Supporting Students and Schools: Promising Practices to Get Back on Track

Testimony Submitted by Dan Goldhaber to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions


AIR Vice President Dan Goldhaber addressed the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions during a full committee hearing on June 22, 2022: Supporting Students and Schools: Promising Practices to Get Back on Track. Dr. Goldhaber is director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) at AIR and director of the Center for Education Data & Research (CEDR) at the University of Washington. Under Dr. Goldhaber’s direction, scholars at both CALDER and CEDR conduct empirical research using state administrative data to inform decisions about policy and practice. An economist by training, his work focuses on educational productivity and reform in K–12 education and the array of human capital policies that influence the composition, distribution, and quality of teachers in the workforce. He also studies the connection between students’ K–12 experiences and their postsecondary outcomes.

U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions

Summary of Written Statement by Dr. Dan Goldhaber

Over the last year, I have been working with colleagues from NWEA, Harvard University, and Dartmouth College to better understand the COVID pandemic’s impact on student learning and school district recovery efforts. I highlight two findings from this work in my testimony:

First, COVID Had a Devastating Impact on Student Learning. Our analysis of millions of test scores last fall found students were on average about 3 months behind in math and 2 months behind in reading. Like other researchers, we also found that historically disadvantaged students were hit the hardest by these losses. The bottom line is that the pandemic put the nation in a deep academic hole. Unless we dig ourselves out, many students will face diminished life prospects and social inequality will increase.

Second, COVID Impacts Were Not the Same Everywhere. As devastating as COVID’s impact on student learning has been, the story was not the same everywhere. Recovery plans need to be big enough to meet the scale of the challenge, but they also need to be responsive to local variation.

My testimony also highlights six ideas for how to get schools and students back on track:

1. Keep Schools Open. Beyond HVAC upgrades, states can help keep schools open by streamlining the credentialling of substitute teachers and helping districts plan to strategically deploy substitutes and teachers in the case of another COVID surge.

2. Make Sure District Responses Add Up. Districts need to make clear-eyed assessments of the potential impact of their recovery-focused interventions and whether they are sufficient to help all students catch up. States or the federal government could help these assessments by supporting a “COVID recovery calculator” that adds up the estimated impacts of district initiatives and tracks academic improvement over time.

3. Help Districts Monitor and Adjust. Although interventions like high-dosage tutoring are promising, we do not know yet if recovery interventions at scale will be effective or sufficient. Districts will need to monitor results as they go, learn from bright spots, and adapt as necessary. To assess progress, districts should map out multi-year targets for student achievement on a trajectory towards recovery.

4. Narrowly Target Spending on Personnel to Areas of Need. Districts are spending a good deal of their ESSER funds on teachers and other personnel. Districts should target these funds on hard-to-staff subject areas and hard-to-staff schools to send signals to the labor market about where teachers are needed most.

5. Improve Remote Learning. To recover from the pandemic and expand educational opportunity, we also need to invest in remote learning. This includes technological innovation but also innovation in how we prepare, train, and support teachers to be effective at digital instruction.

6. Make Sure There’s a Sufficient Sense of Urgency. As we move into the next phase of the pandemic, the impulse to get back to “normal” is strong. I fear that too many of us lack the sense of urgency this moment demands. Leaders need to make clear that academic recovery from the pandemic will, in most places, be a long-run project that will require all of us to learn and improve.