Rennie Testifies on Beacon Hill about the Impact of COVID on Education
On November 22, members of our team testified to the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on Education during an informational hearing on the impact of the pandemic on education. Below are remarks from Rennie Center Executive Director Chad d'Entremont and Director of Policy Alexis Lian.
Good afternoon, Chair Lewis and Chair Peisch, members of the Joint Committee on Education, and other esteemed education leaders. Thank you for the opportunity to testify at today’s informational hearing on the Impact of the COVID pandemic on Education. It is a privilege to be here.
I am Dr. Chad d’Entremont, Executive Director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy. The Rennie Center’s mission is to ensure education decision-making is based on deep knowledge and evidence of effective policymaking and practice. I am joined today by the Rennie Center’s Director of Policy Alexis Lian. Alexis has played a lead role in the work of the EdImpact Research Consortium, a partnership of the Rennie Center, Education Resource Strategies, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, and the CERES Institute at Wheelock College, Boston University.
As you well know, Massachusetts received roughly $2.9 billion dollars in federal funding through the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER, to assist students and schools in recovering from the effects of the COVID pandemic. Ninety percent of these funds will be provided directly to districts to determine how they are spent before September 30, 2024. Launched in Fall 2021, the aim of the EdImpact Research Consortium is to work with state and local leaders to ensure spending decisions are aligned with effective and equitable practices that will lead to long-term sustainable improvements in student learning and well-being. For more than a year, we have worked closely with districts to inform and analyze their spending decisions, assess their alignment with key evidence-based practices that are likely to produce learning gains, and better understand how districts and schools are navigating current challenges, while planning for the future.
For the next few minutes, Alexis and I hope to share with you our learnings and offer some thoughts on actions the state might take in response. I’ll now turn it over to Alexis to discuss current patterns in national, state, and local spending of ESSER dollars.
National Spending Trends
Thank you, Chad. Good afternoon, Chair Lewis, Chair Peisch, and members of the Joint Committee on Education. I appreciate the opportunity to testify today. I’ll take a moment to discuss a few national ESSER trends, and how they align with those we found here in Massachusetts.
First looking nationally, ESSER funds constitute the largest single federal investment ever in K-12 education - at $190 billion dollars - and provide approximately double what schools received under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009. District, school, and classroom leaders across the country are being expected to balance the urgent, day-to-day student needs within school buildings each day – as they are doing right now as we testify – while, simultaneously, managing long-term, strategic investment decisions that require significant time and attention.
In a national study recently released by McKinsey of more than 260 districts, 90% of district decision-makers cited challenges deploying stimulus funding including administrative hurdles (such as navigating ESSER compliance and finalizing procurement), limited internal planning capacity, and talent and vendor shortages. The study demonstrates that national spending trends are shifting over the course of ESSER I, II, and III. Not surprisingly, in the first 3 years of the pandemic, district leaders prioritized pandemic-related safety concerns and support for vulnerable students (e.g., HVAC systems, remote learning and technology costs, and increased compensation for substitute teachers). Looking ahead to the next three school years, districts are expected to shift ESSER funds toward addressing unfinished learning and persistent staffing challenges. Top projected spending categories include substitute-teacher compensation, tutoring programs, teacher training and professional development, compensation for special-education teachers, and credit recovery.
Massachusetts Spending Trends
Now turning toward Massachusetts, while we have our own set of unique circumstances across the Commonwealth, the challenges and spending trends that we’ve seen through our work in EdImpact align very closely to these national trends. In Massachusetts, EdImpact has reviewed 24 district spending plans including the 12 largest districts across the state. We’ve also done a deep dive into 6 districts as we’ve helped collaborate on strategic decisions the districts are making with their ESSER funds. While we need to continue to do additional research, it has provided a strong foundation of data to build on.
As of October 2022, 99% of ESSER I dollars have been claimed (due this past September), 59% of ESSER II (due September 2023), and 17% of ESSER III (due September 2024). While there is still an enormous amount of money left to allocate, districts are working incredibly hard to make strategic financial decisions as wisely, efficiently, and urgently as possible.
EdImpact has analyzed submitted spending plans for districts receiving the highest allocations of federal funds and we provide data dashboards of 24 districts across the state describing how districts plan to use their funds to address students' needs and drive long-term school improvement. In our work analyzing and working with districts across the Commonwealth at both the aggregate and district-level, we’ve seen investments mainly targeted toward academic recovery (e.g. high-dosage tutoring, acceleration academies, or high-quality curricular materials) and social emotional and mental health needs (e.g. implementing Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), focusing on Tier 1 interventions such as universal screening, SEL curriculum, and mental health literacy for students and staff). Followed then by investments in family & community partnerships, staff supports, facilities, technology, health & safety, benefits, and other (admin, indirect, etc.).
For more local context, for example, Salem, as one of the collaborating districts in our EdImpact work, has focused on accelerating academic learning through high-dosage tutoring. The district has also focused on advancing social emotional learning and aligning SEL work to the district's antiracism priorities. In New Bedford, as shown in their district spending plan, the bulk of funding (51%) has been allocated to facilities and is aimed at strategic initiatives like supporting new practices through construction of a school-based health center for students partnering with the Greater New Bedford Health Center. In Methuen, also demonstrated through their district spending plan, the district is allocating significant funds to accelerating instruction (particularly in core literacy instruction), school-based mental health services, and investing in new facilities (11.5 million to purchase a new building)
I’ll turn it over to Chad for a discussion on recommendations.
Thank you, Alexis. Our analysis of district investments of ESSER funds makes clear that educators are working hard as first responders, aiding students and families in navigating daily crises, while simultaneously mapping out a path to recovery. They are also overwhelmed. While schools have reopened, the trauma of the last few years is ever-present in classrooms and communities. School leaders and staff continue to face daily crises, a result of staffing shortages, lost learning time, and growing mental health needs. Many potential solutions require hiring new staff and, like in many industries right now, there just aren’t enough people to hire.
A more coordinated and comprehensive response to COVID recovery is needed. It is here that the state has a powerful role to play. I would respectfully offer three recommendations.
First, districts need more time. The pandemic has lasted years and even the most straightforward solutions are difficult to pursue right away. For example, one effective action districts can take with both near- and long-term benefits is to purchase and implement high-quality curriculum. Research has shown that high-quality curriculum has a bigger impact on student achievement than the difference between a first-year teacher and a veteran educator. While a 2017 study by RAND found that only 20% of teacher curated assignments are on grade-level with 96% of teachers using Google to find lessons and materials.
But, supporting staff in properly implementing a new curriculum can take a year of planning and preparation.
To give districts the time they need, the federal government should extend the current deadline for spending ESSER funds past September 30, 2024. I do understand that this decision is outside the control of this committee. But state leaders have a powerful bully pulpit and the ability to advocate on behalf of local leaders to ensure COVID recovery plans are the product of well-informed decisions and well-planned actions.
Second, to develop effective COVID response plans, districts need strong state guidance and a clear set of recommendations on what to do.
As Alexis shared, our own experiences working with districts point to a few essential strategies. A laser-like focus on improving academic instruction through actions such as implementing high-quality curriculum or providing ongoing instructional coaching. Aligning strong instructional practice with “just-in-time” interventions, like high-dosage tutoring or summer acceleration academies, to ensure all students are accessing rigorous, grade-level content. And, linking academic learning to comprehensive supports that address students’ social and emotional well-being and mental health.
Giving districts choice in how to spend COVID relief funds is important to ensuring that communities are able to build on their strengths and address students’ unique needs. But, right now, most districts are working alone to figure out how to spend funds, duplicating the efforts of many other communities. A more coordinated effort between state and local leaders could help districts learn from one another and allow the Commonwealth to move forward some key priorities for improving education. Aggressively pursuing this work means sharing successful recovery strategies that are already being pursued locally, such as the examples provided for Salem, New Bedford, and Methuen, and targeting technical assistance to ensure recommended strategies are implemented in ways that align with best practice.
For example, tutoring is one of the most common uses of ESSER funds. To match the effectiveness highlighted in the research literature, high dosage tutoring needs to be time intensive, meaning provided a minimum of three times a week, administered in small group settings of no more than three or four students, and closely aligned with grade-level classroom content. The tutoring we’ve observed is often being provided in large settings to all students without targeting specific learning needs and, although well intentioned, it is unlikely to have a substantial impact.
The state can also help districts figure out how to sustain improvement efforts. While some districts are engaged in long-term recovery strategies, many are focused on one-time expenditures and remain wary of an impending funding cliff. This is one of the reasons, we believe, why so much funding has been focused on facilities. However, with continued increases in state education funding through the Student Opportunity Act some districts may discover they can continue to support new investments past ESSER deadlines. Regardless, a thorough analysis of how ESSER funding aligns with growing state investments would greatly help local decision-making.
Third, the state can take a lead role in planning for what’s next. You have undoubtedly heard today that federal resources combined with increased state education funding provide an unprecedented opportunity for Massachusetts to not only recover from the pain of the last year, but to rethink an antiquated and historically inequitable education system so that it prepares all students for the possibilities and growing demands of a rapidly changing world. At the Rennie Center, we whole-heartedly agree with this position. The need to act is urgent. But, acting with urgency doesn’t mean spending money quickly. It means mobilizing at all levels to spend money smartly. Pressuring schools to throw money at innovations will not lead to the kind of substantive changes our students need. With schools stretched impossibly thin, state leaders can play a powerful role in moving conversations from education recovery to reinvention. The state can help incentivize communities to come together and work collaboratively across sectors and interests to provide schools with additional capacity, space, and expertise to look beyond urgent, short-term challenges and craft a vision for the future.