N.J. schools will get $636 million to combat learning loss. How should they spend it?

New Jersey schools are getting billions of dollars in new coronavirus relief money. A portion of it must go towards reversing learning loss. (John Moore/Getty Images)

As the federal government pumps billions of additional dollars into New Jersey schools, a whopping $636 million is aimed at reversing student learning loss — a huge sum for what many fear is a huge problem.

New Jersey doesn’t have the data to know how much students’ academic progress slowed over the past year of pandemic-disrupted learning, but national test data showed that most students started the school year behind in math and reading.

The learning gaps likely kept growing this school year as the vast majority of New Jersey students still come into classrooms only part time, and some 317,000 students — including those in large urban districts such as Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City — are still fully remote.

“Our educator gut tells us that we need to really plan for extra support,” said Dr. Norma Fernandez, deputy superintendent of the Jersey City school district.

That’s where the federal aid comes in. Congress passed a relief bill in December and a massive stimulus package this month that will funnel billions of dollars into K-12 schools. Together, the two bills provide nearly $4 billion for New Jersey schools — roughly $2,850 per student.

Districts must spend at least 20% of the latest stimulus money on programs to address learning loss, or nearly $498 million across all New Jersey districts, according to estimates by the Congressional Research Service. Another 5% of the state’s stimulus funds, or about $138 million, must also go to learning recovery. 

Separately, New Jersey is using $75 million from the previous relief package to fund “learning acceleration” efforts, such as summer programs and tutoring.

How will districts spend this money to catch students up?

Jersey City is looking to recruit college students to help with tutoring. Hamilton Township is training teachers to incorporate reading skills into lessons in every subject. And the Paterson school district has hired extra reading specialists, purchased an online program for struggling students, and will expand its summer programs.

Schools are also spending the money to teach students about mental health and offer counseling, as most educators say students can’t fully focus on academics if they haven’t processed the turmoil of the past year.

“Every student and family was touched by the coronavirus in some way,” said Paterson Superintendent Eileen Shafer. “There’s a lot of trauma our kids have experienced.”

As schools develop learning recovery plans for this spring and beyond, Chalkbeat asked district leaders, researchers, and service providers for their insights. Here’s what they said.

It all comes down to quality.

Efforts to combat learning loss don’t need to be groundbreaking.

The strategies many experts suggest — tutoring, afterschool programs, and summer learning — are familiar to most districts. What matters most is quality.

“The research shows that tutoring can be really effective,” said Carly Robinson, a researcher at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute, “but it has to be done right.” 

Tutoring must be “high dosage” to boost student achievement, with multiple 30 to 60-minute sessions each week, according to a guide that Robinson co-authored — part of a series of research briefs meant to inform schools’ recovery efforts. (One meta-analysis found that high-dosage tutoring was 15-20 times more effective than less frequent tutoring.) Tutoring groups must be small, with four students or fewer, and the lessons should reinforce what’s taught in class.

Effective summer programs have some of the same features: daily small-group instruction, high-quality content aligned with the school curriculum, and monitoring to ensure staffers properly teach the material, according to research cited in a National Summer Learning Association guidebook.

Those effective practices are a far cry from what actually happens in some schools. Tutoring can be sporadic, and summer classes often are not demanding or engaging. 

More than $55 million of New Jersey’s latest relief funds are reserved for summer and afterschool programs. District could use the money to revamp their offerings — for instance, by hiring outside groups to provide intensive tutoring or purchasing new teaching materials.

But again, quality matters. After Atlanta Public Schools launched a new tutoring program in 2016, researchers found problems with the online curriculum, limited coordination between tutors and teachers, and insufficient instructional time. The program had no measurable effect on student learning.

You can only help students who show up.

Ramping up support programs is a great idea — if students attend.

District leaders across New Jersey say they plan to expand their existing summer and afterschool programs so more students can participate. But in districts such as Newark, summer school is optional except for a limited number of struggling students. 

Last year, just 4,000 students — about 11% of district students — attended Newark’s virtual summer programs, Superintendent Roger León said. Participation was a problem even before the pandemic. 

“People in our city, when they hear that something is not mandatory, they don’t think they need to go,” León said in 2018 when discussing that summer’s low turnout.

The attendance challenge is widespread. A rigorous study of high-quality summer programs in five cities found limited academic benefits. The reason: 20% of enrolled students never showed up, and those who did missed about a quarter of the sessions. Only the fraction of students who consistently attended saw significant learning gains.

Even getting students to register can be difficult. One study found that students with the greatest academic needs were unlikely to sign up for optional tutoring.

So what can districts do? 

Experts suggest scheduling tutoring during the school day. One meta-analysis found that during-school tutoring was about twice as effective as afterschool tutoring.

Mandatory summer school tends to have higher attendance. But voluntary programs can boost turnout by setting clear expectations — for instance, removing students who miss more than three days — and providing incentives, such as field trips and celebrations, for good attendance.

Recruitment is also essential. Dr. Scott Rocco, superintendent of the Hamilton Township school district, said staffers might conduct home visits to explain the importance of summer learning to families. They also hope to make the program so fun that students want to attend.

“You’ve got to figure out a way to make it creative, interesting, and engaging,” he said.

Don’t go it alone.

Throughout the pandemic, local groups have been a lifeline for many students and families.

In Newark, After-School All-Stars New Jersey has offered virtual tutoring since classrooms closed, along with cooking, sewing, and music production classes. The Boys & Girls Club of Newark offers a full-day program that provides supervision while students take remote classes, followed by enrichment activities and homework help.

Now, both groups say they’re eager to assist with recovery efforts. The Newark Boys & Girls Club is developing a tutoring program aimed at reversing learning loss, said CEO Ameer Washington. And as Newark district and charter schools plan to reopen classrooms next month, After-School All-Stars is ready to bring back its programs — if schools allow them, said Executive Director Nicole Harris.

“If they are willing to let external organizations in,” she said, “then we will be there to support students.”

Aaron P. Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, said that because the relief money will flow through districts, they should set clear expectations for partner organizations and make sure everyone is on the same page. 

Effective programs that help students rebound from the pandemic are within reach, he added.

“We have the research, we have best practices, we have partners — and now we have money,” he said. “We should be able to do this.”

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