Closing the Gap

Expiring federal funds can address pandemic learning losses. 

pencils and eraser fragments over an erased piece of paper

Nationwide efforts to address learning loss are failing to close achievement gaps that the pandemic exacerbated.  | PHOTOGRAPH BY NIKO YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE

While much of the country struggles to recover from learning losses wrought by the pandemic, Alabama seems to be doing relatively well: it’s the sole state in the nation to have returned to pre-pandemic achievement levels in math, according to a report released today by the Education Recovery Scorecard, a collaboration between the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard and the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford.

But the state’s overall recovery hides disparities. Many of Alabama’s poorest districts continue to lag behind 2019 levels of achievement; the gains of other districts have simply offset those losses. In Montgomery County—where 32.1 percent of children live in poverty, compared to a statewide rate of 26 percent—students remain half a grade level behind compared to their pre-pandemic performance.

Nationwide efforts to address learning loss are failing to close achievement gaps that the pandemic exacerbated, the report found, and students in poor districts across the country are struggling to catch up. American students have made up for only one-third of pandemic losses in math and one-quarter of losses in reading, the report highlighted.

To address these challenges, researchers have provided recommendations for districts to strategically utilize $51 billion of federal funding set to expire in September. The actions schools take—or don’t—in the next eight months could reverberate far into the future, said Gale professor of education Thomas Kane, who coauthored the study. “If we don’t help students catch up, this is going to have long-term consequences for inequality in college [attendance], inequality in earnings,” he said. “People have been concerned about economic mobility….One of the most concrete things we can do to improve economic mobility is to close these gaps.”

Previous research by the Education Recovery Scorecard found that the pandemic widened long-standing achievement gaps between students from different racial and economic groups. The new report found that educational recovery in many states is being led by the wealthiest districts that lost the least amount of ground in the first place. In Massachusetts, achievement gaps between white and black students, white and Hispanic students, and low- and high-income students have all increased between 2019 and 2023.

In 2020 and 2021, Congress provided a total of more than $190 billion in aid to schools to address learning setbacks caused by the pandemic, with most funding targeted toward high-poverty districts. Those funds must be used by September 2024 or be returned to the federal government; as of this month, $51 billion remained unspent. “While we’ve made progress, it’s important to realize those gaps, which widened during the pandemic, have not closed yet,” Kane said. “So we’re trying to create a sense of urgency, as school districts have just eight more months to spend their pandemic relief dollars.”

The authors of the study recommend that, this spring, schools inform parents if their child is below grade level in math or English to allow them sufficient time to enroll in summer learning. “It’s hard for parents to actually see when their children are behind grade level unless schools tell them,” Kane said. “Even if I know what my child is covering in math or English class right now, I don’t know what they were covering in the same grade and the same class in 2020 before the pandemic began.” Parents tend to underestimate the extent to which their children have fallen behind; a November poll found that almost nine out of ten parents believed their child was performing at grade level despite test scores to the contrary.

The researchers also recommend expanding summer learning seats to accommodate all students who sign up. Amid staffing shortages that have hampered schools’ efforts to increase instructional time, Kane said schools should offer teachers overtime pay to support these efforts. “Especially in the short term, you don’t necessarily have to hire lots of new staff. Instead, you pay teachers more to put in the extra hours,” he said. “You’re asking more of teachers—to take time out of summer to help students catch up. So, you have to pay teachers more to staff those summer learning programs. That is what the federal relief dollars are for.”

Districts may be able to stretch the funding beyond September by contracting for tutoring and after-school programs for the 2024-2025 school year. After the deadline, federal relief dollars cannot be used to pay school employee salaries, but they can be used to make payments on contracts signed before the deadline. “With the stalemate in Congress right now, we shouldn’t expect any change in the deadline, because that would require a new law to be passed,” Kane said. “Districts only have eight months to obligate these dollars, but if they act quickly, they could potentially stretch those dollars even as far as March 2026 by contracting for tutoring, after school, and summer school programs.”

For the study, researchers drew upon test scores from approximately 8,000 school districts in 30 states to measure how much scores changed from spring 2019 to spring 2022 and from spring 2022 to spring 2023, adjusting the scores from each state to align on a standardized scale. The study provides a unique opportunity for comparison between states and districts, especially this year, when a National Assessment of Educational Progress will not be administered, said Cindi Williams, a cofounder of the educational nonprofit Learning Heroes.

“There is no other data in the U.S. this year that that can tell us [how states compare]. There’s not going be another barometer of how kids have done, particularly not district by district,” Williams said. For educators who “want to know if my district is moving in the right direction, stalled, or going in the wrong direction, this is one of your only opportunities to do that.”

The report also provides the chance to examine districts that have excelled. “Ninety percent of these dollars were allocated directly to school districts, so each school district is making its own decisions about how to recover,” Kane said. “That’s part of what’s driving this huge variation in district losses and state losses.” While high-poverty districts in Alabama, such as Birmingham and Montgomery, lost a half a grade level of learning during the pandemic, their rates of recovery have differed. Though Montgomery’s recovery was relatively slow, Birmingham made up nearly half a grade level in math in one year. Researchers interviewed leaders from Birmingham and other high-achieving districts to learn what drove their success and to provide resources to other educators.

One doesn’t have to look to the future to see the potential consequences of these educational disparities—they’re unfolding already. “There are four classes that have graduated from high school since the pandemic began, and there’s been a decline in college, especially community college, enrollment over this period,” Kane said. “We’re trying to improve achievement for students who are still enrolled in school. But we should remember that there are 12 million students who have graduated who are no longer there in elementary and secondary schools.”

To reach those students, he said, states can incentivize schools to make lists of graduates who never enrolled in college, enabling schools to reach out and offer assistance in applying for college or financial aid. “These widening gaps will have long-term implications for college [attendance] and earnings—and that’s already started,” Kane said. “So we should be mindful of that and thinking about cost-effective ways to help those students resume their postsecondary training.”

Read more articles by: Nina Pasquini

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