To date, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act, and most recently the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act have contributed $280 billion to education, with nearly $200 billion of it going directly to states and districts in the Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief (ESSER) fund. Amidst widespread budget shortfalls and compounding concerns over academic achievement and social-emotional wellbeing, this release of federal relief funds is a necessary step in the right direction for our nation’s students.
However, stimulus funding is by nature a one-time event, and districts will be facing the challenges brought on by the pandemic for years to come. While there may be additional relief funding in the future, it’s critical that the money available now is used to set sustainable systems into motion that spur equitable student growth.
So what can district leaders do to help ensure short-term relief funds have a long-term impact? Here are three things to get started.
1. Understand how the funding works and consider its intention.
This may seem obvious, but the legislation is inherently complex. The US Department of Education maintains a site to help unpack the provisions, and this resource directly answers educators’ frequently asked questions.
At the highest level, perhaps the most important thing to understand about ESSER funds as it relates to education is the intention of the relief funding awarded to districts. The laws outline “allowable uses,'' which are, generally speaking, centered around the safe reopening of schools, advancing equity, and accelerating student achievement. And notably, while the CRRSA and ARP Acts included the same allowable uses as the CARES Act, they both also added specific emphasis on assessing and addressing student learning loss. Purchases made by districts with relief funding must align to an acceptable use, and leaders must be prepared to provide justification in reporting to state education agencies.
It’s also critical for district leaders to understand the relatively short periods of availability for the funding. CARES Act funds awarded to districts are available only until September 2022, and CRRSA Act and ARP Act funds must be obligated by September 2023.
2. Focus on building whole child data systems.
Almost a year into what is now commonly referred to as “America’s great remote learning experiment,” the impacts on student engagement, learning, and social-emotional wellness are apparent and concerning. In their recently released report, for example, the Illuminate Education research team confirmed earlier predictions of learning loss. It’s also widely understood that the pandemic has exacerbated inequities among the nations’ most vulnerable populations, and, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control, contributed to rising rates of anxiety and depression among children.
As noted above, the CARES, CRRSA, and ARP Acts emphasize the use of relief funds to combat these inequities and accelerate student achievement. It’s clear, however, that the widening gaps will not be remedied through singular interventions or one-off programs. Instead, student academic and social-emotional growth will require sustained and systemic processes. This includes comprehensive assessment systems and multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) that enable educators to see the whole child and take targeted action. Moreover, it’s clear that high quality assessments and the evidence-based practices that underpin MTSS can help protect against harmful (albeit well-intentioned) applications of data.
District leaders should critically analyze systems to ensure a true balance of assessment types, including academic and social-emotional behavior (SEB) screening and progress monitoring, with standards-based interim assessments and just-in-time formative processes. Establishing a comprehensive assessment system will enable educators to understand students’ strengths and needs at a given point and monitor growth over time. And, leaders must identify systems that empower educators to make meaning of data and collaborate in cohesive workflows. Not only can these systems provide critical efficiency and clarity needed now, they reinforce best practices that will enhance teaching and learning for the long term.
3. Develop deep assessment and data literacy among educators
It’s been long confirmed that of all school-related factors, teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement. It’s also widely understood that teaching is an evolving profession and one that requires ongoing knowledge and skill development. Unfortunately, a poll from the Data Quality Campaign showed that nearly half of teachers surveyed did not receive training on how to assess student learning during school closures, though most felt it would have been beneficial.
Considering the unprecedented challenges that educators have been facing since last spring—and looking ahead to the many unknowns they will surely confront in a return to physical classrooms—district leaders should consider dedicating available relief funding to professional learning. More specifically, leaders should focus on learning experiences that are actionable and aligned to larger, strategic, and sustainable initiatives, like the implementation of MTSS and comprehensive assessment systems, that generate actionable data. To that end, because data are only as good as how they’re used, teachers must develop expertise in reliable data collection and accurate interpretation to drive decisions. Investing in relevant, job-embedded professional learning now can help to develop data and assessment literacy among educators and build a positive school-wide culture of data that long outlasts the funding itself.
Despite the fact that the CARES, CRRSA, and ARP Acts contribute a significant amount of emergency relief funding to schools, the funds aren't unlimited. Even when allocated judiciously, schools may find that their needs exceed their funding allotment—which is why extra care must be taken with spending. District leaders must now focus on how to prioritize the funds they do have and utilize them in a way that has a lasting effect on student success.
Illuminate Education equips educators to take a data-driven approach to serving the whole child. Our solution combines comprehensive assessment, MTSS management and collaboration, and real-time dashboard tools, and puts them in the hands of educators. As a result, educators can monitor learning and growth, identify academic and social-emotional behavioral needs, and align targeted supports in order to accelerate learning for each student.
Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.