Education Funding

Using Focus to Navigate ESSER Funding

 //  May 17, 2021

Using Focus to Navigate ESSER Funding

Jimmy Brehm has over 15 years of experience in public education, in roles such as Chief Academic Officer, Director of Curriculum and Assessment, Principal, and teacher. Today, Jimmy is Vice President of Academic Planning & Solution Development, Scholastic Education. In this post, he explains how school and district leaders can utilize ESSER funds to truly accelerate student achievement.

Leveraging financial and human resources has always been a critical component for building and district leaders, but never more so than on the heels of an unprecedented time in education. As the nation recovers from a devastating pandemic and educational institutions across the country receive Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds to accelerate learning, there will be no shortage of people willing to help direct funds; however, for the funds to fulfill the potential of supporting teachers and students, they must be used to match the individual needs of each community and each place of learning. Neither the pandemic, nor any major event in history, has an equal impact on each person, population, or community. There is not a singular solution; therefore, leaders must strategically identify areas in which these funds will truly accelerate achievement.

Priority one must remain ensuring staff and students have a safe environment in which to teach and learn. Maslow’s hierarchy remains accurate: when humans do not feel safe and secure in their learning environments, learning simply cannot take place, regardless of the strength of any curricular resource or pedagogical focus. Start by ensuring that PPE, ventilation systems, classroom setup, movement procedures, and all other physical factors are in place to keep staff and students safe. Ensure all personnel have the support needed to manage the social-emotional demands of their students, but also to monitor and tend to their own social-emotional needs. It is critical that leaders recognize and address the added stressors and anxieties that naturally form in the wake of a worldwide pandemic. These concerns must be addressed to ensure that teachers can confidently turn their full focus to teaching at high levels, which in turn will help students feel secure enough to learn and will help parents feel certain their children’s needs are being met.

Once physical and emotional safety has been addressed, the next priority immediately becomes tackling the learning consequences of the pandemic. The heavy focus on the degree of “learning loss,” and the debate surrounding if schools should focus on academics or social-emotional needs (which in my opinion are not two separate factors), has distracted from the simple fact that while the degree of impact varies from student to student, removing high-quality in-person instruction and peer interactions affects all students, and this must be addressed.

Focus on Equity

A recent Education Week article includes a headline directing the reader to the possibility that “learning loss” is maybe not as severe as educators once feared; however, the article goes on to explain that data does indeed show a learning loss and that “the COVID-19 impact was greater for Black, Hispanic, and Native American students than for their white and Asian peers, and for English-language learners and students with disabilities.” Leaders must respond to this data with attention to equity and a focus on providing funds in areas where the funds are most needed.

Leaders can start this work by reviewing the learning data from the students they serve. Inevitably, they will find that some schools or populations of students have a far greater degree of impact from the pandemic, and in response a far greater amount of funding should be allocated to those who have had the greatest impact. Funding should be poured into extending the school year for those students and acquiring resource materials specifically to support the teachers who teach those students. Support should also be provided to the families of those students to ensure they have the knowledge and resources necessary to assist their learners during non-school hours. All students deserve a focus on equity in relation to the effects of the pandemic; a focus that allows funds to flow to where they are most needed, and to students and families most impacted.

Focus on Essential Skills

When reviewing criteria for learning programs and interventions, I advocate for a process where teachers, at each grade level, clearly identify what students MUST KNOW to be successful in the next grade level. Beginning here provides focus and makes the work manageable. This process should include the following:

  1. Teachers identify what students must know to be successful at the next grade level.
  2. Review data to determine how students are progressing in meeting these skills.
  3. Identify the must-know skills where students are struggling most.
  4. Conduct an analysis on why students are failing to master the must-know skills.
  5. Create or purchase a program or intervention to accelerate learning of those skills.

I recently worked with a middle school through this process in creating an extended learning plan for 7th grade students as they move into 8th grade. Eighth grade teachers were asked to identify the ten to fifteen skills from standards that students most needed to master before entering 8th grade. From this work the teachers identified the need for 7th grade students to master the skill of being able to utilize paired text to craft an argumentative piece of writing before entering 8th grade.

Data revealed on a recent benchmark test that 25% of students were at the “basic” level of this skill. Teachers identified that students must know this skill to be successful, but data revealed that students were struggling—this meant we had a focus for crafting an extended learning loss plan. Through collaboration and dialogue, we created a five week, four days per week program where students would focus ninety minutes of the day on this specific skill. This focused effort ensures that students can master the skills their teachers have identified as “must-know.” The school then has a clear direction on what resources to invest in to make this learning plan happen.

Focus on One-Time Costs

ESSER funding is a necessary support to education during this time, but we must approach the use of ESSER funding with a caution to deeply review expenditures with these funds that will be recurring. During my time working with many grants and one-time funding opportunities, I have seen leaders use one-time funds on costs that will remain after the funding is gone, which can put them in financially and politically difficult spots later.

For example, reducing class sizes is an issue that is annually discussed and strived for from school and district stakeholders. The drive to have funding, or allocate funding, to reduce class sizes has been strong prior to the pandemic and will remain long after. If ESSER funding is used to reduce class sizes for one to two years, a community must be prepared to reduce the additional positions and potentially return to larger class sizes in the not-so-distant future. Three school years later, leaders utilizing ESSER funds for these recuring staffing costs of classroom size reduction will need to have a strategic plan to explain the reason for increasing class sizes with reduced teacher positions within the school or district. The advocation to have lower class sizes will not have been solved and will likely be stronger having experienced the benefits for three years, but the funds will no longer be available to match the solution ESSER funds once supported.  

Carefully analyze the needs, the cost on the front end, and the cost that will remain after funding is removed. If the need can be met with a one-time cost solution, then focus on that one-time cost solution, if the cost is recurring and the need will be recurring as well, attempt to find an alternative one-time cost solution.

Ultimately, when considering how to navigate using new ESSER funding, leaders should focus on the place they serve. Focus on the needs of the community that you’re trusted to lead. Focus on the resource needs of the specific teachers that serve the students each day. Most importantly, focus equitably on the needs of each student so that learning can be accelerated and the whole child can move forward successfully.


To learn more about navigating ESSER funds, visit: