WASHINGTON — As the pandemic closed schools across the country, the federal government responded with billions of dollars to help districts support distance learning, serve free meals to students, and reopen schools safely.
In 2021, the Biden administration gave districts another $122 billion through its $1.9 trillion stimulus package, an amount that far exceeded previous rounds. Districts were required to spend at least 20% of that money on helping students recover academically, while the rest could be used for general efforts to respond to the pandemic.
But while most schools have since deployed various forms of intervention, and some have spent more on academic recovery than others, there are plenty of signs that the money has not been spent in a way that has substantially helped all of the country’s underprivileged students.
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Recent test scores underline the dizzying effect of the pandemic, which has pushed many of the country’s students into remote learning for extended periods of time. Students in most states and in nearly all demographics experienced major setbacks in math and reading after many schools closed. In 2022, math scores underwent the largest declines ever recorded on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests a broad sample of fourth- and eighth-graders dating back to the early 1990s.
Education researchers and advocates say restoring the effects of distance learning should be a top priority, but it’s unclear how much of the funding is helping students across the country fully catch up.
Plans for the relief funds varied across the country. Some districts have invested more in extending learning time or offering intensive small-group tutoring focused on math or English, which research has shown to be one of the most powerful interventions. Others have spent much of their money on facility upgrades, online tutoring services, general employee bonuses, and other measures that education experts have argued are less effective in helping students catch up.
National data on how money is spent is scarce. The federal government monitors the relief funds, which are sent directly to the states, to a limited extent. Many states, which distribute the money to districts, do not provide detailed breakdowns of expenditure.
Some education experts who have been closely monitoring aid money said federal guidelines should have focused more on addressing learning loss, and were skeptical that many districts’ recovery plans were robust enough. While schools were initially slow to spend the money, they are now on track to run out of money by the September 2024 deadline for budgeting the money.
Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said the impact of the funding was a “bit of a black box” and she expected different recovery rates across the districts. Lake said giving blanket bonuses, completing maintenance projects and plugging gaps in budgets were less effective interventions.
“I think in some counties we’ll see the money well spent,” Lake said. “And in many — perhaps most — it won’t be as well spent as it should have been, in terms of addressing the pressing need right in front of us.”
She pointed to data showing that many students still lack access to the kinds of intensive tutoring programs that have proven effective, with major positive effects on math and reading performance.
A federal survey conducted in December found that most public schools offered some form of tutoring, but only 37% of students provided more intensive “high-dose” tutoring, usually done in smaller groups, lasting at least 30 minutes, and at least three sessions a week. Of all public schools, only 10% of students participated in that type of tutoring.
Initial reports indicate that schools have had difficulty establishing academic recovery programs. A recent paper from Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research found that last year schools struggled to implement recovery programs at the intended scale due to staff shortages and lower student engagement. 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 necessary levels. He expected some gains this year, but said a “significant gap” will remain as not enough schools extended the academic year or placed most students in summer school.
“Each district can describe how they spend the money,” Kane said. “Few, if any, districts have a recovery plan specifically tailored to their students’ losses.”
Education Department officials said they were confident that much of the stimulus money was being 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 bulk of local spending,” Adam Schott, a deputy assistant secretary, said in a statement. .
Sasha Pudelski, a director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said districts prioritized additional learning time. According to AASA data from July, 68% of districts spent some money on extended summer education, 42% added apprenticeship by compensating staff, and 39% provided intensive tutoring.
In Tennessee, 87 counties participate in a program that provides matching scholarships using federal dollars to districts that provide small group tutoring in reading or math.
One of the participating districts, Elizabethton City Schools, hired 14 full-time employees this year to tutor 404 elementary and middle school students in English. The students attended sessions of 45 minutes each twice a week during the school day.
Myra Newman, the deputy director of schools for academics, said the district spent 56% of the $5.6 million in relief funds on academic recovery. The district has already made significant progress with 45.6% of third to eighth graders proficient in English in 2022, up from 33.9% in 2021 and 43% in 2019.
“Most of our money went to students and closing the gap in learning loss,” Newman said.
Other districts have spent more relief funds on facility upgrades. Researchers at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab estimated that a quarter of the latest round of relief funds would be spent on facilities.
The Klamath County School District in Oregon plans to use about 30% of its $16.1 million federal share for academic recovery programs and 70% for facilities projects. Those include buying new turf, replacing HVAC systems, upgrading flooring, renovating bleachers in baseball fields, building a gym, and building a parking lot for an elementary school.
Glen Szymoniak, the district superintendent, said the projects would help improve student safety and well-being. Some bleachers had “nails coming up” and planks that creaked. Without a new artificial pitch, some students would have no place to play during recess and one of the football teams would have to travel half an hour to practice. Officials chose not to spend the money on hiring staff because the money would eventually run out.
“We should fire them in three or four years,” Szymoniak said. “It’s not a way to treat people.”
Instead, officials attracted millions in annual state funding to hire reading specialists, add counselors and expand small-group instruction and projects, which Szymoniak says has already led to improved proficiency in math among elementary school students this year, according to early reviews. Last year, 36% of third graders met state-level expectations for English, up from 42% in 2019.
The Cudahy School District in Wisconsin spends about 80% of its $4.7 million in relief funds on facility upgrades and 20% on academic rehabilitation, including professional development for staff members and the hiring of literacy specialists. Among the district’s third graders, 29.8% were proficient in reading in 2022, up from 23.6% in 2021 and up from 35.9% in 2019.
Tina Owen-Moore, the district superintendent, said officials were concerned about maintaining salaries, so they spent more on upgrading HVAC systems and remodeling classrooms to accommodate social distancing.
“If we just gave high doses while we had those funds there, and once those funds go away, we wouldn’t be able to continue supporting students,” Owen-Moore said.
Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab, said some facility projects, such as new HVAC systems, were reasonable, but others, such as parking lot renovations, wouldn’t do much to help students catch up.
While she said she wanted to see improved academic recovery efforts, she didn’t expect many districts to review their plans. With the funding deadline looming and the steep drop in enrollment expected to hurt some districts’ budgets, she said officials were more focused on preventing school closures and large-scale layoffs.
“They start panicking pretty quickly,” Roza said. “There’s less and less energy to leverage these limited dollars.”
circa 2023 The New York Times Company
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