create or personnel to hire, and it saddles them with concerns about the financial sustainability of such programs once the 2023 deadline passes. Despite these challenges, the funding provides an opportunity not only to tackle challenges of unfinished learning, but also to take on achievement gaps between students of different racial demographics and income levels.

Given that schools across the country are faced with the daunting question of how this money should be spent, who decides where those dollars should go? School funding through ARP has been earmarked through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), and Congress has stipulated that the money is intended to “prevent, prepare for and respond to impacts of COVID-19.” Potential solutions for this blanket statement might include intensive tutoring, teacher professional development, increased learning time and new programs, targeted assessments, learning interventions and community partnerships, but these uses of funds serve as little more than blueprints when considering real-world solution wrangling.

ESSER stipulates that educators directly impacted by the pandemic—such as teachers, parents, school administrators and student health providers—must be included in the decision-making process when deciding where these funds should go. Schools are using the funds for everything from renovated HVAC systems, to “high dosage/low ratio” tutoring programs, to purchasing laptops for students to better prepare for a quick shift to remote learning. However, it remains an unanswered question of how we can improve the education system for all students through improved pedagogy, updated curricula, and reimagined classroom experiences that cannot simply be purchased, but rather that require institutions to envision and embrace organizational change.

This very challenge brings to light that although ESSER funding is federal in nature, the decentralized nature of the U.S. public school system makes it difficult to implement consistent programming across states or even districts. In terms of how ESSER funds might be dispersed in an age of increasingly personalized education, we will likely see an increased focus on individual student supports that go beyond traditional classroom interactions. Differentiated assessments, made easier by tools such as Google’s Education Suite, enable teachers and tutors to assign unique content to different students in the class, allowing educators to more precisely tailor assessments to specific students’ needs – and measure their results. Teachers have harnessed the power of video to shift some class time from traditional lecture to more student-centric and feedback-based learning experience design. High-dosage tutoring—or consistent in-person instruction—is another in-school support that has received attention as an effective method of personalizing instruction for students during the height of the pandemic. While each of these relatively newer approaches has merit, they do not offer an all-encompassing solution for an education system of many parts.

Schools also have the opportunity to make badly needed infrastructure improvements. While digital transformation has arguably led to a more personalized approach to education, physical learning spaces in schools have been painfully slow to update facilities to support individual student success. Infrastructure projects might include basic improvements to ventilation and construction, but also more sophisticated technological improvements such as broadband remediation, collaborative learning furniture and a bolstered digital technology arsenal for students to use in schools and at home.

With newfound funding at our fingertips, we must start by putting students first.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Spaces4Learning.