The Question of Equity in COVID Relief Spending

The far-reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our educational system have left a lasting impact on students, one that will continue to affect them for years to come.  Remote learning challenges, trauma, heightened mental health supports, chronic absenteeism, and teacher assignment issues have left our students considerably “behind” where they have been in pre-pandemic years. The repercussions of these challenges are worrisome, particularly for marginalized students, who have faced widened opportunity and achievement gaps.

While some argue against focusing on “learning loss,” emerging research indicates the pandemic has widened existing opportunity and achievement gaps for marginalized students. Particularly, low-income students and students of color, who experienced prolonged periods of remote learning, were disproportionately affected, leading to declines in test scores, higher COVID death rates, increased reports of depression and anxiety, and limited social activities. By 2022, students in the poorest 10% of school districts saw twice the decline in academic performance compared to more affluent districts, with students falling behind by as much as three-quarters of a year in math. Furthermore, the gaps in reading and math scores between white and African American students widened by 4 and 13 points, respectively, and studies estimate that elementary students in majority-Black schools may now be 12 months behind those in majority-white schools. 

So what can be done to address these alarming disparities? Research has identified two strategies that show promise in closing racial and economic achievement gaps for underserved students: high-dosage tutoring and acceleration. Both approaches necessitate investments in learning recovery. 

High-dosage tutoring has shown substantial potential in producing academic gains, with experts estimating an average increase of about eight percentile points on state achievement tests – roughly equivalent to 19 weeks of instruction. Unlike standard or self-paced tutoring, high-dosage tutoring involves at least half an hour of one-on-one or small group tutoring, at least three times a week, delivered by trained educators. This intervention has proven particularly beneficial for elementary students in high-poverty and high-minority schools. By investing in high-dosage tutoring, schools can help underserved students make significant progress in regaining their lost learning. 

Despite its effectiveness, a 2022 analysis of COVID spending revealed that only around one-third of federal relief funds were allocated to tutoring efforts. Shockingly, while 80% of schools claimed to offer tutoring, only 10% of students actually received high-dosage tutoring by early 2023. To improve learning outcomes for underserved students, schools and districts must prioritize investing in high-dosage tutoring. 

The second promising strategy is the instruction shift from remediation to acceleration in instructional approaches. Instead of focusing solely on identifying and correcting learning gaps, acceleration centers on delivering grade-level content while also providing necessary skills and information. Research has shown that students of color and low-income students, even when successful with grade-level content, are still more likely to experience remediation than their white, more affluent peers. However, TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) and the nonprofit Zearn found that students who received acceleration to address early pandemic learning loss not only covered more academic lessons than their peers, but even regained their pre-pandemic success. Disrupting the disproportionate reliance on remediation for underserved student groups can lead to improved learning outcomes and the closure of academic achievement gaps.

Some states have directed COVID relief funds towards implementing acceleration strategies, but most California districts have not explicitly mentioned acceleration in their spending reports. Nevertheless, they can take various actions to support this approach, including evidence-based professional development and coaching for teachers and staff, culturally relevant and grade-level aligned instructional materials, and summer bridge programs. 

To ensure the prioritization of evidence-based approaches benefitting underserved students, such as high-dosage tutoring and acceleration, parents and families can use this resource in English and Spanish as a guide to communicate with teachers, school leaders, superintendents, and school boards, and track district spending here. Holding schools and districts accountable can effectively direct COVID relief funding towards meaningful strategies that address persistent achievement gaps worsened by the pandemic. It is through such concerted efforts that we can pave the way for a brighter and more equitable future for all students. 

Lexi Lopez Crothers is the Director of Advocacy and Communications at GO Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that amplifies the work of families and their champions to promote and advocate for equitable public education of underserved students in California. With over a decade of dedicated experience in education policy and mental health advocacy, she has played a pivotal role in shaping impactful initiatives. Her background includes working extensively in the nonprofit sector and serving under a Congressman in the Central Valley and the former California Speaker of the Assembly.

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