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May 28, 2020

With fewer funds and greater needs, schools should pursue cost-effectiveness strategies

Originally published on Brookings.edu

As the unprecedented 2019-20 school year draws to an end, school-system decision-makers are shifting their attention from the initial COVID-19 response to plans for the coming school year. In this challenging process, cost-effectiveness principles and evidence can help weigh which strategies best address learning loss and the needs of students.

Projected economic impacts of COVID-19 on student outcomes is huge. Recent projections indicate that student learning loss may be one-third to two-thirds larger than what students normally lose during summer slump. In addition to learning loss, students are disconnected from the stability of school, peer networks, and access to school-based supports, such as mental health servicesschool nurses, and school food. This learning loss affects some students more than others, and it has real consequences for both individual students as well as major economic repercussions for the U.S. as a whole.

Budget cuts make matters even worse, driving up the need to consider cost effectiveness in finding solutions. The severity of budget cuts will become clearer in the coming months, but as projected revenue fallsmassive cuts are anticipated and will last for the next few years at least. Simultaneously, there is a growing need for additional resources, in the ballpark of $133 billion, due to students missing over a third of the school year. Furthermore, schools will need to adapt to new social distancing practices as they reopen next year, likely making the demand for funding even more acute.

We need more “bang for the buck” than ever. As plans are made for summer and fall 2020, these contrasting issues—fewer funds available and the concurrent increases in need—make the stakes for efficient resource allocation even higher than usual. Cost-effectiveness strategies weigh both a program’s efficacy and its costs to understand its efficiency. By understanding efficiency, scarce resources can be allocated to maximize effective outcomes. Below, we apply these principles to highlight three examples of urgently needed programming. Throughout all three, we emphasize efficiencies through systematic, comprehensive approaches that leverage resources from community partners.

Systematic needs assessment

Efficient resource allocation requires states and districts to identify needs and establish corresponding goals. Coordination across departments within education, across child service sectors, and in partnership with community organizations would ensure coverage without duplicating efforts. Teachers, especially at the elementary grade levels, should be a first source as they can identify student needs observed prior to March and flag students who are not engaging in online instruction. Grades, benchmark assessment data, attendance, discipline, and other existing data can supplement and support teacher reports. Also, parents and caregivers should be surveyed. Many schools have text and email access to parents. Some organizations, like EdNC, already undertake text survey campaigns and may offer efficiencies through partnerships. Non-digital efforts, such as providing paper surveys to families via meal distribution or other similar efforts, would be warranted to reach families with limited internet access.

Tutoring

We have known since the ’80s that tutoring, by peers especially, offers a cost-effective solution to improving student achievement. More recently, evidence continues to support tutoring through the use of volunteers and AmeriCorps partnerships. For example, effective programs like Reading Partners and Minnesota Reading Corp provide direct support to students who are behind grade level, using volunteer labor to increase the resources students receive without requiring large budget increases at the school level. Tutoring could be accomplished by hiring trained individuals if volunteers are not available. As we plan for the year ahead, it is critical that we leverage all resources available—through peers, community members, parents/caregivers, AmeriCorps, or a federally funded Tutoring Corps—to support student learning.

Targeted comprehensive supports 

After assessing the range and magnitude of student need, targeted support can be deployed as soon as this summer. In addition to meeting students’ academic needs and addressing learning loss, students also need their comprehensive needs met so that they are able to better access the full value of schooling. These supports focus on students’ physical, mental, socio-emotional, nutritional, and behavioral health. Effective programs, like City Connects, leverage community-based services to efficiently match students to support and to manage their progress and needs over time. The goal of comprehensive support programs is to prevent crises from happening. While we are looking for solutions, implementing systematic support programs and practices now can lead to long-term improvements beyond 2020.

While providing comprehensive support may not be particularly low cost, meeting students’ material needs is an essential component in tackling achievement and learning loss. Work on the City Connects program found that the returns from targeted, systematic supports were greater than the investment. By comparison, schools that did not take a targeted and systematic approach both spent more on administrative time and connected students with fewer community-based services.

Additionally, other student supports are of increased importance, such as access to nutrition and the internet. Some schools are addressing barriers to meal access and instruction by providing food, devices, Wi-Fi hotspots, and materials via bus routes. We know that the consequences of increased student food insecurity had detrimental effects on students during the Great Recession. Given the larger magnitude of the current economic crisis due to COVID-19,  providing students with access to food is a critical component of adequately meeting the educational needs of students.

Programming to address student food insecurity may be provided by both the school district and partner organizations—the key is that schools have a natural connection to students and families and knowledge of their circumstances making this not only an approach to address student learning and development but an approach that is rooted in efficient targeting of supports to those in need. For example, the School District of Philadelphia is providing each student’s household with EBT cards, in addition to meal pick-ups. A local union, the Philadelphia Joint Board, Workers United, is offering students weekly boxes of food through their food bank program. The information about the food bank is shared with families through the schools to ensure that as many students receive support as possible. Programs such as after-school snack and summer meal-delivery programs are also options to leverage the federal school food programming to increase nutritional support for students.

As decision-makers plan ahead, we recommend considering the evidence available to guide allocation of incredibly limited resources and to leverage additional non-budgetary sources to maximize the supports children receive. With the increased demand for already scarce education dollars and looming budget cuts, cost-effectiveness should serve as an important tool in leveraging resources to efficiently and effectively benefit students.

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