Let evidence-based strategies lead the way in addressing learning loss

As states and local districts seek stimulus funding, address learning losses while being mindful of three related areas of concern: social and emotional well-being, growing inequities among vulnerable groups, and teachers’ mental health.
By: and | May 10, 2021

Sara Kerr (left) is Vice President of Education Policy Implementation and Kate Tromble is Vice President of Federal Policy at Results for America.

With the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, K-12 schools across the country now have a historic opportunity to address the pandemic’s impact on students. Nearly $122 billion has begun flowing to states and school districts through the law’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Twenty-five percent of the fund—more than $30 billion—is set aside specifically for evidence-based interventions aimed at learning losses.

For educators and policymakers alike, it’s time to zero in on strategies with a track record of working. We have an unusual window of opportunity to translate what we know about the science of learning and development into meaningful and impactful programming for students this year and beyond. Much attention has been paid to high-dosage tutoring (including by us), and for good reason. But it’s a mistake to think of tutoring strategies in a vacuum. They are just one among a suite of high-impact strategies that, if used well, could make a real difference to students’ academic, mental health, and well-being.

Children have been through a traumatic year. Academic progress is unlikely to occur without also attending to students’ broader needs. As states and local districts seek American Rescue Plan funding, we suggest they address learning losses while mindful of three related areas of concern in schools: social and emotional well-being, growing inequities among vulnerable groups, and teachers’ mental health.

In terms of academic learning losses, small-group, individualized support from a consistent adult over time is key—high-dosage tutoring, vacation academies and double-dosing are all proven strategies. As Secretary Cardona recently affirmed, these efforts should be opt-out (not opt-in) and should avoid hours of “drill and kill” academics—that won’t work, and may in fact harm students held furthest from opportunity. Catch-up programs must make space for joy. Allow outdoor time and activities for children to refresh, and offer healthy foods. Strategies to avoid when it comes to learning losses: compressed content and grade retention, as researchers have noted in recent EdResearch for Recovery briefs.

Again, students are far more likely to recover learning losses when their broader needs are being met. Three areas are especially important to monitor right now: students’ mental health, their social systems of support, and the variation in student learning environments. Learning losses are more likely acute in the early grades and among already struggling students, so that is one clear place to target recovery efforts.

Building and sustaining the relationships that allow students to thrive requires school-wide systems and genuine engagement with families and local communities. Insights from behavioral science can improve school communication with all families: highlight parental efficacy and key actions caregivers can follow up with. Finally, don’t give short shrift to teachers. Some of the most significant impacts on student mental health occur through interventions focused on teacher mental health. When teachers are thriving, students are more likely to as well.

Go Beyond 20%

The new legislation requires that 20% of the funding received by a local school district be reserved for “evidence-based interventions” to address learning loss. In our view, 20% should be a floor, not a ceiling, in terms of funding proven strategies. All districts will likely pursue some mix of tutoring programs, summer enrichment, and extended days to recover lost learning and address students’ social and emotional needs. Districts should let the evidence guide the majority of policy and practice choices, after identifying local needs and priorities through stakeholder outreach.

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Where evidence doesn’t exist, educators and policymakers should also view American Rescue Plan funding as an opportunity to grow the evidence base. If a district or state decides to create its own intervention model, it should start with critical design principles and then evaluate it—ideally in racially and socioeconomically diverse settings so we can deepen our understanding of what helps students in the greatest need. (The federal relief package also contains $100 million in research dollars that will be distributed by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.) Let’s innovate and learn. Districts and states also have an opportunity to build their capacity to continuously improve, whether through investments in tech infrastructure (e.g., upgraded data-tracking systems) or additional staff. Such resources can directly support effective and equitable student support efforts.

There is real urgency in this moment—but governmental leaders must not let that fact result in hurried, compromised decisions. State and local leaders should make it easier for districts and individual schools to seek help via partner organizations familiar with how to design and implement evidence-based interventions. We also suggest they create or consult a pre-approved list of research-savvy resources to lean on. (Three examples: What Works Clearinghouse, Evidence for ESSA and the Department of Education’s new Best Practices Clearinghouse.)

School districts will be receiving an unprecedented amount of money. For context, consider that all Obama-era Race to the Top grants to states totaled $4.35 billion—nearly $2 billion less than what is now in the offering just to SEAs to deal with learning losses. Money alone can’t solve all problems, of course. But equitable programs designed and implemented in tune with the existing evidence base to support the full range of students’ needs hold real potential to help children thrive. The reality is that many students will take years to recover. But they will recover—if we unroll the right strategies to the right students in the right ways.

Sara Kerr and Kate Tromble are, respectively, the Vice President of Education Policy Implementation and the Vice President of Federal Policy at Results for America, a nonprofit that helps policymakers harness the power of evidence and data to solve the world’s greatest challenges.