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Analysis: 3 ways for schools to make sure they get what they pay for in learning recovery

Amanda Neitzel & Jen Krajewski | January 11, 2023

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A conceptual image that shows dollar signs and a targetAmerican households invest time and money in things they assume are worth it, whether it is because they are believed to improve quality of life or are cost-effective. New parents may be loyal to a particular diaper brand that they believe prevents leaks. Families purchase or prepare school lunches to give their children a balanced diet. But the reality is that they often don’t know whether these investments are having the desired effect. The lunchbox is coming home empty, but did the child eat the carrots and hummus or trade them for Twinkies? If families had the tools and time to evaluate the impact of these investments, they might learn there are smarter ways to spend their money.

America’s schools have a long history of investing in programs and strategies that they assume work, but they don’t really know for sure. Given the magnitude of learning loss and the unprecedented commitment of almost $200 billion of federal relief funds, the stakes now are particularly high. A recent report by AERA estimates the cost of learning recovery as much higher than $200 billion and highlights the lack of data tools to measure how effective these investments will be in mitigating the pandemic’s harmful effects?

The report is unsettling for all stakeholders in the education community because it underscores the reality that when all is said and done, America’s public school system may have spent hundreds of billions of dollars and still have tens of millions of students who never recover their learning. These kids will suffer irrevocable consequences that drastically alter their ability to reach their potential, both in school and in life. Districts and schools can make sure their investments of federal relief dollars are having the intended impact. Here are three steps they can take to adopt, monitor and assess learning recovery efforts:

1. Use programs and strategies that have evidence of effectiveness

Guidance from the Department of Education around the use of relief funds requires the use of evidence-based programs and strategies to address learning loss. Evidence for ESSA and ProvenTutoring are two free resources that provide up-to-date, detailed information on interventions that have been shown in rigorous research to increase student achievement. Using high-quality programs for an entire class, like an early literacy curriculum aligned to the science of reading and proven to help students learn, can reduce the need for additional interventions. For students who need extra small-group and one-to-one support, tutoring is widely considered one of the most effective approaches. But frequency and quality of the sessions determine just how effective. Research-proven tutoring models capable of targeting individual student needs provide a greater promise of impact than build-your-own approaches.

Evidence-based curriculum and instruction also improve the quality of other learning recovery strategies like professional development and expanded learning opportunities. Teacher training, summer school, extended day, or a longer school year will more likely increase achievement if they are grounded in programs and models with a proven track record.

2. Establish a team or point person to monitor the implementation of evidence-based strategies and programs

Schools are dynamic places in which schedule changes, closures, absences, access to resources and limited space can impact the delivery of a high-quality program or strategy. A team or point person is crucial for protecting the time and resources dedicated to learning recovery and making sure that the strategy or program is playing out as intended. If a district has invested in additional teachers for classrooms, for example, the monitoring team should understand if they are actually spending the expected number of minutes in the assigned classes with students.

3. Use available data to evaluate programs and strategies

While high-quality programs offer the promise of impact, the only way to know if they are really working is to test them. Asking simple questions — Are students who are receiving tutoring catching up with peers? How many have reached grade level? — and using available data to answer them can paint a clear picture of whether a program is worth the investment and which students benefit the most from it. Evaluation is especially important when districts devote funding to innovative strategies that hold promise but lack a strong evidence base.

More complex evaluations involving comparison groups are also affordable and possible at the school level and can make valuable contributions to what is known to accelerate student learning. Schools can gain the expertise necessary for these projects through collaboration with local universities or existing school partners like tutoring providers.

Prioritizing the evaluation of high-quality programs and strategies at the local level will be crucial in the coming year as the expenditure of relief funds accelerates and pressure to make meaningful gains in learning grows. Districts can learn from one another about what strategies are working. Evaluation also provides policy and education leaders with evidence for why additional federal dollars are necessary. To adequately address learning loss, schools will likely need way more than the almost $200 billion in federal relief funds that has already been allocated. In fact, estimates included in the AERA report put the cost of recovery between $325 billion and $930 billion.

Regrets over investments of time and money are the most painful when resources are finite and the problem is massive. The potential for missteps with available relief funds is exponential without evaluation. No one wants to look back at this moment with regret over how the nation failed students and squandered resources. It would be a tragedy to attend webinars in 2025 on “lessons learned” and “silver linings” that attempt to put a positive spin on the nation’s collective failure to recover learning when the tools for closing the achievement gap were available.

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