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Congress has poured billions of dollars into schools. Did it help students learn?

America’s schools received an unprecedented $190 billion in emergency federal funding during the pandemic. Since then, one big question has loomed over them: Did that historic infusion of federal aid help students catch up on the learning they missed?

Two new studies, conducted separately but both released Wednesday, provide the first answer to that question: Yes, the money made a meaningful difference. But both studies come with context and caveats that, along with that main finding, require some unpacking.

How much difference has the money made?

$190 billion is a huge amount of money by any measure. But districts only had to spend a fraction of the aid on academic recovery, paying for proven interventions like summer learning and high-quality tutoring. How much additional education for students has federal aid actually provided?

Study #1, a collaboration with Tom Kane of Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research and Sean Reardon of Stanford’s Educational Opportunity Project, estimates that every $1,000 in federal aid spent per student produces the kind of math test gains associated with 3 % of a school year, or about six school days of learning. That is during the 2022-2023 academic year.

The improvements in reading scores were smaller: roughly three school days of progress per thousand dollars in federal aid spending per student.

The federal aid “was worth the investment,” Reardon tells NPR. “It led to significant improvements in children’s academic performance… It wasn’t enough money, or enough recovery, to get students all the way back to where they were in 2019, but it did make a significant difference.”

Study #2, co-authored by researcher Dan Goldhaber at the University of Washington and American Institutes for Research, provides a similar estimate of math gains. The increase in reading scores seemed similar to those math gains, according to Goldhaber, although he says they are less precise and slightly less certain.

“It did have an impact,” Goldhaber tells NPR, an impact that is “in line with estimates from previous research about how much money affects student performance.”

Who benefited most from it?

The federal recovery dollars came in three waves, known as ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) I, II and III. The first two waves were relatively small, around $68 billion, compared to ESSER III’s $122 billion.

The windfall was distributed among schools largely based on need, specifically based on the share of students living in or near poverty. The assumption is: districts with higher rates of student poverty would need more help in recovery. COVID has hit high-poverty communities harder, with higher rates of infection, deaths, unemployment and remote learning than many affluent communities.

“These and other factors likely caused greater learning loss during the pandemic and dampened academic recovery,” Goldhaber writes in Study #2, noting that “the Detroit, MI public school district received approximately $25,800 per student across all waves of ESSER… (while) Grosse Pointe, MI (a nearby suburb) received only about $860 per student.”

According to Goldhaber, the story of these federal dollars becomes complicated because not everyone has learned from the lessons they provided in the same way.

In Study #2, he and co-author Grace Falken found greater academic benefits from federal spending in districts serving low shares of black and Hispanic students. Although he tells NPR, these patterns “do not necessarily imply that ESSER’s impact varies because of student demographics. Instead, the results may reflect other district characteristics that happen to correlate with the student populations the districts serve.”

Reardon and Kane found no statistically significant evidence for this type of variation.

Goldhaber and Falken also found that cities made more math gains than cities, while rural areas led the way in reading growth. Interestingly, suburban districts generally experienced “smaller, insignificant impacts” from federal spending in both areas.

But did the money help enough?

If your standard for “enough” is a full restoration for all students of the education they missed during the pandemic, then the money hasn’t solved the entire problem.

But the researchers behind both studies say this is an unrealistic and unreasonable benchmark. After all, Congress only required that districts spend at least 20% of ESSER III funds on learning recovery. The rest of the relief came with relatively few strings attached.

Instead, the researchers say, the money’s effectiveness should be judged by a more realistic measure, based on what previous research has shown that money can and cannot buy.

Harvard’s Tom Kane, from Study #1, points out that their results are consistent with pre-pandemic research on the impact of school spending, and indicate a clear long-term return on investment.

“These academic gains will translate into improvements in earnings and other outcomes that will last a lifetime,” Kane tells NPR.

For example, the academic gain associated with every $1,000 in spending per student would be worth $1,238 in future earnings, Kane estimates. Improved academic performance also brings valuable social benefits, he says, including fewer arrests and less teen motherhood.

Moreover, Reardon tells NPR, because these federal dollars went disproportionately to lower-income districts, “not only do we find that the federal investment increased test scores, but we also found that it reduced educational inequality.”

But the work is not over yet.

In Study #2, Goldhaber and Falken write: “To recover from these residual losses, our estimates suggest that schools would need between $9,000 and $13,000 in additional funds per student, assuming the return on those funds is comparable to what we expect ESSER III had estimated. ”

They also warn that middle-income districts could continue to struggle — suffering academic losses but receiving less federal aid.

In a presidential election year, Congress is unlikely to agree to send more money to schools. And Goldhaber worries: With ESSER funds starting to expire this year, districts will have to cut staff.

“Some districts, especially high-poverty, high-minority districts, will lose so much money that I think teacher layoffs are inevitable,” Goldhaber tells NPR. “So I’m afraid there’s a downside to the funding gap that we’re not thinking about carefully enough.”

The good news, Kane says, is that ESSER was a massive, “brute force” effort, and that a much smaller, state-driven effort could still make a big difference, as long as it is hyper-focused on academic interventions.

Kane says, “It is up to the states to complete the recovery.”

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