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Assessing the Impact of Stimulus Funds on Students’ Learning Recovery in Schools

examines how well the funds provided to schools during the COVID-19 pandemic are helping students recover their learning. It raises concerns about the effective use of the funds and emphasizes the need for better strategies to address the significant learning loss experienced by students nationwide.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the country had to close, and the federal government responded by providing financial aid. The aim was to support remote learning, provide meals, and help schools reopen safely. As part of the $1.9 trillion stimulus package in 2021, districts received an unprecedented $122 billion, with a requirement to use at least 20 percent of the funds for academic recovery efforts. However, there are concerns about whether these funds are being used effectively to address the significant learning loss students have faced nationwide.

Recent test scores show that the pandemic has had a profound impact on students’ academic progress, especially in math and reading. In 2022, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported the largest-ever decline in math scores, highlighting the setbacks for fourth and eighth graders from different demographic groups. Education experts and advocates stress the urgent need to address the consequences of remote learning. However, it remains unclear how much of the allocated funding is truly helping students recover their learning nationwide.

Districts have taken different approaches to using the relief funds. Some districts have focused on extending learning time and implementing small-group tutoring programs for math and English, as research shows these interventions are highly effective. However, other districts have used a significant portion of the funds for facility upgrades, online tutoring services, across-the-board employee bonuses, and measures that experts argue have less impact on student learning recovery.

Unfortunately, there is limited national data on how these funds are being allocated. While the federal government tracks the relief funds given to states, many states do not provide detailed breakdowns of how the funds are spent at the district level.

Education experts who closely follow the relief funds argue that the federal guidelines should have placed more emphasis on addressing learning loss. They are skeptical about the effectiveness of many districts’ recovery plans, despite the slow initial spending of funds. Nonetheless, schools are expected to use the allocated funding by September 2024.

Robin Lake, Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, describes the impact of the funding as unclear. She expects different recovery rates among districts and emphasizes the importance of intensive tutoring programs that have shown significant positive effects on math and reading achievement.

However, a federal survey conducted in December found that only 37 percent of public schools provided students with more intensive tutoring, and only 10 percent of students participated in such programs. Early reports suggest that schools faced challenges in establishing academic recovery programs, including staffing shortages and reduced student engagement.

Thomas Kane, Faculty Director of Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research, acknowledges that implementation has improved but is still insufficient. He expects some progress this year but highlights a significant gap due to the lack of an extended academic year or widespread enrollment in summer school.

Education Department officials express confidence that a significant portion of the stimulus money is being invested in academic recovery. They mention ongoing technical assistance and communication with states, indicating that most of the local spending goes towards academic recovery, staffing, and student mental health.

While some districts prioritize additional learning time, expanded summer learning, compensating staff for extra learning time, and high-intensity tutoring, others allocate more funds to facility upgrades. Researchers estimate that about a quarter of the previous round of relief funds is spent on facilities.

For example, the Klamath County school district in Oregon plans to allocate 30 percent of its $16.1 million federal share to academic recovery programs and 70 percent to facility projects, including infrastructure upgrades and sports facilities. The Cudahy School District in Wisconsin will dedicate 20 percent of its $4.7 million relief funds to academic recovery, with the majority going towards facility upgrades.

Education experts, like Marguerite Roza, Director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, argue that while certain facility projects like HVAC systems are reasonable, others, such as parking lot renovations, do little to support student learning recovery.

Despite the desire to improve academic recovery efforts, it is unlikely that many districts will revise their plans. With limited time until the funding deadline and projected enrollment declines, officials prioritize preventing school closures and widespread layoffs.

Although the utilization of stimulus funds in schools has been a complex process with mixed results, it is crucial to evaluate and optimize the allocation of resources to ensure the best possible support for students learning recovery.

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