Federal aid must go to proven education strategies

Accelerating learning is vital as we recover from pandemic losses

AS THE COUNTRY looks forward to recovery from the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government has recognized and responded to the enormous impact on students who have suffered through school closures with still unknown consequences.

Massachusetts schools received nearly $400 million in federal education relief after the outbreak of the pandemic. State officials recently released a second round of $800 million in federal funding to reopen schools and address learning loss resulting from pandemic closures. And, the latest federal COVID relief bill will bring an additional estimated $1.8 billion to our state’s school districts. The Boston Public Schools alone has access to approximately $461 million of these combined federal funding pools.

To put it all in context, the more than $3 billion in federal funds immediately available to Massachusetts schools represents nearly five years worth of accumulated funding increases from the substantial new state dollars for education that the governor and Legislature committed to in the historic Student Opportunity Act passed just prior to the pandemic.

Ninety percent of the federal relief funding for education in Massachusetts will go directly to districts based on their Title I allocation, with 10 percent going to the state. That puts considerable opportunity in the hands of school district leaders and school boards across the state. Yet, plans for how best to use the money to accelerate student learning remain unclear. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that funding is fully leveraged to address student need. Districts across the state need to act quickly to determine where students are in their learning and, based on that data, implement recovery strategies. The state can play an important role identifying proven practices and incentivizing their deployment.

Now is not the time to rely on shopworn ideas that have consistently failed to close racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps that have very likely been made worse by school closures. The pandemic should serve as a call to action for innovation in education and scaling up of best practices that evidence shows work.

The student need requires and the federal funding allows the use of proven strategies such as acceleration academies, two weeks of programming for students that can lead to six months of recovered reading skills, and high-dosage tutoring, 50 minutes a day for one year that can help students recover 1-2 years of math skills. If we provided 50 percent of the state’s students with those two interventions the cost would be under $2 billion, leaving significant resources for a safe return to schools, additional student supports and success strategies, and innovative approaches to reshaping our schools to meet future needs.

Many of our districts are much better equipped now with technology that can serve as a bulwark against further disruptions while at the same time helping close homework and opportunity gaps for all students, regardless of their circumstances or location. Those districts that still have technology needs can use federal funding to close the digital equity gap. Technology allows for the continued use of effective online platforms that were deployed during the pandemic and that personalize learning for each student.

Learning pods should be retained as an embedded feature during the school day, after school and on weekends. Intensive tutoring, small group instruction, and continuous use of assessment and data to inform personalized instruction are among the ideas deserving consideration going forward.

This also should be the year we break the cycle of ten-week summer shutdowns that annually contribute to learning loss. Summer programs, extended learning time, and acceleration academies can all help ensure students are fully prepared for grade promotion and future success.

There are reasonable points of contrast in any proposed change, but we cannot allow progress to be impeded by bureaucratic inertia, collective bargaining agreements, and overly cautious politics.

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Local school committees must require that their school district create a specific and detailed plan for the use of the funds, with public hearings and a school committee vote to approve. Currently, the rules allow for complete discretion by superintendents, without the requirement to report on funding use. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education must also assist in the procurement of services at scale so that multiple districts have the ability to quickly and seamlessly apply them on behalf of students.

Enough time has already been lost to the pandemic. School districts must move with urgency to grasp the lifeline thrown by the federal government to bring classrooms back to life, restoring students to the learning levels at which they should be already while using the invigorated resources to help them reach new levels of achievement. Failure to do so would have lasting consequences on our state’s quality of life and economy, while squandering a tremendous chance to bounce back from one of our darkest chapters.

Ed Lambert is executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. Eileen Rudden is co-founder of LearnLaunch.