As part of the American Rescue Plan passed in March 2021, Tennessee will receive its largest single infusion of federal dollars in K-12 education to address significant learning needs through the third round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds. This money will particularly help students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students facing digital divide challenges, and Black and Hispanic students who disproportionately lacked in-person learning opportunities.

Tennessee has received $3.8 billion across all three ESSER rounds (district allocations can be found here), which will average $3,894 per student and, after accounting for the state’s special schools, range from $200 to more than $11,000 per student. Here are some highlights from our latest memo on how to approach investing ESSER 3.0 federal funding.

Guiding Principles For Student-Focused Investments Of ESSER Dollars

Principle 1: Cast a vision, set public goals
Districts can utilize ESSER funds to not only address immediate COVID-19 related needs but work toward a shared vision of remaking practices and policies based on local input and a shared promise of ensuring equitable opportunity for all students.

Principle 2: Build upon and learn from change
The pandemic forced schools and districts to rethink instructional delivery and student support. Not only can one-time ESSER dollars be used to jumpstart learning acceleration strategies that will shift to regular operational dollars in future years, but the historic infusion of education dollars also presents the opportunity for schools and districts to try new things, such as the high-dosage tutoring programs already piloted by several Tennessee districts.

Principle 3: Center on equity
COVID-19 elevated persisting student opportunity and achievement gaps. If wisely invested, ESSER funds can place previously too costly student-learning supports within reach for highest need students.

Leveraging ESSER To Pivot Toward Enduring Student-Focused Strategies

Research and evidence can help districts prioritize investments and focus on key practices that are applicable in almost all school settings. Additionally, districts must prioritize forward-looking visions that are aligned with immediate action steps that will help achieve long-term goals.

Student-focused strategiesDesign toward DISRUPTING these long-term trendsTake action now with these
concrete approaches
Maintain Rigorous Academic Expectations With Tutors And More High-Quality Time• Learning gaps remain wide
• Higher-cost interventions can help  
• High-dosage tutoring
• Weeklong “Vacation Academies”
• High-quality summer school
• Effective implementation of high-quality instructional materials  
Secure The On-Ramp To High-Quality College & Career Pathways• No degree or credential
• Unfulfilled postsecondary intentions  
• Deeper collaborative partnerships between K-12 and local postsecondary institutions
• Upgrade college and career advising supports  
Concentrate Support To Students Who Need It More, Most• School-level spending is opaque
• Insufficient resources for students  
• Student-based budgeting
• Embracing evidence-based resource-intensive solutions for students with highest need  

Widely, students will need to:

  • Have an academic experience that maintains high expectations
  • Graduate from ­­­­high school with a secure on-ramp to college and career
  • Receive concentrated and equitable supports based on evidence and demonstrated need

District leaders and educators are in a position to set the terms of the recovery and reinvention of the education system going forward. ESSER 3.0 provides much-needed resources — at an unprecedented level. Invested wisely, these resources can change the course of Tennessee’s education outcomes and the lives of our students.

Peter Tang is Director of Research at SCORE.