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How schools can spend $130 billion responsibly

How schools can spend $130 billion responsibly
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The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan will deliver nearly $130 billion to the nation’s K-12 schools. Along with the $60 billion in emergency school aid provided last year, these funds are intended to help schools safely reopen and America’s kids recover from the academic ravages and dislocations of the pandemic. The challenge for the schools receiving this torrent of funding is to see that it’s spent wisely and well.

Education leaders must resist the temptation to simply do more of what they have always done.

They need to focus relentlessly on determining what instruction, supports, or services students need, and then figuring out how to most effectively deliver them. Otherwise, they risk being hamstrung by the same old operating procedures and contractual arrangements. The challenges created by the pandemic are unique — the response must be, too.

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The first order of business is for schools to reconnect with all of their students and families. Throughout the land, schools simply lost contact with approximately one in five students for at least a significant part of the past school year. Schools need to find out where those children are and must devise a plan for how to re-engage them and their families. This will surely require plenty of time walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors, but so be it.

Schools also need to figure out just how their students have been affected by the pandemic, in terms of academic progress and social and emotional well-being. Educators must gauge where students are at, not primarily for purposes of state data systems or teacher evaluation, but so they can determine what students actually need. The question should not be whether testing is good or bad, but how assessment can help schools and educators instruct and support kids.

Tutoring has a crucial role to play in helping students master academic content they’ve missed or forgotten. It’s a given that millions of students will need support that’s personalized to meet their needs, and that it’s not practical to expect teachers to deliver this on their own. Trained tutors can be a powerful tool here, with research showing that even modestly trained, part-time tutors can have an outsized impact.

School districts also need to support high-quality summer options. It can’t be a question of once-closed schools now compelling kids to sit through tedious weeks of rote remediation in the height of summer. Rather, what’s needed are engaging programs anchored in activities such as chess, robotics, and theater, with a conscious commitment to reinforcing crucial academic skills and social interaction. None of this should be mandatory or necessarily provided by schools themselves. Many communities possess a rich array of summer programs run by private entities and nonprofits — and local schools would be foolish to recreate the wheel if they can tap into these.

There’s a particular need to make schools engaging for all those students who were bored or tuned out even before the pandemic, and who now find little joy in socially distanced classrooms and cafeterias. Part-time instructors to teach the arts, music, electives, vocational classes, and more can be hired (without committing to permanent new staff positions or benefits) to supplement traditional classroom instruction, provide more ways to reengage students, and enliven a sanitized school day. Where such arrangements require waivers, districts should seek them — and unions should grant them.  

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There’s also an opportunity to use the next two years to start rethinking the teaching profession. Schools need to ask how they can most effectively use talented staff, which may mean reallocating responsibilities so that educators can spend more time doing the things that make a bigger difference for kids. Schools should, for instance, use relief funds to turn great reading teachers or counselors into twelve-month employees, so that they — and others with crucial skills — can get paid this summer to help students rather than tend bar or paint houses.

Finally, there’s a crying need for parent-help centers that can provide essential support to parents nervous about sending their kids back to school, confused by online instruction, or struggling with keeping their kids clothed and fed. Such centers, especially if staffed by parent volunteers, could be a cost-effective way to forge partnerships with parents and community.  

Schools have a lot of money to spend. It’s unfortunately the case that education dollars have too often been spent ineffectively, in ways that may be comfortable for adults but that haven’t done much for kids.

We’ve talked a lot in recent years about holding teachers accountable for student success. Well, it’s time for governors and educational leaders to be accountable for ensuring that they’re putting teachers and students in a position to succeed.

NOTE: This post has been updated to correct a typo/error in the opening line, changing "billion" to "trillion" in "The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan."

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Pedro A. Noguera is dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. They are coauthors of the new book, “A Search for Common Ground: Conversations About the Toughest Questions in K-12 Education.”