As state and school system leaders consider how to spend the billions of dollars devoted to K-12 education through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) provisions of the American Rescue Plan Actwe urge you to balance the urgency of now with a thoughtful, inclusive, systemic approach to  reimagining school in ways that center students who have spent their educational careers on the margins. These historic levels of education funding and the flexibility with which they can be spent create an opportunity to allocate resources for both short-term fixes and long-term changeWe can no longer continue to cover with Band-Aids the systemic racism that our school systems were founded on. Now is the time for transformation. Transformation comes from being strategic and investing in your people. 

Consider where we are as a nation: Millions of young people have missed months of school in the last year. Black and brown students have been much less likely than their white classmates to attend school in person in part because a long history of broken trust has made some families question whether schools will keep their children safe. Layer that with the fact that students of color are less likely to have adequate access to the Internet and computers at home. As one principal told us, “We have kids who were not struggling before who are struggling now.” At the same time, students have learned so much during the pandemic and this last year of racial reawakening that is not covered by traditional assessments and textbooks. We urge teachers and leaders to consider how to honor that learning and use it as a springboard for deepening students’ sociopolitical consciousness and their ability to question and push their thinking.  

As the U.S. Department of Education notes in its recovery guidance to school systems, “If well-invested, funding through ARP can help address gaps in educational opportunity and outcomes — not just during the COVID-19 pandemic, but beyond.” 

Here we offer some targeted investment guidance for state and school system leaders that gets to the core of disrupting inequities and creating learning experiences that are intentionally designed to meet the needs of every student.  

Investing in developing teachers and leaderwho can take the culturally responsive approach needed to transform learning experiences for every student is critical to the success of the short-term investments needed to accelerate student learningWe recommend those smart short-term investments include:  

  • Creating opportunities for teachers to collaborate in analyzing and then teaching grade level standards that are essential for accelerating learning to prepare students for the next grade level.  
  • Establishing “high-dosage” tutoringafter-school and summer programs staffed with high quality teachers and designed with engaging content to meet student needsConsider how effective paraprofessionals, teachers, retired educators, or local college students can support this effort. And rather than focus on interventions, invest in enrichment opportunities that are community and culturally centered and that cultivate the social-political consciousness of our students. 
  • Engaging familiesstudentsand teachers in a process for planning out recovery. 

Given the flexibility permitted in how districts spend the federal stimulus funding, this is also the time to invest in strategic planning and developing your team so that you can make long-term change:  

Take a comprehensive approach to ongoing culturally responsive professional learning  

Investment in your leaders is an investment in your school and district’s future – in your students’ future. It takes culturally responsive leaders to create equitable schools, as recent research has confirmed, and school leaders have as much impact as teachers on student learning. For leaders to be equity-focused, for them to develop and implement the policies and practices needed to identify and address (systemic and institutional) bias and inequities in schools, they require very particular skills, knowledge and mindsets. This is not about just learning some new techniques. It requires adopting dispositions that can only be developed and refined through ongoing learning.  

Rather than spending valuable school resources on one-off workshopswe urge you to consider the impact and value in ongoing professional learning opportunities. Coaching, when done well either one-on-one or in small groups, encompasses the traits of effective professional learning: it challenges leaders’ thinking, provides effective and actionable feedback, and includes opportunities for reflection. As research has shown, school leaders make real sustainable improvements at their schools with ongoing, individualized, and job-embedded support 

As you examine your school or district budget, calculate what it would cost per student to provide coaching to members of your leadership team, and consider building that into your per pupil expenditures. Many districts have found it can cost as little as $4/student per year (compared to $75,000 to replace a principal). Also consider how you can infuse coaching practices across your school or district by developing teachersprincipal supervisors, other leaders to serve as coaches for their colleagues, scheduling the time for that kind of collaboration and support to happen in service of continuous learning and improvement.   

Conduct an equity-focused audit 

Strategic resource allocation requires taking a step back to truly understand what your school and district need, what your students need. A collaborative, equity-focused audit process is essential for helping you identify your gaps. An audit starts with an examination of a range of data – formative and summative assessments, discipline, feedback on school culture and climate from stakeholder focus groups, town halls, and surveys. A root cause analysis of the data will then help you and your team begin to understand what underlying policies and practices have led to inequities and will support you in determining some targeted strategies and how to monitor and review your progress over time.  

An audit might lead you to then conduct an equity-focused review of your curriculum. Engaging and challenging learning experiences accurately and respectfully include and represent all cultures, races, and ethnic groups. It’s critical that schools and districts closely examine their curriculum. Consider whose voices students are hearing in history class, in the books and stories they read in English class, the scientists, inventorsand mathematicians they learn aboutSome states are looking to mandate more robust and diverse curriculum, including ethnic studies programs, but students cannot wait for state legislatures – they need more culturally responsive learning opportunities now.   

Please use our free equity-focused strategic planning guide, Equity at Work, to consider how to target your efforts.   

Let’s not miss the moment to invest in our students’ future, and in our future students.