Over the next two years, school districts across the country will experience the largest single federal investment in K-12 education we have ever seen—nearly 190 billion dollars in total. Through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER), the American Rescue Plan aims to support communities to recover from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nebraska Chief Academic Officer Cory Epler recently asked at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) virtual conference: “How do we leverage one-time resources not to buy one-time things but to really change the system? It’s not just about replacing every HVAC, but how can we also make sure every kid is ready for grade-level instruction so we don’t lose our students with disabilities, English language learners, or students in poverty?”
In other words, how can district leaders not only invest in schools around pandemic recovery, but also invest in solutions that support students both now and in the future? And how can leaders organize, track and intentionally make decisions about these funds in the coming years?
Rather than tackling challenges and answering questions piecemeal, all decisions should instead be connected to your larger vision for student success. First and foremost, any vision has to be focused on the holistic student experience. That means prioritizing social and emotional learning, health and safety, and ensuring preparation for college and careers. These all matter.
From our work, we know a vision is especially powerful if it is also grounded in the instructional core. Studies have illustrated that students learn primarily through their interactions with teachers and content. This means giving teachers access to high-quality materials and professional learning to support them to use existing and new programs. The instructional core is the foundation for ensuring all kids are college and career-ready and have the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in school and beyond.
As educators determine next steps and budget choices, the new funds offer a powerful opportunity to make a long term investment in their students. Consider the following action steps that will pay returns long after this pandemic is over:
1. Invest in quality core curriculum
School systems last spring identified critical gaps in our education system, and access to high-quality, coherent curricula was one of them. Too many teachers were saddled with combing the internet for online resources instead of focusing on the dozens of other priorities to support student well being. Too many families were left wondering whether or not their child would learn what they needed.
Research shows that giving teachers access to standards-aligned, grade-level content not only saves them time but can also act as a foundation to accelerate learning. A recent op-ed about closing the pandemic “achievement gap” suggested “making instruction coherent and consistent across classrooms and grades” as a worthy evidence-based investment.
The new ESSER resources offer an opportunity to think big when it comes to selecting core content. Rather than a piecemeal approach of selecting materials for only a couple of grade bands or subjects, districts might now consider K-12 curriculum and how different content areas can complement each other. Rather than waiting the customary seven to 10 years between adoptions, districts can and should be proactive by selecting outside of the traditional purchasing cycle if current materials don’t meet students' needs.
2. Technology is important, but content should be the priority
We also know that technology capabilities are a growing consideration when it comes to curriculum, especially after schools spent most of last year in some form of remote or hybrid learning. As districts think about their technology needs, it is important to keep in mind that the method of delivery should never overshadow the content itself. Billions of dollars are spent on edtech programs every year with little data around how well they prepare students for college and careers.
Before making new technology purchases, pause. Make sure whatever you’re buying fits the core materials you already have in place or have recently procured. Technology as a way to make your core content more accessible can be a great choice (bearing in mind this will likely mean investing in professional learning for teachers to become well-versed in new tech). But technology capabilities alone can never replace the power of rigorous content, high expectations, and quality materials in the hands of great teachers.
In the same vein, as districts turn to potential intervention programs and high dosage tutoring to accelerate learning this summer and fall, remember: these approaches are most effective when tied directly to the standards and the core content students are experiencing every day. Aligning learning acceleration efforts with the high-quality core curriculum in place allows tutors to reinforce and support teachers’ classroom instruction.
3. Factor in costs for professional learning and development for new programs and materials
Investing in professional learning around new instructional materials is as important as the selection of the quality curriculum itself. Professional learning is critical for making sure that materials are used well in classrooms and can help close the gap between what's selected and what's in use. These kinds of supports are likely a large need for districts, as studies have found that on average, teachers only receive 1–2 days of professional development tailored to specific instructional materials.
Teachers need and deserve this support when new programs are adopted and throughout implementation. Instead of a one-time workshop, think of professional development around curriculum as responsive and ongoing. Teachers are more likely to use new instructional materials, and use them well, if they are provided with relevant, high-quality learning. New instructional materials and professional learning are a package deal. One should never exist without the other.
Seize the Opportunity
As districts begin making big funding decisions, we have the chance to improve systems that the COVID-19 pandemic made clear were not working for all students. We have the chance to rebuild a stronger foundation than we had before, one that ensures every child is able to succeed. Using the wealth of new resources to invest in high-quality materials and supporting teachers to use those materials has the power to transform learning for a generation of students and beyond. Let’s seize the opportunity before it passes us by.
Eric Hirsch is the Executive Director of EdReports
Lauren Weisskirk is the Chief Strategy Officer of EdReports