A little over a year ago, Congress appropriated over $123 billion for K-12 education improvements and reforms. These Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds were to be used to address the impact that COVID-19 had and continues to have on schools across the nation. So, how are we as a country doing in making sure students are benefitting from this massive investment?
Well, there’s no way to know. Recent estimates suggest that less than half of district superintendents have been able to begin implementing plans for spending the funds. As of a month ago, 98% of the funds remained unspent. And because there is wide discretion for how districts are allowed to invest the money, there’s no common goal or shared measure for success. There is no focused, coherent mission or vision to guide spending decisions.
Hesitation on behalf of school and district leaders is understandable. With so many daily pressing needs (i.e., staffing issues), using ESSER funds for a longer-term investment might not seem like a priority. Moreover, fears of a fiscal cliff are real: District leaders worry about hiring new staff with money that isn’t guaranteed to flow for more than a few short years. But it’s hard to overstate how important these funds are, right now, for students. Letting the money go unspent is downplaying the extremely detrimental impact the pandemic and school closures had on our students.
A well-designed vision could put every school and district leader on a mission to remedy the gaps worsened by the pandemic. Our answer? Invest in increasing the number of students who become college and career successful by graduation.
In 2019, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 3, which included sweeping education reforms that we believe were best for students. Part of that bill included the creation of “CCMR bonuses”; for every student who is considered “ready” for college, career or the military by graduation, the district gets a financial bonus. For large districts, this could mean millions of dollars in funding every year.
“The focus needs to be on the middle school level.”
In our work, we’ve found that since the CCMR bonuses were put in place, far too much focus around making students college- and career-ready is only happening at the high school level. That’s short-sighted. The focus needs to be on the middle-school level. To get on a path to social and economic mobility, students need access to critical college and career information early enough to make informed decisions throughout high school. Waiting until students get into high school — let alone their junior and senior years, as is most often the case — is simply too late.
“Students need access to critical college and career information early enough to make informed decisions throughout their high school career in order to be on a path to social and economic mobility.”
Experts and evaluators of effective preparation programs have found that the most impactful solutions start in middle school, not in high school. These successful programs include counseling, involve parents and peers, and provide concrete information about college and career pathways. To meet this need, students, beginning in middle school, must be equipped with college and career knowledge and understanding of the credentials needed for longer term success.
There’s no need to wait for national education leaders to establish this “unicorn” for ESSER funds. Texas education leaders could develop goals and create instruments for districts to track student progress. A district leader could do the same for its schools, as could a principal for their school.
“What we’ve seen in our work is that this kind of purposeful, in-school instruction leads to middle school students hitting more college and career success markers once they get into high school.”
Picture a vision that established these three priorities related to student progress:
- Improved academic performance resulting from increased attendance, motivation and engagement.
- Individualized pathways focused on understanding the knowledge, skills and credentials needed for the future workforce.
- Empowering students to develop the skills necessary to make informed decisions about their college and career paths.
Imagine states and districts measuring progress month by month. We’ve seen in our work that this kind of purposeful, in-school instruction leads to middle-school students hitting more college and career success markers once they get into high school.
“Investing ESSER funds directly into college, career, and military readiness programming at the middle school level is a unique opportunity to get our kids back on track.”
Investing ESSER funds directly into college, career and military readiness programming at the middle-school level is a unique opportunity to get our kids back on track. It will assure the money actually helps our students, as it was intended to do.