Michael Watson is the former chief academic officer for Delaware (2013-18) and is the vice president of policy and advocacy at New Classrooms Innovation Partners, a nonprofit focused on bringing transformative innovation to K-12 schooling.
A large infusion of federal funds is now available to schools across the United States, with a significant amount targeting unfinished learning. President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan allocates more than $120 billion to schools, 10% of which will be set aside for state-level activities, with a requirement that state education agencies focus at least half of these funds to address unfinished learning. Districts will need to spend another 20% of ARP funds to directly address learning loss.
During my tenure as a chief academic officer in Delaware, I had the opportunity to work with an infusion of federal dollars as one of the first two states to win the Race to the Top initiative. The top takeaway: Rather than purchasing tools, textbooks or off-the-shelf programs, what had the greatest impact for students and families was investing in building systems to support the state’s boldest education initiatives — from reforming Delaware’s career pathways to advancing the First State’s college and career readiness agenda.
So how should the ARP funds be spent? The mandate requires a multi-faceted agenda, including critical interventions that focus on reopening schools and keeping them open, and others that will aim to provide tutoring, extend instructional time or lengthen the academic year. Importantly, there are funds set up specifically to meet the academic, social and emotional needs of students and families who have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
But unless we build systems that can reform the century-old learning model that has been failing students since well before the pandemic, these interventions will prove to be insufficient. To achieve long-term results for students, we need comprehensive reform of how school works.
Fortunately, public education stakeholders largely agree. Public polling data shows that for families and teachers, students being behind is a top issue. And a significant majority of teachers and parents believe schools need to be more innovative. For example, a recent survey of parents reported out by Public Impact found 58% of all parents — and 67% of Black parents — “want schools to rethink how they educate students.”
The work to transform education begins with changing the existing operating model itself and challenging the limitations of the predominant, age-based classroom. This will require the use of innovative learning models that are more focused on tailoring instruction to the unique strengths and needs of each student. An innovative learning model is a holistic, school-based program that integrates teachers and technology so schools can systematically support a personalized approach to education for each and every student. Model providers are not school managers, but they share in the accountability for student outcomes.
One thoughtful example of a state-led effort to reimagine schools and solve unfinished learning is the Innovation Zone initiative in Texas. Rather than invest in off-the-shelf solutions, the Texas Education Agency has built a comprehensive system to address learning loss that predates the pandemic. Instead of being focused on one-size-fits-all assessment and accountability policies, Texas’ Innovation Zones are student-centered, providing participating districts and schools with flexibility in how they measure learning growth.
This gives educators the time and space to address each individual student’s unfinished learning. Simultaneously, the Innovation Zone system’s utilization of innovative model providers sets up a shared accountability system that ensures schools and its third-party partners are laser-focused on achieving meaningful learning outcomes for students.
What are some other hallmarks of this systems-building approach? For one, states must play a leading role in how student growth is monitored over time. That allows them to hold providers accountable — a game-changer and the harbinger for a new, more effective accountability system.
For other states, using ARP funds to adopt Innovation Zones can allow the introduction of new personalized learning mechanisms for students and the development of shared accountability for results as part of a broader statewide strategy. This personalized approach enables the state to play a significant role in ensuring all students reach college- and career-readiness, but without the limitations of a grade-level structure. In short, Innovation Zones provide a framework for state policymakers to support schools in an environment designed to meet each student’s unique needs.
States now have immediate access to federal funds and have less than a month to map out what this looks like for their schools. The education chiefs who are making decisions about how to maximize the reach and impact of this money should make sure that the long-term success of students is at the center of their plans.
Investing in transformative systems-building solutions, not off-the-shelf products or programs, will have a far-reaching impact that goes well beyond the next few years of post-pandemic recovery. We owe it to the students and their families to ensure we’re making the most of this unique opportunity to reimagine education.