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10 Ways to Spend Remaining ESSER Dollars to Transform Schooling for Good

School budget season is upon us, and the challenge this year is more complex and consequential than ever before. That's especially true for districts that were hit hardest by the pandemic—those serving mostly students living in poverty. Most high-poverty districts have 15-40% more than usual to spend in the 18 months before the ESSER funding period ends—some have even more.1

Interviews from our national network of district leaders, along with emerging public data on spending, suggests that districts across the country are in very different places with their spending strategies. Some have successfully invested in new initiatives they’ll be integrating into their multiyear plans. Others have spent on efforts that never got off the ground or are just beginning to bear fruit. A few are still recovering from pandemic chaos and have significant money left to spend. All face the challenge of re-engaging students and increasing the rate of learning not just to "catch back up” to pre-pandemic levels, but to address pre-existing disparities in learning and life outcomes.

These disruptive years have led to stress and exhaustion. But they’ve also resulted in rapid innovation, new education models, expanded community and technology partnerships, and fresh ways of organizing time and staff. With these possibilities at hand, now is the moment to move away from treating ESSER as a separate pot of money and, instead, integrate dollars into comprehensive, long-term plans for staffing, scheduling, partnerships, and learning acceleration. 

Here are 10 ways to invest in doable strategies that address urgent needs now and build toward redesigned schooling models that have lasting impact beyond funding deadlines. Click to learn more about each one, and use this as a checklist to evaluate your district’s spending opportunities to build toward a coherent vision and long-term transformation.

Invest in Foundational "Stuff" That Drives Lasting Change

#1 | Coherent, Empowering, Challenging Curricula—and Professional Learning to Support It 

Empowering, challenging curricula and instruction are core to any learning acceleration strategy. They serve as the bedrock upon which other strategies and investments can flourish for long-term transformation. While district leaders across the country are at different stages in creating this foundation, all can find ways to strengthen and spread great instruction, including:

  • Purchasing high-quality curricular materials. 
  • Investing in expert help and professional learning and collaboration time for teacher teams to maximize the impact of great materials. 
  • Investing in formative assessments and supports that align with core instruction and inform instruction adjustment strategies. 
  • Upgrading learning management systems that help teachers, parents, and students track their own progress. 
  • Replenishing classroom and school libraries. 

Get more strategies for investing in curricula and instruction with our
Guide to Using ESSER Funds for Professional Learning and Collaboration for Teachers.



Today’s digital educational resources can effectively supplement core instruction and targeted academic supports. Leaders can lock in equitable access to technology and digital resources by: 

  • Investing in 21st-century learning platforms with digital devices and reliable internet access for all students. 
  • Creating a long-term financial plan for managing and refreshing technology resources over the next five to 10 years. 

Learn how access to digital technologies can impact student success in Delivering on the Promise of Digital Equity.


#3 | Data and Progress Monitoring Systems 

High-performing school systems leverage user-friendly, up-to-date, and reliable data infrastructures to track their leaders’ and educators’ strategy implementation. These systems should inform continuous improvement efforts, track student outcomes, and incentivize more stakeholders to contribute to data collection processes. Consider:

  • Investing in outside expertise to: 
    • Build data systems, processes, and dashboards that give educators and leaders transparency into their progress. 
    • Help educators and leaders focus on powerful metrics; assess the implementation and impact of new approaches; and identify necessary instructional adjustments. 
    • Assist in change management processes for rolling out new systems. 
    • Provide insights about stakeholders’ lived experiences and use paid hours to collaborate with the community on deriving insights from data. 
  • Providing time and support for educators and leaders to leverage upgraded progress monitoring systems. 

Explore how a continuous improvement approach to monitoring progress can impact equity and excellence in our Uncharted Waters report.


Prototype or Expand Methods of Delivering More Personalized Support


Most districts are already working on accelerating learning and making up for pandemic-related learning loss by adjusting core instruction to focus on each student’s needs and adding tutoring programs or expanding summer and after-school programs. But to create holistic, long-term progress, district leaders can also use these initiatives to redesign the student experience by evaluating what’s currently working (and what’s not), building on their successes, and integrating supports into coherent, sustainable schooling models. Investment considerations include: 

  • Providing teachers with time and support to assess student progress, adjust instruction, and determine what additional support students need. 
  • Implementing research-backed tutoring programs by adding more support staff, including part-time aspiring teachers, retired teachers, or outside partners. 
  • Providing opportunities for more small-group instruction by strategically shifting schedules or creating co-teaching models that could include aspiring educators or those working flexible schedules. 
  • Incentivizing great educators to teach during summer, intersession, or after-school hours. 

To learn more, read our strategy guides: 



#5 | Expanded Partner Network 

Many districts are struggling to find enough teachers to provide the academic, social-emotional, and wellness support that students need. Now more than ever, it takes a village. Still, creating partnerships and ensuring that students are getting consistent support requires investment—in partners to scale their services, in people to facilitate partnerships, and in educator time to stay close to student need and target support. We’re seeing districts and schools invest strategically in this area by: 

  • Bringing in local college students, families, retirees, and community partners to deepen and extend their students’ educational experiences. 
  • Creating pathways for these partners to provide effective tutoring, push in for small-group instruction, take on non-instructional duties, and strengthen student-teacher relationships. 
  • Learning from successful community support programs like City Connects, which help ensure students receive crucial services beyond what the school system can provide. 

Discover how three successful districts created strong community partnerships to launch high-dosage tutoring programs. Then, learn how Nashville Public Schools created their Navigator program to help the students in their district who needed it most. 


#6 | Credit Recovery and Acceleration 

With nearly two years of disrupted schooling, many high schoolers find themselves unable to earn enough credits to graduate on time or lacking the preparation they need to complete courses to stay on track. The traditional high school approach to credit recovery—offering online courses unsupported by the teachers students know—is woefully inadequate. Rethinking credit recovery to create other ways for students to demonstrate knowledge outside the school day can help district leaders re-envision the high school experience—in ways reformers have been demanding for years. Moving toward mastery learning by breaking critical courses into component pieces can enable students to pass end-of-course tests more quickly. Districts can build toward this vision by: 

  • Investing in innovative programs for earning credits, such as internships, jobs, sports, and lesson participation. 
  • Modularizing critical stepping-stone courses so that students can focus on regaining missing knowledge and skills rather repeating things they already know.
  • Providing high-quality online course offerings, supported by in-person learning coaches. 
  • Shifting mindsets to create opportunities for “anytime, anywhere” learning, including dual credit opportunities with higher education institutions or other ways for students to demonstrate proficiency. 


Find innovative ways approaches to credit recovery with our guide, Using ESSER Funds for Supportive, Targeted, and Flexible Credit Recovery. Then, listen to the “Recapturing Lost Credits” episode of the Designing Education podcast for more insights. 


#7 | Mentoring and Advisory 

When students struggle with recovering credits, absenteeism, or finding pathways to their next step after graduation, mentoring can make all the difference. But reestablishing connections between students and their educators takes planning and resources. District leaders can invest in these efforts by: 

  • Creating teacher-student mentorship or advisory programs that leverage available curriculum advisory protocols and provide active support and connection. 
  • Utilizing partnerships with community members, organizations, or alumni to provide creative, connective support for students, especially at the high school level. 
  • Assigning district teams or investing in outside help to create new schedules and staffing models that build relationships between teachers and students and provide mentoring as a standard part of the student experience. 
  • Piloting innovative roles, such as Family Support Coordinator, to serve as liaisons for students and their community and provide holistic, whole child support.



Address the Teacher Shortage—While Redesigning the Job

#8 | Expanded, Supported Pathways Into Teaching

Finding ways to get high-potential teachers who reflect their students’ backgrounds is an investment that pays off now and into the future—but only if districts can keep them. Research tells us this kind of retention requires great support from expert teachers with doable roles and daily schedules that allow for learning (also known as the shelter and development method). Leaders can begin this redesign journey by:  

  • Piloting new pathways into teaching with initiatives such as paid residencies, apprenticeships, mentorships, and community partnership programs, while supporting these educators and monitoring their work. 
  • Helping make the teaching job more financially viable by reimbursing student loans or meeting other financial needs, such as housing credits or rent costs, for educators who commit to staying in-district for a minimum number of years. 
  • Paying for high-potential educators to get certified in shortage areas, such as special education or bilingual instruction. 




#9 | Schedules and Team-Based Staffing Models That Enable Personalized Instruction and Leverage Teacher Expertise 

New and experienced teachers alike need energy and time to plan lessons, build relationships with students, and collaborate with other instructors. By redesigning schedules and assembling teams of teachers with defined roles, leaders can ensure educators have time and space to collaborate, assess student need, and provide personalized support to students. Leaders can take doable steps now to build toward this redesign by: 

  • Hiring for non-traditional educator roles—with expert teachers’ support—to meet urgent needs. 
  • Paying leaders or outside experts stipends to support teams that include traditional teachers of record, expert teachers, associate teachers, residents, paraprofessionals, and specialists such as special education and ELL teachers. 
  • Providing extra coverage to give teacher teams significant weekly time for deep, content-focused collaboration and individual time for lesson preparation and student connection. 
  • Organizing educators, outside partners, and technology to take on instructional tasks requiring less expertise and non-instructional duties, freeing up teachers’ time for planning and development. 
  • Investing in internal design teams and or hiring outside support to strategically redesign scheduling and staffing models that are doable now but evolve to dramatically re-envision the teacher work day. 


Explore how district leaders can help make the core teaching job more sustainable and attractive


#10 | Revamped Teacher Compensation and Career Models 

Retaining great teachers means compensating them competitively over a career in ways that match their role, the challenge of their work and their contribution. Large across-the-board pay increases are politically attractive—and critical in states and districts where salaries are unacceptably low. But lessons from other industries suggest that we need to build toward revised compensation models that increase average compensation while differentiating pay based on role and expertise. In many districts, starting salaries are too low, and it takes too long for teachers to earn a competitive salary, forcing early departures. To support a new vision for compensation and career, district leaders and teachers can take doable steps now, including: 

  • Offering teachers one-time stipends for extra work or harder roles aimed at student recovery or sharing expertise, while working toward more competitive and differentiated compensation models. 
  • Paying teachers and teacher leaders for additional collaboration time outside the typical school day. 
  • Investing in design teams, with support from outside experts if needed, to assess current system and design revisions.


Read more about how to revise compensation systems, including short-term strategies and long-term resource shifts. Then, calculate tradeoffs that support better teacher compensation models with our guide, Breaking the Mold Without Breaking the Bank


Short-Term Steps for Long-Term Gain

There’s still time to spend remaining ESSER funds strategically and integrate them with district strategy and spending plans to build toward transformative change. This is especially true for districts in states that enable more flexibility in extending state funding deadlines. States can play a critical role in enabling districts to create strategic spending plans that sustain student supports and new ways of working—especially when federal funds drop off. 

With so many possible ways to spend remaining funds, the most strategic district leaders we work with are investing in a smaller number of integrated, research-backed strategies (what we call "big bets") and planning for evolution and sustainability over time.  

To make it all happen, leaders will need to make strategic choices, carefully consider necessary tradeoffs, and adopt a continuous improvement mindset that enables them to evaluate and adjust implementation as they go. We already know that some district initiatives won’t work in the way leaders hoped. But district leaders can get out ahead of this inevitability and engage their communities in learning from and evolving their work, rather than declaring promising efforts as failures too quickly. Leaders can’t do it all. But by taking data- and research-backed steps now, they can better support teachers and students—and transform their schooling models for good.

1This estimate was calculated by combining ESSER/American Rescue Plan funding data on district operating budgets for districts with more than 75% of students living in poverty and actual spending data from ERS’ national network of districts that serve, on average, 70% or more economically disadvantaged students.

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Visit our ESSER Toolkit


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