Nov 7, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Schools aren’t spending their COVID catch-up funds fast enough

Illustration of a clock with a pencil second hand

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The latest test scores underscore the dire need for academic recovery for students — and schools are racing against the clock to combat the daunting task.

Why it matters: Experts fear that schools are not effectively using the government's COVID-19 funding — some $122 billion — before it runs out.

  • "What school districts are doing now is the equivalent of just shooting bottle rockets at the moon," said Thomas Kane, a Harvard economist who has done extensive research on the pandemic achievement loss.

Driving the news: Test scores released last month, known as the Nation's Report Card, showed the largest math declines on record for fourth- and eighth-graders.

  • No state showed improvements in their math scores and reading scores dropped to 1992 levels, according to the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which releases scores every two years.
  • "The NAEP scores ... really raised that question about whether or not the money is aligned in a way that's going to fix this problem," Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, said.

Zoom out: The Biden administration in March 2021 announced $122 billion in funding from the American Rescue Plan to help reopen schools, support staffing and implement mental health support, among other things.

  • The funds, known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, expire in September 2024.
  • "The time aspect is really important. I mean, there's no doubting that the kids are getting a year older and a year older and a year older," Roza said.

State of play: Some schools are using the funding, including on programs like high-dosage tutoring and extending the school year, but not on the scale needed to match the academic recovery, Kane said.

  • "I'm seeing recovery efforts, I'm just not seeing ambitious recovery efforts that are designed to match the magnitude of the losses," he said.
  • Plus, of the programs that are in place, there aren't widespread metrics to asses the extent to which the efforts are working — and schools aren't quick to switch gears if something isn't working.
  • "The question people should be asking their school districts is: What is your investment to remedy these gaps and do we think it's going to work and what are we seeing so far," Roza said.

Between the lines: Schools are being squeezed on all sides after two years of interrupted learning from COVID. They're facing severe staffing shortages and an increased need for mental health supports among students, among other demands.

  • But every investment — in hiring, boosting salaries or changing curriculums — should be connected in some way to academic recovery, Roza said.
  • "If you're gonna give out a pay raise, tie it somehow to what you're trying to do for the kids," she said.

The bottom line: The next time schools will get as comprehensive a look at their student achievement, and if their efforts have been successful, is in two years.

  • "The next NAEP report that we get will be two years from now ... when all the money will have been spent," Kane said.
  • "We cannot keep counting on additional wake-up calls to get started on this catch-up."

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