About the author: Stanley Litow is Accenture professor of the practice at Duke University and a trustee at the State University of New York. He previously served as president of the IBM Foundation and is the co-author of Breaking Barriers: How P-Tech Schools Create a Pathway From High School to College to Career.
Perhaps no life function was as severely disrupted by Covid as education. Young people around the nation were denied in-person school. That deprivation lasted far too long.
Even though in-person instruction has been restored and federal relief dollars were secured and distributed, the impact on our education system has been devastating. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, just sent home its failing grades. Math scores dropped 5% for fourth graders and an astounding 8% for 8th graders. Reading scores dipped by 3% for both grades. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that low-income students, those of color, and those already experiencing academic difficulty showed the steepest declines.
These developments affect not just our nation’s youth and their families but our collective future. Estimates reveal that the achievement crisis could affect lifetime earnings per student by $43,800 per pupil. Across 50 million U.S. students that could yield a loss of $2 trillion. That number would escalate year by year, depriving us of tax revenue and increasing spending on the social safety net, unless the decline is addressed effectively.
The federal government acted decisively and promptly in response to the pandemic by awarding $122 billion to state and local education agencies under both the American Rescue Plan Act and the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund with $22 billion focused on addressing learning loss. While the allocation of dollars was significant it assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that the effect of the pandemic would be time-limited, so the funds had a clear sunset at the end of 2024. Some states moved quickly to spend the resources. Of the ESSER funds, Iowa is at the high end, having spent 55% of its allocation. North Carolina has spent 44%, Pennsylvania 41%, Illinois 40%, Texas 39%, California 37%, and Connecticut 33% However, some states are at the low end. Vermont has only spent 16% of its funds, and New York is next to last at 19%. A recent report released by Education Trust New York finds that New York had only spent $2 of every $10 available, with 80% of the allocation remaining unspent.
The pandemic crisis meant that actions had to be planned and implemented simultaneously. But there are some notable examples of how states have spent their funding. Schools in San Antonio, Texas, for example, provided 30 added days of optional learning. In Colorado, $9 million was allocated for an innovative mental health initiative. In New Hampshire, funding was allocated to provide summer-camp subsidies to reduce learning loss over the summer. Perhaps one of the most consistent efforts across states has been a focus on tutoring focused particularly on students lagging behind. Among states that targeted expanded tutoring are Colorado, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Tennessee’s effort is particularly worth noting. The newly launched Tennessee Accelerating Literacy and Learning Corps combines federal, state, and local funding to increase the amount of learning supported by tutors throughout the school year, with low student-to-tutor ratios, 30-45 minute structured sessions, both during and after school, two and three times a week, serving 200,000 students. Tutoring sessions are enhanced by access to a technology platform designed to extend use and increase impact. And while virtual tutoring is no substitute for in-person, adding valuable time can enhance the value. Also by offering small-group tutoring sessions during the school day, the program will affect class size, allowing teachers to have closer and more immediate contact with their remaining students.
Before the funds are totally spent—or, worse, left unspent—it’s important to take a breath and figure out what can be done to improve student outcomes, and do so in a focused and equitable fashion. Now is the time to accelerate learning improvement and ensure that dollars are spent effectively, especially in states that have been slow to spend their funds. As Education Trust NY recommends, activities like high-dosage tutoring needs to be implemented, along with a focus on diversity and inclusion, and an expansion of programs that work by targeting funds into expansion of dual-enrollment efforts linking school to college and career like P-Tech. Education Trust also recommends targeting unspent funds on math instruction and professional development designed to build teacher skills. States and districts also need to engage more effectively with high performing not-for-profit organizations and bring them into schools both during and after school using unspent federal funds to provide access to sorely needed mental health and social services, addressing social and emotional learning needs.
And in order to make sure that we understand what works and what doesn’t, portions of federal funding need to be put into longitudinal data systems and research, in particular by partnering with our higher education community. We need to ensure that our states, districts, and schools have the time, support and ability to learn about what works and what doesn’t so they can improve what they do and how they do it. Our schools are not facing a short term crises. We must act now to ensure that the devastation of Covid is effectively addressed and our next generation’s future is protected.
Guest commentaries like this one are written by authors outside the Barron’s and MarketWatch newsroom. They reflect the perspective and opinions of the authors. Submit commentary proposals and other feedback to email@example.com.