Studies show that pandemic aid boosted test scores, but did not fully compensate for lost learning.

Close to $200 billion in emergency funding for schools used during and after the pandemic effectively boosted students’ math and reading achievements, as per two new studies revealed on Wednesday. Both studies, conducted independently, show test score improvements signaling that states and school districts utilized the funds efficiently to aid children, with varying rates of progress seen across different regions.

However, researchers caution that federal funds could have been allocated differently to accelerate score recovery. Comparing the returns of ESSER to past initiatives like reducing class sizes or enhancing curricula, the lead author of one study, Dan Goldhaber, noted that the impact of ESSER funding during the pandemic was hampered by crisis conditions making strategic spending challenging.

Dan Goldhaber, who led one of the studies, emphasized that a significant portion of math recovery in the 2022–23 school year (35%) and English recovery (87%) was linked to ESSER funding. Despite these gains, Goldhaber highlighted that the overall impact was modest, pointing out that only a fifth of ESSER funds were designated for addressing learning loss and lacked proper oversight.

Only 20% of ESSER money was even earmarked for learning loss, and I don’t think there was a lot of oversight of whether that 20% was well spent.

Dan Goldhaber, CALDER

The results from the studies provide a mixed assessment of post-COVID academic recovery, underlining the importance of investing more resources in schools to enhance outcomes. While progress was evident, the studies’ findings align closely with earlier estimates on the impact of increased funding on schools.

ESSER, a prominent element of the government’s pandemic response, continues to play a significant role in school financing even years after its initiation. With impending challenges and costs for a full educational recovery following the pandemic, the responsibility to sustain progress may ultimately fall on states.

Anticipating that American students may not fully restore pre-pandemic learning levels before supplemental aid expires, the studies highlight the potential need for additional resources to bridge the gap. The ongoing efforts of programs like ESSER, while commendable, still present an incomplete solution to long-term educational recovery.

Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon, part of the Education Recovery Scorecard team, emphasized the importance of considering alternative strategies for future federal education funding to maximize learning gains while addressing broader social and emotional challenges among students.

One can certainly imagine ways to spend the money that would lead to even more learning gains. But that wasn’t entirely what was on policymakers’ minds.

Sean Reardon, Stanford University

Highlighting the remarkable scale of federal funding for schools during the pandemic, the studies underscore the complexities of distributing resources equitably and effectively to support academic recovery. While the current findings offer valuable insights, the need for continued research and targeted investments in education remains crucial for sustained progress.

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