Pressure to spend federal funds fast is not what states and districts need right now

Last month, during a congressional hearing on federal COVID-19 education funds, Reps. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) and Bob Good (R- Va.) raised concerns that only a small fraction of relief funds has been spent and that U.S. Department of Education oversight has been minimal. This is just one example of the mounting pressure for states and school districts to spend their federal education resources fast, and to show immediate results.

This is exactly the wrong way for federal policymakers to hold states and districts accountable for spending resources well and improving student outcomes. 

The pandemic’s impact on student learning has been severe and highly uneven. Fortunately, there are unprecedented federal funds to support recovery. Education leaders need to take the time to:

1) Understand the disproportionate needs of students and families

2) Select evidence-based programs and interventions based on those needs

3) Establish data collection and reporting systems that will reveal which strategies are effective in helping students succeed 

Federal policymakers should give them the time, space and support to do just that.

NWEA Research released new data last month that confirms the scale and disproportionate nature of the disruption in student learning. Our team examined MAP Growth data from this fall and compared it with students in the same grade in fall of 2019 (the most recent “normal” year). Students in third through eighth grade started the year between 9 and 11 percentile points behind in math and between 3 and 7 points behind in reading. As our data has illuminated beforeilluminated before, the impact of the pandemic has been much greater on students of color and students attending high-poverty schools. For example, Black third graders started the year 10 percentile points behind Black third graders in 2019 in reading and 14 points behind in math. Students attending high-poverty schools were as many as 16 points behind in math compared to 2019, and 11 points behind in reading. These declines are roughly double what we observe for white students and for students in low-poverty schools.

Our research team also examined student growth trajectories between fall 2019 and fall 2021 to understand how growth across the pandemic span compares to pre-pandemic norms. The analysis shows that student growth over the pandemic span varied depending on where students started out: growth for the lowest-achieving students lagged well behind pre-pandemic growth norms whereas higher-achieving students’ growth was more consistent with pre-pandemic growth trends. That means, in short, that the pandemic continues to widen achievement gaps in significant ways. 

Many expert organizations have issued policy recommendations for how states and districts should consider spending federal funds to help close these gaps, including us. But these are national numbers, and local context is everything. Education leaders should be digging into their own data to understand the varying needs of their students and developing plans to spend their significant federal resources aligned to local needs. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, states and districts should be setting up data collection and reporting processes to understand which interventions are succeeding in improving student outcomes.

Our research team is part of the “Road to Recovery” effort — a collaboration  with CALDER at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University — to help use data to evaluate the efficacy of interventions. The team is working with some committed districts to examine student achievement and learning gains in connection with COVID-19 recovery programs. The goal is to help inform district decision-making as they deploy federal resources, as well as inform longer-term school improvement efforts.

It will take months, not days or weeks, to scale effective strategies. Districts are using this school year to pilot multiple interventions and learn what works so they can implement at scale during next year.  It is a major undertaking to establish the research infrastructure necessary to understand the results of the pilots, which will include examining student achievement and growth in the fall, winter and spring. Education leaders that take the time do this essential work should be rewarded — not hounded for neglecting to spend funds more quickly or to show results before wide-scale implementation has even begun.

We may not see such a significant influx of federal education funding for decades. What we learn about how to help students succeed — particularly students of color, students experiencing poverty, and other young people who were hit the hardest by the pandemic — will need to inspire and inform programs and interventions for a generation.

Federal policymakers should give states and districts the time, support, and political cover necessary to do it right.

Lindsay Dworkin is vice president of policy and advocacy at NWEA, a not-for-profit research and educational services provider serving K-12 students.

Karyn Lewis, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at NWEA.

This piece has been updated.

Tags class COVID-19 Education Glenn Grothman k-12 Karyn Lewis Lindsay Dworkin Pandemic public education student

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