Jul 27 2021

Leveraging Recovery Funds to Prioritize Wellness and Accelerate Learning

This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

The Learning Policy Institute and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, conducted a series of 5 webinars in Spring 2021 to learn about and disseminate best practices for accelerating learning. This blog highlights many of the practices elevated by district and state leaders during the series.

Thanks to unprecedented funding from the American Rescue Plan and other federal, state, and local resources, school districts across the country are leveraging several evidence-informed strategies to accelerate learning and provide students with needed supports and services. Local initiatives include conducting formative assessments to measure and support both students’ academic growth and their social and emotional wellness, providing high-quality tutoring, and offering expanded learning time.

Given the disruption and trauma of the pandemic, strengthening relationships among teachers, families, and students is a top priority. Recognizing that relational trust is foundational to learning, districts are creating time and space for community and relationship building. These activities and practices are being integrated into efforts to accelerate learning through one-on-one tutoring; new extracurriculars and electives beginning this summer and continuing into the fall; and formative assessments to provide a more complete picture of student wellness and academic strengths and needs. The goal of these efforts is to lower the anxiety about returning to school in the fall, and to better serve students who experienced an unprecedented year.

Formative Assessments of Academic Growth and Social and Emotional Health

To evaluate the success of these initiatives, districts are making use of new formative and authentic assessments, including a focus on social and emotional health and well-being. The CORE Districts in California, 8 school districts serving more than 1 million students, have spent a decade working to establish a shared data system that includes multiple academic and non-academic indicators. These efforts led to the creation of the Rally platform, which is now being used in California and South Carolina to measure and support schools in being responsive to student well-being. Research on evidence-based practices for assessing students’ social and emotional well-being points to the importance of concise and efficient survey instruments to target resources, and there are several validated surveys available to schools and districts at no cost. State support can aid districts in this work. California’s latest budget, for example, allocates $6 million to train districts on how to use school climate surveys and to develop a trauma-informed survey supplement (see Sec. 133).

Other states have also moved swiftly to incentivize districts to create more holistic systems of assessment to provide real-time data for targeted instruction. For example, in response to the pandemic, South Carolina passed Act 142 in June 2020, which required all students in grades k-9 to complete formative assessments during the first two weeks of the school year and once again before the end of the year. These assessments identified the supports each student needed and enabled targeted instruction. As South Carolina Deputy Superintendent John Payne stated, “Quality and timely interim assessment practices will always yield more helpful student data [than summative assessments], thus supporting teachers and giving students the best possible chance of mastering content.”

When analyzed with an eye for equity, assessments and other data sources, such as teacher-assigned grades and disciplinary incidents, also provide a means of addressing historic inequities. In South Carolina, Richland School District Number Two established a Grading Task Force to examine disparities in grades to understand and address racial and other forms of discrimination. It also implemented new formative assessments of social and emotional wellness that are being used to target mental health resources. In the School District of Lancaster in Pennsylvania, an Equity Design Team examined disproportionality in student outcomes, leading to a new mentorship program targeted toward Black males in middle school, who had the highest rates of suspension and the lowest test scores. In both of these districts, data served as a means of advancing equity.

Connecting Tutoring to Classroom Learning

High-quality tutoring remains one of the most effective tools for raising student achievement, particularly when it integrates relationship building as a key component. Tutoring programs are most effective when staffed by consistent and well-trained tutors who are both in command of content knowledge and are skilled at engaging students and developing positive relationships. In addition to being an evidence-informed strategy, tutoring remains popular with families, according to the most recent polling of k-12 parents and caregivers from the Understanding America Study. More than three-fourths of respondents believed that remote tutoring should be offered during the upcoming school year, and more than a third of eligible students chose to enroll in tutoring when it was offered in schools.

Whenever possible, tutoring programs should be integrated into the regular school day and structure. According to a systematic review of the research, tutoring during school can be twice as effective as tutoring after school, likely because it occurs more reliably and tends to use trained staff. In Long Beach Unified School District in California, Reading Recovery teachers tutor early elementary students during regular class time as part of an intensive intervention model. Trained teachers also coach their colleagues on best practices for reading instruction. According to Superintendent Dr. Jill Baker, the impact of peer coaching is “often underestimated…being a Reading Recovery teacher takes high-performing teachers and helps them to really increase their own effect on students, but also to help other teachers.” Research shows that Reading Recovery, along with its Spanish version, Descubriendo la Lectura, is one of the most effective interventions for early literacy.

With decades of research available on effective tutoring implementation, districts don’t have to start this work from scratch. To help leaders design and implement a new high-impact tutoring program—or improve an existing one—the National Student Support Accelerator provides a toolkit, based on peer-reviewed research for each high-quality tutoring option. Saga Education also recently released Saga Coach, a no-cost virtual tutor training program; Saga’s tutoring programs have produced significant gains in student achievement. These free resources are grounded in rigorous evidence and can serve as the foundation for high-quality implementation, particularly in districts without any prior experience running tutoring programs.

High-quality tutoring remains one of the most effective tools for raising student achievement, particularly when it integrates relationship building as a key component. 

Expanded Learning Time: From Early Childhood to Early College

Districts also have an opportunity to modify schedules and calendars that often do not serve students well, including long breaks in the school year that potentially jeopardize wellness, learning, relationships, and access to essential services. According to the American School District Panel Survey, 7 out of 10 districts changed their schedules as a result of the pandemic. In Washington state, for example, the Highland School District has decided to start school earlier in August and end later in June as part of a new year-round balanced calendar. These changes are designed to accelerate learning and combat achievement declines that can occur during traditional summer vacations.

Year-round schedules, longer school days, and increased access to after-school programs provide an opportunity to prioritize extracurricular activities and culturally responsive, project-based learning that engages students in a variety of ways. State policy and funding decisions can support this expanded learning time. In South Carolina, for instance, a partnership between the state and the South Carolina Arts Commission has used COVID-19 relief funds to pay for artists to work in schools across the state.

Some school districts are already using increased funding to expand both early childhood and dual-enrollment programs. For example, West Valley School District in Washington state is using Title I funding to conduct home visits for early learning. The district also has two partnerships with Arizona State University and the local community college, which now offers four-year degrees. Through Yakima Valley College, West Valley High School students can participate in a registered apprenticeship and eventually earn an associate’s degree at a 50% discount. When they graduate from high school, the district hires these students as paraeducators, who can then decide to earn their bachelor’s degree as part of a two-year teacher residency model and become fully certified classroom teachers. This approach allows the district to create a “pretty amazing pipeline” for teacher hiring, according to Assistant Superintendent Dr. Peter Finch. It also enables the district to meet summer hiring needs with teacher residents and recent residency graduates.

Other districts have used funding to provide higher pay for summer educators, enabling summer 2021 to serve as an essential springboard for recovery. In Florida’s Duval County Public Schools, for example, the district expanded summer programming to be available for all rising first through ninth graders, five days a week. Explained Superintendent Dr. Diana Green, “I wanted as many students as possible to participate this summer...We wanted a lot of hands-on activities for students. We are introducing STEM and robotics for all of the grade levels, outdoor activities, and field trips.”

These expanded learning opportunities can also be integrated as part of a community school approach. One of the most extensive studies of community schools, conducted by the RAND Corporation, analyzed data from more than 250 schools that were part of the New York City Community School Initiative. Researchers noted several improvements among students, including higher course pass rates, increased graduation rates, improved attendance, and fewer discipline issues. In California’s 2021-22 budget, state policymakers allocated nearly $3 billion in state and federal funding to expand community schools. This investment, part of the state’s broader response to the pandemic, has the goal of providing expanded learning time in all high-poverty schools, as well as wraparound health, mental health, and social services. 

Keeping Relationships at the Center

These examples show how state and district leaders are using different types of data and different uses of time to accelerate, not remediate. As Dr. Baron Davis, superintendent of Richland School District Two, stated, “Too often, we use time as the constant, and we don’t see it as a variable in education that can be modified, adjusted, added, subtracted.” These districts are acting quickly and strategically to implement new practices, schedules, and opportunities that support students’ academic growth and well-being. These best practices can guide other districts as they develop plans for addressing the trauma of the previous school year, offering a relationship-centered template for a restorative fall.

 



Adam K. Edgerton is a Senior Researcher at the Learning Policy Institute.