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An equity-centered approach to investing federal education stimulus dollars

How district leaders can meet urgent student needs and change underlying resource inequities

With three rounds of federal education relief funding well underway, districts across the country are busy planning how to use these funds to support recovery and redesign. Taking an equity-centered approach to investing these ESSER funds in recovery and redesign is critical to address the widening opportunity gaps that students face. For school district leaders, centering equity in their investments will require keeping in mind three core concepts:

1. ASSESS STUDENT NEED: Deeply understand how student need has changed during and as a result of COVID, and use this information to drive ESSER spending decisions. The depth, breadth, and inequity of student need is greater than ever before. Learning acceleration is particularly critical in early elementary grades, where initial data suggests that significant numbers of families did not send their children to Pre-K and Kindergarten (NWEA Research), and at the high school level, where higher than typical numbers of students were chronically absent or were largely disengaged (The 74).  But many of the measurement tools used by schools and districts prior to COVID are too blunt to capture the nuance of need that likely exists right now. It’s important for district leaders to be basing decisions around the use of ESSER funds on a true understanding of student academic and nonacademic needs, one that isn’t based on assumptions around what district leaders think is needed and instead is grounded in data across a broad set of need indicators and in the perspectives of the students and families being served. To learn more about how this, see our recently published Cost of COVID paper. 

2. DO NOW: Target new ESSER funds to schools and students with the greatest needs. School districts should invest more resources to support students who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, including students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, and English learners, as well as students experiencing homelessness, students in foster care, and students engaged in the juvenile justice system. 

3. BUILD TOWARDS: Use ESSER funds to disrupt long-standing resource inequities that existed long before COVID and that will continue to exist long after the ESSER funding runs out. ESSER funding is undoubtedly significant — a recent Chalkbeat analysis shows that the “average school district will take in less than $4,000 per student" and that “high-poverty school districts will typically get several times more than their wealthy counterparts" — but the amount is dwarfed by the ongoing spend in most school districts. We’ve learned from painful experience with ARRA funding and Turnaround SIG funding that adding dollars and programs — no matter how equitably they’re allocated — on top of inequitable systems won’t work.Therefore, districts must also use ESSER funds to dismantle and disrupt the inequitable resource policies, practices, and processes that govern how the underlying district operating funds are being spent. And, they must do so in a financially sustainable way to ensure that any ESSER investments change cost structures long-term to avoid a funding cliff a few years down the line.

This spring, we at ERS identified five “Power Strategies” to accelerate equity-focused recovery and redesign for district leaders to focus their investments and planning on. These five strategies address critical student needs now and lay a sustainable foundation for lasting improvement. Here are a few examples of how an equity-centered approach to investing ESSER funds plays out across the five strategies, with links to real-life examples:

The Teaching Job: Many districts are exploring the possibility of using ESSER funds to hire additional teachers, aides, paraprofessionals, and tutors, to provide targeted intensive tutoring (i.e. high-dosage tutoring) for students who are the furthest behind. However, in most districts, the students who are furthest behind are already being taught in their everyday core classrooms by the least experienced and least effective teachers. Therefore, ESSER funds must also be used to address these underlying inequities, for example by:

  • Creating incentives to pair the district’s most effective teachers with the highest-need students for everyday core instruction. Districts could offer additional pay and relocation bonuses for teachers to move into hard-to-staff schools and assignments | See Dallas ISD’s teacher incentive program here.  

  • Providing significant stipends and release time to teachers who are carefully selected to take on high-impact leadership roles that require greater expertise and skills. This might be a highly experienced teacher supervising the work of newly hired tutoring staff to ensure alignment between everyday core instruction and additional tutoring 

  • Differentiating teachers’ student loads, especially in core subjects, to ensure they are small enough to enable deep engagement with individual students’ work | Explore the Brookside Elementary, Indianapolis example in ERS’s “Power Strategies” here

Relationships & Social-Emotional Supports: Many districts are exploring the possibility of using ESSER funds to invest in additional counselors, social workers, psychologists, and other professionals to meet the increased social-emotional needs of students. However, prior to the pandemic, schools who served more students of color and more students from low-income backgrounds often experienced vacancies and had trouble filling these often hard-to-staff positions. Therefore, allocating more of these resources to our highest need schools might not be a sufficient solution and ESSER funds must also be used to address these underlying inequities, for example by:

  • Differentiating compensation for positions across schools to reflect the additional responsibilities required in many hard-to-staff positions

  • Investing in dedicated hiring support for highest-need schools to ensure they are able to fill the new allocation with high-quality staff 

  • Creating partnerships with existing provider organizations specifically for highest-need schools | See several examples of how districts leveraged community partners in TNTP’s report here

  • Investing in extra time for teachers and other educators to connect with students and families in one-on-one and small group settings |Learn more about Metro Nashville Public Schools’ “Navigator” program in ERS’s “Power Strategies” here

Empowering, Adaptable Instruction/Time & Attention: Many districts are exploring the possibility of using ESSER funds to extend the school day and/or school year to better support the learning needs of the students who are furthest behind. But if the students with the highest needs are more likely to be taught by the least experienced and least effective teachers (as noted above), giving those students more time with the same teachers will not result in the learning acceleration that is needed. And this increased time also won't be helpful without a strong core curriculum that is aligned to rigorous standards and that scaffolds learning over time or the teaching collaboration structures and coaching support to help teachers deliver the curriculum effectively. Therefore, ESSER funds must also be used to address these underlying inequities, for example by:

  • Assessing the quality of their curricula using the Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool (IMET) or other independent evaluation tools, and potentially front-loading the purchase of additional instructional materials

  • Investing in weekly teacher collaboration time, to allow for both content-focused collaboration, led by instructional experts, where teachers prepare and adjust instructional plans to meet the needs of all students, and for student-focused collaboration among all the adults supporting each student academically and social-emotionally | Learn how Lander Elementary in Mayfield Heights, OH made time for half-day Professional Learning Communities in ERS’s “Power Strategies” here

  • Investing in coaches and other instructional experts who push into job-embedded structures for professional learning such as team meetings, and who provide frequent observation and coaching cycles to give teachers ongoing feedback and support that helps them improve their instructional techniques | See how two Denver schools provided distributed instructional leadership in ERS’s “Power Strategies” here

These are just three examples of the many underlying resource inequities that exist in most districts (Learn more about our Resource Equity Diagnostic here). It’s not enough for districts to simply target the additional ESSER funding to our highest-need schools and students; districts must also use the ESSER funds to disrupt the long-standing inequities in how all the district’s resources are being used. Because in a few years, this new ESSER money will be gone, but the underlying inequitable resource allocation and use practices and processes will remain unless we take steps today to change.

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