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Investing Federal ESSER Funds in Recovery and Redesign

7 crucial principles for investing ESSER funds for sustainable impact

As districts continue to serve students for the remainder of this school year, planning for 2021-2022 is well under way. In Six Adaptations to Budget Planning for 2021-22, we described how budget planning for next year should evolve given dramatically increased student need and uncertainty around revenue projections and enrollment estimates. Now, districts are receiving their second round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding and district leaders are faced with key decisions about how to integrate these funds into their existing budget development process. 

Below, we detail seven crucial principles for investing ESSER funds for sustainable impact and highlight key considerations for each.

1. Understand and quantify students’ recovery needs, with an equity lens. 

The pandemic has created challenges for every child and, at the same time, has exacerbated existing inequalities for both students and staff. (1) For example, researchers estimate that by the beginning of next school year, learning loss in math may total seven to eight months for white students and up to 11-12 months for students of color. (2) And the National Association of School Psychologists anticipates that the percentage of children exhibiting social-emotional or behavioral concerns could double or triple as a result of COVID-19. (3) 

Now more than ever, equity considerations should be at the forefront of a district’s decision-making process.  Without comprehensive state assessment and benchmark data, fully quantifying the depth and breadth of student need is challenging. But quantifying need across the district by student type and by school helps build the case for urgent action and guide the allocation of resources. 

To read more about increased student need estimates and the overall financial impact of COVID, see our recently published Cost of COVID paper.      

Key Considerations:
  • Consider a broad set of need indicators. Include data on attendance, engagement, learning, and well-being that may help inform your strategy and target resource allocations. Disaggregate data by student group, grade, and school to begin to understand how resources may need to be targeted.
  • Understand root causes. Directly engage educators, students, and families to better understand the root causes behind specific needs. 
  • Plan for uncertainty. In most places, the data we have now on student need is incomplete, so expect your knowledge to evolve over time. This may mean holding back some dollars for later adjustments if unforeseen needs arise.

2. Invest in proven high-impact strategies. 

Although this moment presents unique new challenges, it is also an opportunity to check that your investments are backed by research. We have identified five research-based “power strategies” for using resources that address critical student needs now, while also laying the foundation for continued systemic change

  1. Empowering Instruction: Ensure teaching teams have high-quality curriculum and the time and support they need to provide differentiated, empowering instruction.

  2. Time & Attention: Expand and target individual attention and learning time inside and outside of traditional school hours, especially for students with the greatest needs.

  3. The Teaching Job: Restructure teaching jobs and roles to be more rewarding, collaborative, and sustainable. 

  4. Relationships & Social-Emotional Support: Organize school structures that cultivate positive student-adult relationships and streamline support for students’ social-emotional needs.

  5. Family & Community Partnerships: Engage families, community partners, and other out-of-school resources to increase academic, health, social, and emotional support for students.

See real-life examples and information about how to use these five research-backed strategies as stepping stones for better, more sustainable post-COVID schools!

Key Considerations:
  • Prioritize investments toward “power strategies.” Use the five power strategies listed above as a framework to check if there are key areas of investment that you haven’t yet included in your plans. 
  • Zoom in on curriculum. The Center for American Progress found that the average cost-effectiveness ratio of switching to a high-quality curriculum was almost 40 times that of class-size reduction. (4)  Does your district have a high-quality curriculum in all subjects and grade levels? (See CURATE and EdReports for quality reviews of common curricula.) Are there ways your district can deepen existing investments in a high-quality curriculum through job-embedded professional learning and support for teachers?
  • Explore further research related to your district’s specific challenges.Annenberg and Rennie Center have compiled comprehensive summaries of recent research relevant to current challenges faced by schools and districts. 

3. Center spending on strategies that specifically target recovery.

COVID has intensified students’ academic and social-emotional needs and widened opportunity gaps. It has also surfaced other urgent priorities that require significant resources, such as PPE and other safety needs and the increased costs associated with maintaining both in-person and remote learning options. Although the variety of areas needing investment right now leaves districts faced with complex decisions, ESSER funds should be invested specifically toward strategies that directly address learning recovery and social-emotional support. Further, it’s critical to remember that your district likely already had strategies in place to address newly intensified needs. Aligning new investments with already existing strategies and spending will be critical.

Key Considerations:
  • Estimate placeholder investments needed to address academics and wellness recovery strategy. In most cases, recovery strategies won’t be fully worked out when ESSER plans and district budgets are due. Make room for uncertainty by estimating placeholder amounts for high level categories of your strategy. 
  • Plan for the full cost. Remember to consider ALL of the cost components of implementing a strategy well. Estimates should include amounts for each main component (for example, tutoring includes tutor pay, training, and instructional materials), as well as assumptions about the number of students the strategy will serve.
  • Build coherence between new investments and existing structures. Resist using new funds to simply layer on new initiatives — instead, look for connections between new investments and existing strategies and structures. If you’re adding new professional learning, ask how it can be amplified by existing investments in school-based collaboration time and expert support? And, seek opportunities to accelerate or deepen existing investments that are most aligned with your district’s recovery needs (e.g. multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), culturally responsive curriculum, supports for English language learners). 
  • Reflect your key priorities. Track and compare the cost of your planned investments. Do relative spending amounts reflect your district’s most important priorities?

4. Invest deliberately in equity. 

COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted students from low-income backgrounds, Black and Latino students, English language learners, and students with disabilities, and compounded many of the educational inequities they already experienced. ESSER presents a critical opportunity to disrupt these longstanding inequities and address emerging needs by directing resources to the students who need them most.

Key Considerations:
  • Target resources thoughtfully. Carefully consider which investments should be applied across all students or schools in the same way, and which should be targeted or differentiated based on your analysis of how student needs vary across student groups and schools. Remember that allocating dollars on a straight per pupil basis in districts where the needs vary across schools means that some schools will have much less to meet the more intensive needs of their students.  
  • Invest to disrupt patterns of inequity. Consider some of the big patterns of inequity that currently exist in students’ experiences. How will your new investments work to correct these? For example, if students with the greatest learning needs are also the  least likely to have access to strong teaching, how can you leverage your ESSER investment to better support rookie teachers or change teacher incentives by better recognizing more challenging assignments? 
  • Elevate underrepresented voices from people who know  student needs best. As you develop plans to gather information, insights, perspectives, and preferences from families, teachers, and students as part of  your decision-making process, continually reflect on who is missing or underrepresented at the table and how to elevate their voices once they’re there.    
  • Take the next steps to sustain equitable access to digital learning. The dramatic expansion of digital access and the use of technology to support the instruction makes possible a host of options that seemed out of reach just a year ago. Effective recovery and redesign relies heavily on this improved infrastructure.  But, the expansion has still not reached every child and it will require ongoing investment to maintain and improve.  Eventually, these investments will enable shifting of resources and higher productivity, but in the short term there will be new costs which is the perfect use of ESSER dollars. 

5. Plan spending with an eye toward the future.

The Great Recession in 2008 showed how important it is to avoid adding unsustainable costs when using stimulus dollars. The challenges that COVID has created and compounded are long-term. While ESSER dollars will go away and state revenue will likely decline, many of the supports that districts choose to invest in must be carefully planned to sustain. 

Key Considerations: 
  • Distinguish between short-term and long-term needs. Be deliberate about identifying now which new investments may need to continue in perpetuity and which address more short-term needs, either for capacity-building or to address intensified student needs that you expect to be fully recovered within the grant period. 
  • Invest in new ways of work that change cost structures long-term. For example: deepening investments in relationships and social-emotional learning to free up spending from punitive discipline; investing in high-quality virtual learning options in high school that free up spending from small, specialized upper-grades courses; or investing in targeted small group sizes in ways that enable slightly larger overall class sizes.
  • Develop multi-year strategies that evolve short-term approaches to build toward more sustainable long-term cost structures. For example, evolve short-term approaches to tutoring into a new and broader vision for differentiated teacher roles or community and school partnerships.

6. Clarify decision-making roles and support flexibility.

Enabling school leaders to organize and adjust how they deploy talent, time, technology and treasure is a critical part of effective resource use.  This is especially true now, as COVID impacts communities differently and many schools have deepened their connections with families. Yet, COVID-response has made the already large job of school leaders even larger. And there are some strategies that are best pursued at the central level to capture economies of scale, leverage community resources, ensure equitable student experiences across schools and pilot innovation. This requires a deliberate approach to defining which decisions and spending will be decided at the central level and then providing school leaders support around the spending and organizational decisions they have responsibility for.  

Key Considerations:

  • Be deliberate about naming which decisions related to your investment strategy will be made by schools vs. central office. For example, with respect to extending learning time, who should decide which type of staff cover extended time? When it happens? What it is used for? Consider factors like who has the information needed to make the best decisions, where central decision-making might be required for effective scale and coordination, and how the increased variability that comes with school-level flexibility might impact equity.
  • Provide decision support to school leaders. Once you know which decisions will be made at the school level, organize the information and support school leaders and their teams need to make those decisions well. Consider providing specific types of data that should inform decision-making, examples of ways to organize time and staffing resources, and suggested continuous improvement metrics and routines.

7. Continually adapt based on your context and what works. 

Regardless of the strategies we invest in, a wealth of data suggests that we are unlikely to find any “silver bullet” solutions guaranteed to work immediately in standardized ways or at scale. Rather, strategies must be adjusted for specific local contexts and adapted over time, based on effectiveness data and community input. 

Key Considerations:
  • Define success. Identify the metrics you will track over time to make sure the strategies you are investing in are playing out in ways that address targeted student needs and improve equity in your district.
  • Engage your community. Perspectives, insights, and ideas from those closest to the impact of decisions — including principals, teachers, students, and families — can help district teams fully understand which needs must be addressed and proactively identify possible limitations or barriers to effectively implementing particular strategies. Further partnership can provide an ongoing gauge of effectiveness and inform new directions and adjustments. 
  • Organize to adapt and improve. By engaging in rapid cycles of inquiry, schools can quickly learn, adjust, and iterate on new models for instruction and student support, leading to better  results. ERS’ Uncharted Waters helps districts plan a whole-system approach to continuous improvement. 

  • Sources

Alliance for Resource Equity. Education Resource Equity in 2020-2021. 2020. https://www.educationresourceequity.org/2020-21-school-year

2 Emma Dorn, Bryan Hancock, Jimmy Sarakatsannis, and Ellen Viruleg. COVID-19 and learning loss — disparities grow and students need help. McKinsey & Company, 2020. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-learning-lossdisparities-grow-and-students-need-help#

3 National Association of School Psychologists. Providing Effective Social-Emotional and Behavioral Supports After COVID-19 Closures: Universal Screening and Tier 1 Interventions. 2020. https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/covid-19-resourcecenter/crisis-and-mental-health-resources/providing-effective-social%E2%80%93emotional-and-behavioralsupports-after-covid-19-closures-universal-screening-and-tier-1-interventions

4 Boser, Ulrich. (2015). The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/reports/2015/10/14/122810/the-hidden-value-of-curriculum-reform/

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