Time to Sharpen Your Axe! This 6-Step Checklist Can Help District and School Leaders Plan to Use Federal Funds to Support Learning Recovery

Teacher discusses data.

By Aaron Butler, PhD

May 7, 2021

Abraham Lincoln is often credited with saying, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Although I don’t spend much time chopping down trees, I have found this quote to be a wise reminder to dedicate time to reflect and focus on providing the right support to my teams so we can meet our goals and sustain our success. This past year has been full of unexpected challenges for schools and districts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a district or school leader, you may be suffering from decision fatigue as well as your own personal trauma from having lived through a pandemic while working diligently to ensure students had access to education. This is truly a time when a district or school leader like yourself would benefit from adopting Abraham Lincoln’s mindset as you try to understand the pandemic’s impact on student learning and the need for learning recovery.

Fortunately, district and school leaders are seeing a light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, along with much needed federal stimulus support, as they begin to plan for the 2021–2022 school year. While next school year may not, and probably should not, be exactly what we all remember before the pandemic, this “new normal” will obviously come with opportunities for evidence-based innovations in education. The recent passage of the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER III), in addition to ESSER I and ESSER II, has resulted in billions of dollars to support states, districts, and schools as they begin to formulate learning recovery plans for students. These funds provide education leaders with an opportunity to plan for the use of these one-time federal dollars to address both short- and long-term needs to support student learning.

6-Step Checklist to Plan for Learning Recovery

  1. Review your existing plan
  2. Collect and analyze your data
  3. Reflect on the innovations of the past year
  4. Prioritize equitable and evidence-based practices in short- and long-term plans
  5. Monitor what you implement
  6. Communicate and reinforce best practices for sustainability

Now, as a district or school leader, you may be thinking, “I have access to a large amount of funds to spend over the next 2 to 3 years to support student learning recovery. How can I make sure that I’m using it wisely? Where do I start?” My first piece of advice is: don’t panic or make any rash decisions. Although I am sure that we can all agree that supporting student learning and well-being is and always will be an urgent matter, school and district learning recovery efforts will benefit most from thoughtful leaders who take time to “sharpen their axe” and plan strategically. So, I encourage education leaders to follow this six-step checklist that reflects the wisdom of Honest Abe as you plan how you will support student learning moving forward.

Step 1: Review Your Existing Plan

Your state, district, or school likely has a strategic plan, school improvement plan, and/or Title I plan designed to be the decision-making roadmap for the next 3 to 5 years. How familiar are you with this plan? Whether you have not opened the document since it was finalized 2 years ago or you have a progress monitoring dashboard as your home screen, this is still the best place to start. Once you have your plan ready for review, bring your leadership team together to examine your goals and verify your priorities, starting with the following questions:

  • Are the current goals and strategies in our plan still priorities for us?
  • If so, why? If not, why not?
  • Are there any new priority areas that we need to address? If so, what data will we use to verify the need?

Step 2: Collect and Analyze Your Data

We have all seen a lot of predictions, opinions, and maybe even initial data regarding the potential result of the pandemic on student learning. However, do not settle for what you are reading or hearing on the news. You have an existing improvement plan that includes some specific student learning metrics that are supposed to be measured in your district or school. Carefully examine your own data in alignment with the goals of your existing improvement plan before you jump to any conclusions about student learning loss or make plans to support learning recovery. Consider the following questions as your leadership team analyzes your data:

  • What data are needed to ascertain the degree of learning loss experienced by our students? Do we regularly collect these data?
  • To what extent have we collected the necessary data to measure the effectiveness of our current plan?
  • Did we do what we said we would do in our current plan to meet these goals? How do we know?
  • How well did we implement the strategies or programs included in our current plan?
  • In what ways do the data from the past year align with historic trends?
  • Are there any surprises in the data?

Step 3: Reflect on the Innovations of the Past Year

It is no secret that the “normal” model of education was not working for all students before COVID-19 showed up on the scene. Then the pandemic forced districts and schools to break from “normal” and implement new and innovative models of virtual and hybrid instruction. So, what did we learn over the past year that can help improve instruction, student outcomes, and overall education moving forward? How can we utilize creative momentum from the disruption to sustain or create new models of instruction that effectively serve all students? It would be a travesty to just revert back to “normal” in-person instruction because that is what we think all students need without evidence to back up those claims, right? Now is not the time to make rash decisions or abandon previous plans without first taking time to analyze your data and gather input from parents, students, teachers, and other stakeholders on their experiences of the past year. Consider the following questions:

  • What worked well for our teachers, students, and families over the past year? What didn’t work well? Why?
  • What aspects of or options for virtual or hybrid instruction should remain in place in our district or school?
  • Were there any students or groups of students who our data show benefitted from virtual or hybrid instruction?
  • What innovations can be made to in-person instruction based on what we learned worked for different groups of students this year?

Step 4: Prioritize Equitable and Evidence-Based Practices in Short- and Long-Term Plans

Now that you have reviewed your existing goals, analyzed your data, and reflected on recent innovations, you have laid a foundation to make necessary adjustments or additions to your improvement plan. You will likely see that student learning at some schools in your district or certain groups of students within those schools were affected—negatively or positively—more than others. Take advantage of this opportunity to adjust your improvement plan and instructional strategies while developing a multi-year spending plan that is based on these data, reflects targeted investments in evidence-based practices to support learning recovery, and is sustainable. Convene a broad stakeholder group to inform your planning and decision making as you consider these questions:

  • What specific schools and/or groups of students demonstrated significant variations in learning according to our data?
  • What strategies, programs, and funding are targeted to support these schools and/or students in our existing plan?
  • What evidence-based practices or promising innovations for tutoring or instruction may effectively support student learning and enrichment for our district’s or school’s specific student population, size, and location?
  • In what ways is equity operationalized throughout our current budget or multi-year spending plan for ESSER funds?
  • How can we ensure that any new evidence-based practices or strategies that improve outcomes for students can be sustained when this funding runs out?

Step 5: Monitor What You Implement

Successful implementation of improvement plans often comes down to the organizational commitment to monitor progress and make strategic adjustments based on data. Setting or modifying long-term goals and other interim performance measures for your plan is not enough. You must prepare to do the ongoing work of continuous improvement by gathering the right data, studying progress on the interim measures of your plan, and making strategic adjustments when needed. Consider these questions as you gather and review your data:

  • How do our interim progress measures show that we are on- or off-track to meet our goals for all schools and student groups?
  • To what level of fidelity are staff members, including leadership, currently implementing their responsibilities to support the success of our plan?
  • What are we learning about the ability of our district or school to provide equitable learning opportunities for all students that actually result in improved learning?

Step 6: Communicate and Reinforce Best Practices for Sustainability

The ultimate goal for implementation of any improvement plan should be to create an environment that supports long-term sustainability of the strategies and their positive effects within the school or district. Leaders must communicate through multiple formats early, often, and with a consistent and clear message. They should celebrate early wins and reinforce the best practices that lead to positive working conditions and improved academic, social, and emotional outcomes. Consider these questions as you communicate with your team throughout the year:

  • What information can I share with my team regarding the current level of implementation of the improvement plan?
  • What success story of an innovative practice that is producing positive results can I share with the team?
  • In what ways can I continue to reinforce the need for continuous improvement in our quest to sustain positive academic, social, and emotional outcomes for students?

Even if you start with this six-step checklist to “chop down the tree” of student learning recovery in your school or district, your work is not complete. As a leader, you will be faced with new challenges in the coming months and years that you never saw coming. Just remember: don’t panic and don’t make big decisions without taking time to “sharpen your axe” while seeking input from stakeholders with diverse vantage points. Work with your team to reflect on your existing goals, analyze your data, and identify evidence-based or promising solutions to ensure that equitable opportunities are available for all students.

Aaron Butler, PhD, is the director of the Region 9 Comprehensive Center and a principal technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research. Dr. Butler has more than 20 years of experience supporting school improvement in public education and is a former teacher and administrator.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.