Smarter ESSER Spending

How district leaders can strategically use ESSER funds to support learning recovery among priority students

Our nation’s K-12 students have been among those hardest hit by COVID-19.

School closures, remote learning, and widespread stress on families have all taken their toll: In the fall of 2021, K-12 students were an average of four months behind in math and three months behind in reading.3

This impact has not been evenly distributed. The students hit hardest by the pandemic are those that were the most vulnerable going into it — students affected by poverty, as well as Black and Latino students, who already trailed their white peers in terms of achievement. The pandemic has widened the achievement gap by a third4 – and while white students are currently showing signs of learning recovery, Black, Latino, and Native students are not progressing at the same rate.5

To help accelerate recovery in our education system, Congress has allocated $193 billion to K-12 schools via the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Act (ESSER). ESSER represents a historical infusion of funding for K-12 schools, providing more than three times the funds that ARRA delivered following the Great Recession.

The problem? District leaders are facing an overwhelming number of competing priorities in the wake of COVID. Our research suggests that so far, many have delayed spending ESSER funds, or are spending more on facilities improvements and COVID safety measures than on strategic improvements to teaching and learning. We believe there is a major missed opportunity here: ESSER funds can and should be leveraged to promote learning recovery among the students most harmed by the pandemic, and to create sustainable change moving forward.

We interviewed district leaders and industry experts, and we surveyed a broader set of K-12 leaders, to explore how districts can strategically use ESSER funds to these ends. We sought to answer three fundamental questions:

  • What are districts’ greatest needs in the wake of the pandemic?
  • Which solutions have the potential to meet these needs and make the biggest impact on student learning?
  • What’s standing in districts’ way of purchasing and implementing these solutions — and what can be done about it?

In the course of this research, two solution categories stood out for their promise to provide personalized, targeted, and intensive support to struggling students: digital supplements and high-dosage tutoring. Below, we explore each in further detail.

This effort marks the beginning of an ongoing conversation around how K-12 district leaders can use federal funds to improve learning outcomes for priority students. We look forward to evolving this work with additional data and insights — and to partnering with districts to help them navigate the education market to deliver on their promise to all students.

1 McKinsey: “COVID-19 and education: A k-shaped recovery” / 2 McKinsey / 3 McKinsey: “COVID-19 and education: A k-shaped recovery” / 4 McKinsey / 5 Renaissance: “How kids are performing”

Need help identifying how you can use ESSER funds to make sustainable improvements to teaching and learning?
The Center for Education Market Dynamics works to connect district leaders with insights into the education market that enable them to make smarter decisions about the products and services they use.