Research should guide spending for K-12 COVID relief funds

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented crisis in the nation’s schools. Inconsistent learning environments, inequitable access to resources and other disruptions are affecting students’ academic and emotional wellbeing. 

The American Rescue Plan included $122.8 billion for state-level K-12 aid through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, providing a rare opportunity to combat the myriad challenges at hand. States plan to utilize these funds to address the ballooning academic and emotional needs of students. Just last month, the U.S. Department of Education also launched a new multistate community of practice to explore evidence-based strategies to accelerate learning and build organizational capacity to implement these practices with fidelity. 

In this time of crisis, leaders are coalescing around research and evidence-based policy as tools to help millions of students recover and thrive.

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The pandemic has caused massive disruptions in learning, exacerbated absenteeism and taken a particularly harmful toll on students’ mental health. Analysis from McKinsey demonstrated that the impact of remote learning left students an average of five months behind on math and four months behind on reading by the end of the last school year. Chronic absenteeism rates have dramatically increased in schools across the country, with the highest increases among English learners, economically disadvantaged students, students experiencing homelessness and students with disabilities. The proportion of mental health-related emergency department visits for children aged 12-17 throughout the country increased by nearly one-third, with 70 percent reporting an increase in negative feelings. A review of state ESSER plans revealed that these three areas are priorities to be addressed.

Evidence can provide insights into which initiatives are most successful in alleviating these problems. For example, tutoring, an evidence-based approach to accelerate learning, can be instrumental in combating learning loss if implemented with fidelity to the research. Analysis from J-PAL North America, my research center based at MIT, found that tutoring programs consistently led to large improvements in learning for students and highlighted key components of impactful programs. To date, 33 states are pursuing some form of tutoring to address learning losses. Tennessee’s ALL Corps is a massive investment in tutoring, aiming to bring high-dosage, small-group instruction to 240,000 students and provide 300-500 additional hours of targeted support. The evidence surrounding tutoring is strong, and Tennessee’s approach provides a model for other states as they work to improve learning outcomes. 

There is also a growing body of evidence on family engagement as a means of countering chronic absenteeism. Engaging parents in their children’s education through text messages is an evidence-based, low-cost and effective approach to improve attendance. While most states are pursuing initiatives to reengage students, they have not utilized the evidence on text messaging programs. For example, Ohio aims to decrease chronic absenteeism in the state by half over the next 10 years through connecting families, schools and communities to support resources. Ohio’s program — as well as other similar proposals — could be further strengthened by utilizing text messaging to engage students and families.

While many states are taking advantage of existing evidence, other promising programs could be strengthened by generating new research. Although many states have identified the mental health crisis as a top priority, there is limited evidence on effective interventions to address it. Mississippi plans to leverage social-emotional learning by providing a framework for teachers to support student wellbeing and piloting a telehealth project focusing on mental health concerns. Oklahoma is introducing a School Counselor Corps, which funds the hiring of new school counselors and other licensed mental health professionals at the local level to support students’ mental health. 

Rigorously evaluating programs such as those proposed by Mississippi and Oklahoma is imperative for building the body of evidence on effective school-based mental health interventions. Generating evidence in this field will not only determine the efficacy of programs in question but will inform the adaptation and expansion of interventions across the nation.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has created new and exacerbated existing educational challenges across the United States. At the same time, the federal response to the crisis has opened new windows of opportunity to implement innovative solutions. To bolster the effectiveness of these solutions, it is essential that evidence-based programs are implemented with alignment to existing research and that new programs are rigorously evaluated. Building and utilizing evidence can complement the incredible work states are doing to put ESSER funds where they are needed most. 

The ESSER Fund has provided states with the opportunity to improve the lives of students — using evidence will maximize its impact.

Kim Dadisman is a senior policy and research manager at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at MIT, with over 20 years of experience conducting education policy research. She is a former elementary school teacher and earned her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.