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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Academic recovery has stalled, but Massachusetts schools still have over $1 billion to spend in federal funds. What’s going on?

School officials at the Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston are using federal money to pay for academic catch-up team-teaching efforts.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

When the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021, hopes were high across the country that the much-needed influx of funds to public schools could help students recover from months of remote learning, and also fill holes in school infrastructure the pandemic exposed, like outdated HVAC systems.

But with a year remaining to spend the $2.6 billion in total relief funds that went to Massachusetts schools, it’s unclear how far those dollars have gone, and what they have achieved. State test scores from the 2021-22 school year showed a partial recovery, but more recent national data from the assessment and research organization NWEA showed a concerning reversal: after progress in the prior year, scores backslid in 2022-23.

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Megan Kuhfield, a researcher with NWEA, attributed the decline to “how difficult it has been for districts to implement their recovery plans.”

“I think schools are already doing or attempting to do many of the things the research supports,” like tutoring programs and summer school programs, Kuhfield said.

It will be months before we know how Massachusetts students did on the 2023 MCAS, but even after last year’s results, state leaders said they had a long way to go. Absent further recovery, students stand to take major hits to lifetime income and other outcomes — with the most harm inflicted upon the highest-needs students.

The amount of federal dollars Massachusetts districts have spent so far varies widely. The median district or charter has spent about two-thirds of its allocation, according to state data. Some districts have spent every dollar — Brockton, for example, spent the last of its $53.6 million in June. Others still have the vast majority of their money; New Bedford has spent about 30 percent of its $74.3 million, and Boston has spent just under a third of its $431.6 million, according to the state data.

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The slow start in some districts was driven by a variety of issues, including staffing shortages, construction delays, and problems with outside tutoring vendors. But with half of the funds, known as ESSER aid, yet to be claimed from the state, district leaders said they still believe they have an opportunity to make an impact with the money.

“There needs to be all hands on deck in order to simultaneously improve classroom teaching and do anything and everything possible to bridge the gap for students most affected by pandemic-inflicted learning loss,” said Lydia Rainey, a Center for Reinventing Public Education researcher behind a recent report that found many school systems gave up on tutoring services, after they proved ineffective, and shifted focus to basic instruction.

The report found that tutoring, one of the most widely touted recovery methods, was so hamstrung by staffing shortages that many districts ended their contracts with vendors.

“There were not enough tutors, or when they could get additional folks, the quality generally was not what they were used to seeing,” Rainey said.

That includes Boston Public Schools, which touted in November 2021 that it had partnered with the tutoring platform Paper to provide tutoring for three years.

“For the number of students it was reaching for its cost and our assessment of how it’s been working, it hasn’t been worth it,” said Shira Decovnick, the district’s director of state and federal grant programs. The district budgeted millions in ESSER and other grants for Paper, but only a small fraction of students ever used it, district spokesman Max Baker said.

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School system leaders who spoke to CRPE also reported that classroom instruction had suffered from the pandemic, said Rainey, so they have shifted their focus to improving core instruction, rather than tutoring. Curriculum upgrades and professional development have been popular investments in Massachusetts.

The state data, last updated on July 11, is not real-time, a state spokeswoman noted. Decovnick said that Boston often spends money before claiming it back from the state, and she expects Boston by September will have spent closer to 60 percent.

Boston planned to spend its money across seven areas: core teaching, including special-needs students in general education classrooms; teaching English learners in their native languages; college and career pathways; equity; engagement; and facilities. About $160 million was allocated at the school level, for principals to spend. Large amounts went to the HVAC installation and other facilities work, COVID mitigation, the district’s new literacy curriculum, and after-school programming. Summer programming also has been expanded to nearly 17,000 students this year, or about a third of the district’s enrollment, up more than 40 percent in two years.

But two years after receiving the influx of money, district officials don’t yet have good data on what is working, Decovnik said.

“We’re definitely seeing that the programs we’re doing are reaching students, but I think isolating exactly what the impact is is something we don’t have numbers for today,” she said.

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District officials said it has not been a lack of urgency on their part that has caused the delay in spending down the remaining $200 million in federal money. Instead, Decovnick contends hiring delays drove a slow start to spending and created a bottleneck for other spending, like facilities work. But she said the money will be spent or contracted out by the September 2024 deadline.

Other districts said the same thing. New Bedford, like Boston, had facilities work — a priority given the district’s century-old buildings — start slow, but it still expects to get it done in time. Springfield has one planned project, a city-wide wireless internet network, that may not be ready in time, but it has so many needed HVAC improvements that it will be able to shift funds to those if need be. Both districts used ESSER funds for learning recovery, as well, but found local resources — such as retired teachers in the case of Springfield — more practical for tutoring needs than hiring outside companies.

In Brockton, meanwhile, the priority was put on making sure every dollar was spent, said Chief Financial Officer Aldo Petronio.

“Whenever there’s a deadline, I don’t go all the way to the very end,” Petronio said. “I don’t like to take chances.”

Specifically, the district spent large amounts on curriculum upgrades and buying its own buses — saving money long-term and enabling more students to access district resources, such as the high school’s planetarium. The district also rolled out more after-school homework help and mentoring, but it too used its own teachers and local community groups, rather than hiring an outside vendor.

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Kuhfield, the NWEA researcher, said the ESSER spending has likely made an impact, it just hasn’t been enough for the scale of the need.

Without it, she said, “it’s likely kids would’ve been worse off.”

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.


Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.