The Biden Administration’s new “Improving Student Achievement Agenda” would have been great… if it came out in March 2021 instead of January 2024.
Let me start by praising its substance. It urges states, schools, and districts to adopt strategies that increase student attendance, provide high-dosage tutoring, and increase summer learning and extended or afterschool time.
This is a short, focused list. And they are the right things to focus on. Chronic absenteeism rates are shockingly high, particularly in urban areas and disadvantaged communities. High-dosage tutoring is a high-impact intervention and we keep findings new ways it can work. And when schools shut down kids lost time with their peers, time with teachers, and time on task. Finding ways to give students more time in school was and remains a good idea to help students recover.
The Administration is also attempting to show leadership by setting priorities, rather than just talking generically about recovery. They brought in outside partners to commit to further efforts, and they’re asking states and districts to track measurable things like the number of home visits, the number and percentage of students receiving tutoring services, and the amount of extra time students receive in afterschool or summer programs.
Most importantly, they’re finally focusing on students, rather than school systems or adult employees.
And yet, the timing here is downright awful. During the event, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona urged school leaders by saying, “Let’s fight complacency. We need all hands on deck.”
Where was Cardona’s sense of urgency over the last few years?!
Here at EduProgress.org, we led a bi-partisan process in 2021 and 2022 to identify promising education recovery practices across seven different categories. At the time, our goal was to help spread the word about the most innovative and thoughtful interventions states and school districts were pursuing. For example, our expert panel of reviewers loved a Connecticut initiative called the Learner Engagement and Attendance Program (LEAP) as an evidence-based approach to re-engage students after COVID. Secretary Cardona seconded our endorsement of the LEAP program yesterday, but it’s infuriating how long it’s taken them to pay attention.
No, the Administration is late to the party. The data on America’s education system has been screaming alarm bells for nearly three years now. I wrote about research showing the harms of long school closures way back in May 2020. As early as June of 2020, the New York Times was running front-page stories predicting that student achievement would plummet. Since then we’ve had multiple rounds of NAEP results, the Nation’s Report Card, in multiple subjects, all showing that student achievement levels had fallen to multi-decade lows. Heck, when the international PISA scores came out last month showing that American students had performed significantly worse in math, Cardona’s response amounted to saying, “other countries were worse.”
It’s not just that Secretary Cardona and the Biden Administration are late to raise the alarm. It’s that their message is now outdated for the current moment. It’s like they’re pretending the last three years never existed and the federal COVID relief funds are still sitting out there left to be spent.
The $122 billion in ESSER III funds, passed in March of 2021 on Biden and Cardona’s watch, is set to expire at the end of this year. It’s nice that the U.S. Department of Education is now telling states and districts they can file for an extension on certain contracts, but, other than some under-spending, the money has either been spent already or budgeted elsewhere.
The White House is now missing an opportunity to weigh in on the problems that districts will actually face over the coming year. Last year, we started pivoting to monitoring implementation efforts and urging districts to plan for the spending surge to end. Yet there was nothing in the Administration’s new plan about the current challenges. They did not urge district leaders to evaluate their spending so far, figure out what’s working, and plan for how to preserve those activities as the ESSER funds run dry. They didn’t even call on states or Congress to help backfill district budgets!
White House Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden said the new agenda should act as “a detailed roadmap” for states. She must have been living under a rock for the last few years, because this roadmap is well out of date.