A Once-In-a-Generation Opportunity: What States and School Districts Can Learn from the American Rescue Plan

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We have a once-in-a-generation moment of unprecedented need, support, and opportunity. COVID-19 has disrupted schools across the country, negatively impacting student learning, especially for students of color and students experiencing poverty

Enter American Rescue Plan’s Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, about $200 billion with $22 billion dedicated specifically to address learning loss using “evidence-based interventions” focused on the “disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented student subgroups.”

This historically large investment provides an unprecedented opportunity to learn what kinds of interventions work well for America’s students — but we will squander this opportunity if state officials don’t create the right infrastructure to make sense of what is taking place.

The U.S. has nearly 14,000 school districts making choices around COVID recovery. Districts are likely to try different recovery strategies, but we won’t be able to learn about these approaches without officials collecting the right information, including which students are getting them. 

This requires a degree of collective action currently lacking among states. The window of opportunity is short to get this right. With loose federal requirements, states and districts need to assume the lead role in ensuring ESSER funds change the trajectory of students’ lives. 

Our team recently analyzed state ESSER plans to better understand the level of guidance provided around recovery initiatives (described in more detail in a recent CALDER Opinion Brief). Most state plans call for programs that specifically target students who have been hit hardest by the pandemic. However, they’re often hazy on the specifics of how such targeting will take place.

 The plans tend to include little information on how students will be identified for interventions or how interventions will be matched to specific student learning goals. They are even more vague on data collection, with general language indicating they will collect data required for the ESSER reporting, but only about half the plans explicitly described concrete steps for how they will collect data on the impact of ARP ESSER funded programs.

How can states increase the likelihood that ESSER spending leads to collective learning? At a minimum, states should mandate reporting around three specific questions:

  • What recovery interventions are districts using and what are their key features?
  • Which students are targeted for recovery efforts?
  • Which students are actually participating in and regularly attending recovery initiatives?

More broadly, states hold powerful levers they can use to increase the likelihood that districts will be equipped to support and learn from individualized intervention programs. These include, but are not limited to: 

  • Building Capacity for Local Data Use: Local data is more timely and detailed than state data, yet, many districts struggle with the capacity to analyze and use data resources effectively to target individual students’ needs. States can use their funds to increase districts’ capacity to identify and address students’ individual needs by, for example, creating opportunities for enhancing local data systems, for professional development, or for regional data supports. 
  • Contributing to a Culture of Learning and Continuous Improvement: Ultimately, states and districts have an incredible responsibility to help students recover from the pandemic and achieve their full potential, and should be held accountable for this responsibility. At the same time, it is likely some interventions and other ESSER-funded activities along the way will not work. States can create opportunities that focus on the importance of continuous improvement, while equipping districts to engage in that work too. 
  • Encouraging Student, Family, and Community Engagement: Fundamental to the idea of offering individualized support is student and family engagement, without which districts will have an incomplete picture of the interventions that are needed and will work. At the same time that states encourage evidence-based academic interventions and supports, they should help equip districts to foster authentic engagement opportunities that can help shape the use of ESSER funds. 
  • Peer to Peer Networking and professional development: Because states have cross-district data, they often have greater insight into which districts are struggling with similar challenges. States can use their data to connect similar districts who face similar challenges, creating opportunities for those districts to share knowledge, experiences, and resources.
  • Using Cross-Sector State Level Data: States generally have extensive data resources that they can use to help districts understand where individual students are in their learning and identify students at-risk. States can enhance their reporting tools so that districts have access to actionable information about their students (e.g., Early Warning Systems, individual-level assessment reports tied to state curriculum standards).
  • Grant Opportunities Requiring Individualized Supports: States may use state activity funds to create grant programs that target a high-need area (e.g., chronic absenteeism, math) and require districts to implement and collect data on targeted interventions as part of the grant program. 

That this is an unprecedented amount of federal funding to be spent over just four years cannot be overstated. To consider both the urgent needs of today with what we will need to know in the next three to five years is a balancing act. If we focus only on the immediate needs of the moment, we will miss the opportunity to answer the key questions that could shape the next several decades of education policy. We urge state and district leaders to keep broader learning goals top of mind as they design, implement, and adjust learning acceleration efforts. 

Heather Boughton, Ph.D., is director of research, evaluation & advanced analytics at the Ohio Department of Education. Jessica de Barros is director of policy, practice & outreach for the CALDER Policymakers Council at American Institutes for Research. Dan Goldhaber is vice president and director of research for CALDER for the American Institutes for Research. Sydney Payne is a research assistant for CALDER at the American Institutes for Research. Nate Schwartz is a professor of practice at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

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