Using federal pandemic emergency funds that will soon dissipate, schools and their broader communities could take six actions to advance racial equity, a McKinsey & Company report released Friday recommends.
Closing racial gaps for educational opportunities and achievement would improve social mobility for students of color and contribute to a higher national gross domestic product, the report said. In fact, had student achievement gaps of Black and Hispanic students been closed in 2009, the U.S. GDP in 2019 would have been $426 billion to $705 billion higher, according to McKinsey data.
But opportunity and achievement gaps persist, and there's a long way to go. At the pace of change before the COVID-19 pandemic, educational parity in the U.S. would have taken another 60 to 160 years, McKinsey researchers said.
The pandemic stunted progress in this area and led to falling scores in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2022, with math scores for Black and Hispanic 4th graders dipping at higher rates compared to White students.
"These developments, and the availability of federal funding to combat pandemic-related learning delays, offer an opportunity for action," the report said.
That federal funding from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, however, must be obligated by Sept. 30, 2024.
The report breaks its six recommended actions into two categories — those that can be handled within school systems and those for the broader community to undertake.
School system actions
Strengthen core early literacy instruction. Research shows struggling readers are disproportionately students of color. Of the 1 million 4th graders who did not read at a proficient level in 2019, two-thirds were Black or Hispanic.
Several states have put additional resources and attention to improving early literacy. The report recommends states and districts use ESSER funding to access their early reading programs, which could lead to curriculum changes, expanded professional development programs and other initiatives.
Allocate resources equitably. Students of color disproportionately attend schools with early-career and lower-paid teachers. Additionally, schools receive between $400 and $1,200 less per pupil nationally to educate historically underserved students, compared to White and economically advantaged students, research has shown.
The report advises system leaders to examine resource allocation with an equity mindset when considering distribution of the most effective staff, use of facilities, per-pupil expenditures, and shared central resources.
Increase instructional time. Additional learning time can help combat pandemic-related learning losses and support the learning growth of students of color. High-dosage, intensive tutoring has been found to more than double math learning for high schoolers in one school year, according to research from the University of Chicago.
At the state level, the report highlights tutoring programs in Tennessee and Minnesota as effective approaches for supporting districts. The report encourages systems to use ESSER funding, which requires districts to reserve at least 20% of their allocations to address pandemic learning loss, to increase instructional time.
Broader community actions
Ensure access to high-quality preschool. Attending a high-quality pre-K program can close as much as 50% of the racial achievement gap, according to research cited in the report. Additionally, children who attend pre-K later have higher test scores, better language development, better attendance and fewer behavioral problems.
The report recommends school systems partner with state and local leaders, parents, child care programs and others to expand pre-K access. While some communities have used ESSER dollars to launch pilot programs, additional and sustainable funding will likely be needed for the long term.
Provide wraparound services. Schools that also support children's health, housing and nutrition needs can produce positive outcomes for students. The report highlights the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, which coordinates supports for children and their families, including education, violence prevention presentations, health clinics and more.
McKinsey recommends schools identify a leader who can build a wraparound program with partners and help develop collaborations, encourage momentum and plan for long-term support.
Address racial, ethnic and economic divisions. To disrupt segregated systems, the report encourages districts to study enrollment and demographic patterns in their communities to understand both the challenges and opportunities.
By partnering with local groups, school systems can better understand the changes families might support and gather feedback from all stakeholders to build coalitions for change. ESSER funds could be used for planning and engagement, the report said.
While these six actions can lead to meaningful improvement in equitable practices, the report said, researchers warn that consistent implementation as well as implementation at scale have been a challenge. And even if the practices were implemented to scale, they would advance equitable practices but may not eliminate racial disparities altogether, they said.