Harvard’s Kane Urges Continued Assistance for Entire Generation as Relief Funds Expire

On Wednesday last week, Tom Kane, a researcher from Harvard University, presented his highly anticipated report on students’ recovery from pandemic learning loss. The report revealed that students actually made significant academic progress during the last school year. However, it also highlighted that achievement gaps widened during the pandemic, with students in high-poverty districts performing worse than before COVID-19.

Kane emphasized the urgent need to provide extra support for the generation of children, particularly in poor districts, who are still lagging behind. The response from the audience, composed of top tutoring providers and researchers, was mixed, as they were unsure about the next steps to take.

Unfortunately, many schools remain unsure about effective strategies despite the high stakes and the impending end of federal relief funding. While states and districts hurriedly hired tutors and signed contracts, they failed to keep track of which programs were most effective in helping students. Kane expressed frustration at this lack of learning and urged states to seize the opportunity to improve their tracking of recovery strategies, especially as the federal funds are about to run out.

The American Rescue Plan allocated $122 billion, which will expire at the end of September. To make the most of the remaining funds, the U.S. Department of Education is considering allowing states to extend the use of the funds until March 2026, as long as they focus on reducing absenteeism, providing intensive tutoring, and extending learning time. However, Kane argued that states should also prioritize tracking the impact of different recovery strategies on students.

The Department of Education is taking steps to address this issue. Starting this spring, districts will be required to provide more detailed information on how the funds were spent, including the amount allocated to summer learning, afterschool programs, and tutoring. Additionally, districts must report the number of students participating in high-dosage tutoring and evidence-based summer and afterschool programs, specifically those from disadvantaged groups. If states want an extension, they must submit a letter explaining how they will use the funds to reach students with the greatest need.

Roberto Rodriguez, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, emphasized the importance of investing in evidence-driven strategies and expressed the department’s desire to learn more about how states and districts are using the funds to support academic recovery.

Despite the availability of funds, the lack of federal leadership in collecting information and the hesitance of states to impose additional requirements have hindered progress. However, Kane urged federal officials to challenge states publicly and continue recovery efforts, as students are still lagging behind. According to federal data from last November, around $53 billion in American Rescue Plan funds remained, and the department has received significant interest from states regarding extensions, although no applications have been submitted yet.

Kane suggested that districts focus on students who are furthest behind during the summer, even without additional time to spend the funds. He recommended that states require districts to inform parents if their children are below grade level in reading and math and then offer summer school to all students who sign up.

Bibb Hubbard, founder and president of Learning Heroes, emphasized the importance of informing parents about their children’s academic progress. She highlighted that many parents feel disconnected from discussions about relief funds and may not realize if their children are struggling academically. The new recovery data reinforces the need for parents to be aware of their children’s academic status at the end of the school year.

The Harvard study, conducted in partnership with Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon, revealed that students regained one-third of the learning loss in math and one-fourth in reading. This progress exceeded the typical gains made in a year prior to the pandemic. Alabama showed the most improvement in math and was the only state to exceed pre-pandemic achievement levels. Three states, Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi, surpassed their 2019 reading performance. While Black students made more progress than white and Hispanic students, the achievement gap between white and Black students remained larger than before the pandemic.

Despite the progress, most students still performed below 2019 achievement levels, especially in high-poverty districts. The gap between high- and low-poverty districts in reading widened in six states between 2019 and 2023. Virginia was one of these states, and State Superintendent Lisa Coons acknowledged the persistent learning loss. To supplement declining relief funds, Virginia allocated an additional $418 million for tutoring, literacy improvement, and reducing absenteeism. Coons expressed the intention to request an extension but encouraged districts to move away from a variety of initiatives and focus on effective models outlined in state guidance. The guidance provides recommendations on selecting students for tutoring and incorporating sessions into the school schedule.

Coons emphasized the need to prioritize effective strategies and continue refining approaches that have shown positive results for students.

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