When the pandemic shut down schools across the country, the federal government responded with billions of dollars to help districts support remote learning, serve free meals to students and safely reopen schools.
In 2021, the Biden administration gave districts another $122 billion through its $1.9 trillion stimulus package, an amount that far surpassed previous rounds. Districts were required to spend at least 20 percent of those funds on helping students recover academically, while the rest could be used on general efforts to respond to the pandemic.
Yet, while most schools have since deployed various forms of interventions and some have spent more on academic recovery than others, there are ample signs that the money has not been spent in a way that has substantially helped all of the nation’s students lagging behind.
Recent test scores underscore the staggering effect of the pandemic, which thrust much of the nation’s students into remote learning for extended periods of time. Students in most states and across almost all demographic groups experienced major setbacks in math and reading after many schools closed their doors. In 2022, math scores underwent the largest declines ever recorded on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests a broad sampling of fourth and eighth graders dating back to the early 1990s.
Education researchers and advocates say recovering from the effects of remote learning should be the top priority, but it is unclear how much of the funding is helping students across the nation fully catch up.
Plans for the relief funds have varied across the country. Some districts have invested more in extending learning time or offering intensive small-group tutoring focused on math or English, which research has shown to be among the most powerful interventions. Others have used much of their funds on facility upgrades, online tutoring services, across-the-board bonuses for employees and other measures that education experts have argued are less effective for helping students catch up.
National data on how the money has been spent is scarce. The federal government does limited tracking of the relief funds, which were sent directly to states. Many states, which dole out the money to districts, do not provide detailed breakdowns of expenditures.
Some education experts who have closely monitored the relief money said the federal guidelines should have been more focused on addressing learning loss, and were skeptical that many districts’ recovery plans were robust enough. Although schools were initially slow to spend the money, they are now on track to exhaust the funding by the September 2024 deadline for budgeting the money.
Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said the impact of the funding has been a “bit of a black box,” and she expected to see different recovery rates across districts. Ms. Lake said giving across-the-board bonuses, completing maintenance projects and plugging holes in budgets were less effective interventions.
“In some districts, I think we’re going to see that the money was well spent,” Ms. Lake said. “And in many — maybe most — it won’t have been spent as well as it should have been, in terms of addressing the urgent need right in front of us.”
She pointed to data showing that many students still did not have access to the kind of intensive tutoring programs that have proved effective, with demonstrated large positive effects on math and reading achievement.
A federal survey conducted in December found that most public schools offered some form of tutoring, but only 37 percent provided students more intensive “high dosage” tutoring, which is typically done in smaller groups, takes place for at least 30 minutes and includes at least three sessions a week. Out of all public schools, just 10 percent of students participated in that type of tutoring.
Early reports show that schools have had difficulty setting up academic recovery programs. A recent paper from Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research found that schools struggled last year to carry out recovery programs at their intended scale because of staffing shortages and lower student engagement. The researchers, who sampled 12 districts, found that some of the estimated effects were positive, but even if the programs were fully set up, they would still not be enough to help all students catch up by 2024.
Thomas Kane, the center’s faculty director and co-author of the papers, said implementation has since improved but remains far below the necessary levels. He expected to see some gains this year but said a “significant gap” will remain, since not enough schools were extending the academic year or placing most students in summer school.
“Every district can describe how they’re spending the money,” Mr. Kane said. “But few, if any, districts have a recovery plan that’s specifically sized to their students’ losses.”
Education Department officials said they were confident much of the stimulus money was being spent on academic recovery.
“The department’s ongoing technical assistance and communication with states indicate that investments in academic recovery, staffing and student mental health comprise the majority of local spending,” Adam Schott, a deputy assistant secretary, said in a statement.
Sasha Pudelski, a director at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said districts were prioritizing spending on additional learning time. According to July data from AASA, 68 percent of districts were spending some funds on expanded summer learning, 42 percent were adding learning time by compensating staff and 39 percent were providing high-intensity tutoring.
In Tennessee, 87 districts are participating in a program that provides matching grants using federal dollars to districts offering small-group tutoring in reading or math.
One of the participating districts, Elizabethton City Schools, hired 14 full-time staff members to administer English language arts tutoring to 404 elementary and middle school students this year. Students attended sessions during the school day twice a week for 45 minutes each.
Myra Newman, the assistant director of schools for academics, said the district was spending 56 percent of its $5.6 million in relief funds on academic recovery. The district has already seen significant gains: In 2022, 45.6 percent of third to eighth graders were proficient in English, up from 33.9 percent in 2021 and 43 percent in 2019.
“Most of our money went toward students and closing the gap in learning loss,” Ms. Newman said.
Other districts have spent more relief funds on facility upgrades. Researchers at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab estimate that a quarter of the last round of relief funds would be spent on facilities.
Oregon’s Klamath County school district plans to use about 30 percent of its $16.1 million federal share on academic recovery programs and 70 percent on facilities projects. Those include buying new turf fields, replacing HVAC systems, upgrading flooring, renovating bleachers in baseball fields, constructing a gym and surfacing an elementary school parking lot.
Glen Szymoniak, the district’s superintendent, said the projects would help improve student safety and wellness. Some bleachers had “nails popping up” and boards that were cracking. Without a new turf field, some students would not have a place to play during recess, and one of the football teams would need to travel half an hour to practice. Officials chose not to spend the funds on hiring staff because the money would eventually run out.
“We would have to fire them in three or four years,” Mr. Szymoniak said. “It’s not a way to treat people.”
Officials instead tapped millions in annual state funding to hire reading specialists, add counselors and expand small group and project-based instruction, which Mr. Szymoniak said has already led to improved proficiency in math among elementary school students this year, according to early assessments. Last year, 36 percent of third graders met state grade-level expectations for English, down from 42 percent in 2019.
Wisconsin’s Cudahy School District is spending about 80 percent of its $4.7 million in relief funds on facilities upgrades and 20 percent on academic recovery, which includes professional development for staff members and employing literacy specialists. Among the district’s third graders, 29.8 percent were proficient in reading in 2022, up from 23.6 percent in 2021 and down from 35.9 percent in 2019.
Tina Owen-Moore, the district’s superintendent, said officials were worried about sustaining salaries, so they spent more on upgrading HVAC systems and remodeling classrooms to allow for social distancing.
“If we only did high-dosage tutoring while we had those funds there, well as soon as those funds go away, we wouldn’t be able to continue to support students,” Ms. Owen-Moore said.
Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab, said some facility projects like new HVAC systems were reasonable, but others, such as parking lot renovations, would not do much to help students catch up.
Although she said she wanted to see improved academic recovery efforts, she did not expect many districts to revise their plans. With the looming funding deadline and steep enrollment declines expected to hurt some districts’ budgets, she said officials were more focused on preventing school closures and wide layoffs.
“Pretty quickly, they’re starting to panic,” Ms. Roza said. “There’s less and less energy on how to leverage these limited dollars.”