The American Rescue Plan Can Rescue Education, If We Use It to Fund What Works

The American Rescue Plan was passed in the U.S. Congress this week. This $1.9 trillion bill provides funding for a lot of things I care about as a citizen, but as an educator, I’d like to focus on the portion of it allocated to healing Covid learning loss. This is $29 billion, or roughly double the usual amount spent annually on Title I. This is a major investment in the students whose educations were harmed the most by Covid school closures. These are mostly disadvantaged students and rural students who could not gain access to remote teaching, or who did not have assistance at home to take advantage of remote instruction. Data from all over the country is showing the educational damage these children have sustained.

Clearly, the new money in the ARP could make a substantial difference in the achievement and adjustment of all students returning to in-person schooling. But if educational research tells us anything at all, it tells us these two things:

  1. Making a big difference in educational outcomes costs money.
  2. However, lots of well-meaning uses of money do not make any perceptible difference in outcomes.

Of course, the only way to tell effective uses of new funds from ineffective uses is through rigorous research.

One of the unusual aspects of the ARP education funding is that the legislation is not very specific about how the money is to be used. This is due in part to the fact the ARP was passed using a reconciliation procedure that does not allow for much specificity. The U.S. Department of Education will be drafting guidelines for the money soon, but these guidelines are likely to be relatively flexible, because the legislation itself was not very specific.

This flexibility is likely to allow anything from very good uses of money to very poor uses. My guess is that state and district leaders, and individual principals, will have plenty of freedom to use plenty of money. How novel!

I hope states and districts will use this opportunity to clearly define what is most important to accomplish in their post-Covid planning and then insist on choosing programs, practices, and policies based on the best evidence available. This time, educators will have the opportunity to use research-proven programs not because Congress or the U.S. Department of Education tells them to, but because they care about the learning and emotional well-being of their students.

In the period following the passage of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), state, district, and building leaders learned how to use services such as the What Works Clearinghouse and our www.evidenceforessa.org website to find out the strength of the evidence supporting various programs. I hope schools will continue to use these resources to select programs that have been proven effective. I’ve written many times about the importance of using proven tutoring programs, and this is indeed the most effective strategy by far for students who are far behind in reading or math. But there are many other approaches proven to be effective, especially for disadvantaged students. There is good evidence of effectiveness not only for classroom approaches to reading and math, but also programs for creative writing, science, social-emotional learning, early childhood education, and much more. The ARP funding allows schools to invest in proven programs and find out for themselves whether they work. ARP money will not be around forever, but wouldn’t it be a great use of the money to find out what works, so that when things return to normal, school and district leaders will know more than ever before what works and what doesn’t for their particular students and their particular schools?

In the first months after all schools open for in-person learning, schools are sure to be thinking in emergency mode, about investments in tutoring and other relatively expensive but highly effective strategies. But the damage Covid has done will have long-lasting impacts, and even if schools use proven tutoring methods to help the students at the greatest risk, it is also important to build for the long haul for all students, using proven programs of all kinds. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the terrible experience we have all been through leads to a more rational, evidence-driven approach to schooling, creating a lasting benefit not only for today’s children, but for future generations who will receive better educations than they would have before Covid?

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

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