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What the Historic Infusion of Federal Pandemic Aid Did for Schools

The largest federal emergency school aid in history boosted learning recovery from the pandemic, two new studies find—but the benefits have been uneven and nowhere near enough to get students fully back on track.

In March 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools nationwide, Congress passed the first of three massive rounds of K-12 aid that would ultimately total more than $190 billion. At the time, no one knew how long communities would be in lockdown, how long students would attend classes remotely, or the long-term effects of academic disruption, health problems, social isolation, and trauma on students’ learning progress.

With several years of hindsight, we now know children have paid a brutal cost for that disruption: reading and math performance at historic lows, student mental health problems at historic highs, and chronic absenteeism still topping 1 in 4 students nationwide.

As school districts approach the end of spending ESSER funds, two new studies—conducted separately but jointly released Wednesday morning—analyzed the effect of the grants on math and language arts test scores of more than 5,000 districts in grades 3-8 across about 30 states, during the 2022-23 school year.

Both studies—one released by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) at the American Institutes of Research and the other by Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research and the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University— found the grants did accelerate academic recovery in math—about six days’ worth of learning progress for every additional $1,000 their districts received from federal aid.

Both studies found minimal benefit for reading from ESSER but an increase of about 0.008 of a standard deviation—roughly 3 percent of a school year—on students’ math performance for every additional $1,000 districts received in federal recovery money.

That means federal aid accounts for about 35 percent of the total learning progress students regained from the end of 2022 to the end of 2023, according to Dan Goldhaber, the CALDER director and a co-author of one of the studies.

“ESSER funding did actually move the needle of student achievement,” Goldhaber said, but “then you get into, did it move it enough? Well, it certainly did not bring student achievement back to the 2019 levels—it wasn’t even close to that. A very strong effect for some and not much for everybody else … I think that is a little bit what we are seeing.”

While $1,000 of aid provided “roughly the same bang for your buck” in districts of all income levels, Stanford University professor Sean Reardon, the co-author of one of the studies, said “the net effect of the investment was much, much larger in the high-poverty districts than the low-poverty districts, not because they got more per dollar but because they got a lot more dollars” which has somewhat reduced the economic achievement gap among districts.

However, in districts of similar poverty levels, Goldhaber noted the ones serving fewer Black or Hispanic students and those located in towns (as defined by the Census Bureau) had slightly bigger learning increases from the aid. It’s not clear why, though communities of color were disproportionately harmed during the pandemic.

The two studies’ findings are in line with the return on investment from district spending generally before the pandemic, based on a 2023 research analysis.

Schools would have to spend another $9,000 to $13,000 per student to bring students fully back on track academically from the remaining learning gaps in language arts and math as of 2023, Goldhaber estimated.

Why wasn’t the impact of ESSER greater?

ESSER’s effectiveness was limited, researchers say, by competing priorities for the grants and inequities in how the money was distributed.

“When the American Rescue plan passed, nobody even knew the magnitude of the achievement loss,” said Harvard economist and study co-author Thomas Kane. “The money at the time was primarily about trying to get schools reopened.”

Hermiston, Ore., public schools, for example, were among the first to close when COVID-19 reached American shores, and the district remained in remote instruction through most of the 2020-21 school year. Recouping lost academic progress came second to just getting more than 5,600 kids back on campus, according to Superintendent Tricia Mooney.

“When ESSER I came out [in 2020], we were all very much drinking from a fire hose, trying to figure out how we were going to get students through the pandemic,” Mooney said. “We really looked at what investments we could make that weren’t going to create long-term financial responsibilities.”

Because they knew ESSER would be limited-time aid, Mooney said her district dedicated the money first to capital projects like a new HVAC system and later to mental health services and a comprehensive summer school program for students who need extra support.

Those nonacademic benefits should be kept in mind although they couldn’t be included in the two current studies, Reardon said. “Even though [3 percent of a school year effect per $1,000] doesn’t sound like a lot,
when you calculate the social returns and the economic returns to improved academic performance, that much improvement is worth slightly more than $1,000 in lifetime earnings, and there are other social benefits like lower crime,” Reardon said. “It’s still a net positive from a cost-benefit analysis in terms of social returns.”

After three years and with nearly 300 fewer students, Mooney said her community has vowed to sustain the summer enrichment past the federal funding cliff.

Mooney said the money helped the district reopen quicker, and the summer program has been “critically important” to bolster language skills in the heavily Hispanic district. But Hermiston still struggles to reengage the 40 percent of students who don’t attend regularly, and the academic outlook remains grim, with less than a third of students proficient in reading and only 14 percent proficient in math in 2022.

ESSER was distributed to states and districts based on the standard funding formula for Title I grants to schools serving low-income students.

“We were pushing through $175 billion in federal aid through pipes that were meant to carry $16 billion in aid,” Kane said, “and so whatever quirks there were [in the normal Title I funding formula] got multiplied by 10 or more.”

For example, a high-poverty district in New Hampshire—one of the small rural states that receives a set minimum Title I grant—might under normal conditions receive $500 more per student than a district with similar poverty in neighboring Massachusetts. But for the recovery aid, this difference was closer to $5,000 per student, Kane said.

It’s impossible to say at this point what academic interventions drove learning recovery, because neither of the studies looked at exactly how districts spent their ESSER money. In part, that’s because besides requiring that districts spend at least 20 percent of their grants on learning recovery, states differed widely in how they asked districts to report their spending. Moreover, districts still have until Sept. 30 to commit their grant spending and through the end of January 2025 to finish spending the money.

“Based on what we saw between ’22 and ‘23, we would predict that there’ll be an awful lot of districts that are still behind when ’24 [test results] come back,” Kane said. “We ought to be asking ourselves, what more is it going to take? … Because the recovery is unlikely to be over.”

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