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Focused federal relief fund spending can help avoid long-term harm to BPS students

National data last month revealed two decades of progress in advancing student learning were erased in just two years, most dramatically for Black and Latino students.

BPS teachers and volunteers at the Boston Public Central office helped deliver printed packets to Boston schools in March 2020.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The latest evidence of the pandemic’s impact on Boston’s youth came last week with the release of spring 2022 MCAS data. They revealed the following: Over 70 percent of students are not meeting grade-level expectations in grades 3-8 in English language arts or math, and in 10th grade more than half of students did not meet expectations in English language arts or math.

These data were just one more piece of evidence that the pandemic has harmed children’s academic, social, and emotional development. National data last month revealed the same thing — two decades of progress in advancing student learning were erased in just two years, most dramatically for Black and Latino students. Meanwhile, chronic absenteeism in Boston nearly doubled from 22 percent before the pandemic to 42 percent in 2022. There’s an increase in reported bullying and safety incidents and a nationwide mental health crisis among teenagers.


Urgently addressing the needs of students is critical for ensuring the generation of children impacted by the pandemic do not suffer long-term harm. With only two remaining school years to spend hundreds of millions of available federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, the city should harness these resources in four critical areas:

Evidence-based literacy instruction. In the average Boston third-grade classroom, only 7 of 25 students will end the year on grade level in reading; before the pandemic it was 10 students. Not only is this a crisis that calls for robust intervention, given the importance of literacy for a broad range of life outcomes, but it is possible to move the needle. Research shows that investing in an evidenced-based approach to literacy instruction — which teaches phonics, includes high-quality curriculum, and aligns training and coaching for teachers — can improve literacy rates. States across the country are adopting this approach. Massachusetts and Boston have started but can use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding to go much further, including ensuring every school is using evidence-based curriculum and that every elementary teacher is fully trained in that curriculum and the delivery of phonics instruction.


High-dosage tutoring. Even with improved classroom instructional practices, many students need more time and individualized attention from trained adults. High-dosage tutoring — defined as at least three 30 minute sessions per week — has repeatedly shown the largest positive effects on both math and reading of any education interventions, including reducing class sizes. Researchers agree that despite high initial cost, this is an essential strategy for district recovery and one of the most cost-effective given the clear evidence that it works in helping even the most struggling students. Boston could learn from large-scale tutoring efforts in Chicago and Tennessee and look for experienced local partners like City Year.

Coherent wraparound services. Increased mental health and social-emotional needs of students are straining schools and districts that were never designed to manage this volume or concentration of need. Expecting schools that are already trying to address major academic gaps, while managing continued COVID disruptions for students and staff, to also build an effective wraparound service delivery operation defies logic. In Boston, we are lucky because we have a proven, home-grown wraparound model in City Connects, but it is not yet in place in every school. After decades of successful operation in Boston, we should scale this model across all schools and ensure that there is adequate staffing dedicated to coordination.


Increased operations capacity. If we are going to help students recover, educators need to be able to focus on the critical instructional and social-emotional support work that happens each day in our schools. Adding recovery supports like high-dosage tutoring or increased wraparound services require significant operational coordination. Reflecting on her experience managing school operations, the former head of school of Boston Latin urged school-level investment for dedicated operations staff, a model that many autonomous public schools successfully employ and which could be put in place in BPS.

A focused, evidence-based approach can make a difference in stemming the impact of the pandemic. For Boston, this will require discipline and a willingness to make large enough investments to address the actual scale of the challenges. Our students made many sacrifices over the past two years, giving up sports and activities, proms and graduations, and precious time learning with their teachers and peers. We owe them the best shot we have at a full recovery.

Kerry Donahue is chief strategy officer at Boston Schools Fund.