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Strengthening Investments to Accelerate Student Learning and Improve Well-Being

By Alicia Espinoza & John Spence - July 25, 2023

A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to convene education leaders in Iowa to discuss some persistent challenges students face to the academic recovery needed after having their learning interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. During our day together, we discussed some troubling data on how academic recovery has largely stalled across the country and how academic achievement gains for all students are falling short of pre-pandemic trends.  This despite the unprecedented investment in public education provided by American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) funding as well as other investments to improve student outcomes and stabilize education systems.

With these challenges in mind, the R9CC team, in partnership with School Administrators of Iowa, the Urban Education Network of Iowa, and Iowa School Finance Information Services,  identified pressing issues for Iowa districts as they considered ways to sustain the impact of ARP ESSER funding and other investments designed to improve outcomes for students with the greatest needs. Together, we developed a half-day collaborative workshop where 10 school districts, an area education agency, and a state education association could work with national research experts and technical assistance providers, including experts from R9CC, to examine research and effective practices for strengthening student learning and improving student and staff well-being in response to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Participants at the workshop identified some key challenges:

  • The pandemic offered the ability to purchase many new programs, but it’s hard to tell which of them is having an impact on student outcomes.
  • Interventions purchased by districts and schools were often not used as intended, both in numbers of students served or fidelity of implementation. Vendor contracts are commonly structured on the “intended use” not “actual use” of their service or program. Revisiting contract stipulations is key.
  • Although innovative solutions for recruiting and retaining teachers may include monetary investments such as bonuses, it is important to understand the cost analysis of teacher and staff turnover to be able to make well-informed decisions on the right investments for retention.
  • Staff well-being is a persistent issue of concern since it directly affects retention efforts, but there are mixed perceptions about who is responsible for monitoring and supporting staff well-being—individuals, schools, or the district.

Experts from the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, the RESTART (Research on Education Strategies to Advance Recovery and Turnaround) Network, the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE), and the CENTER for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) facilitated conversations and shared evidence-based and promising strategies to address the specific needs. 

These experts hosted sessions on:  

  • Evidence-Based Strategies for Accelerating Learning: Lyzz Davis, Research on Education Strategies to Advance Recovery and Turnaround (RESTART) Network  

  • Strengthening Student and Staff Well-Being: Greta Colombi, National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE) 

  • Determining Cost- and Program Effectiveness of District and School Improvement Initiatives: Tammy Kolbe, American Institutes for Research (AIR)  

  • Addressing Teacher and Staff Shortages: Cheryl Krohn, Center on Great Teachers and Leaders  

  • Supporting Students with Disabilities: Amy Colpo, Center on Great Teachers and Leaders  

  • Braiding Funds for Greater Effectiveness: Wayne Ball, Senior Technical Assistance Consultant, AIR 

  • Learning From Evidence: The Road to Recovery Project: Dan Goldhaber, Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) at AIR  

Interested in these presentations?

Review the slides on our project page!

Click Here!

Each presentation highlighted evidence-based and promising practices and encouraged reflective conversations with peers, as well as time to discuss issues important to their districts with national experts. Participants shared about the need for additional support to address challenges related to the loss of instructional time due to the COVID-19 pandemic and came away with concrete strategies to sustain the impact of federal, state, and locally funded initiatives to improve student outcomes.  

Planning ahead as a CoP 

To provide further opportunities for discussion on the important issues of post-pandemic recovery, R9CC is planning a 3-session virtual community of practice (CoP) for Iowa and Illinois leaders. The CoP will launch in fall 2023 and will provide participants the opportunity to discuss their most current problems of practice and generate innovative solutions that build off the most current research and promising recovery strategies. Addressing post-pandemic recovery will require the best thinking of a diverse set of perspectives, both fiscal and programmatic, and we therefore strongly encourage intra-district and inter-district collaboration. If you are interested in joining us for this opportunity, please let us know by emailing  


Alicia Espinoza, MA, is the project lead for the Iowa Equitable Instruction Project under the Region 9 Comprehensive Center and a senior technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). In her Region 9 Comprehensive Center role, she helps build the Iowa Department of Education’s capacity to support districts as they implement, monitor, and continuously improve equitable instructional practices to support increased student achievement. Espinoza brings more than 20 years of experience as a former teacher, teacher leader, and director, of which the last 15 years have been focused on leading teams through comprehensive school improvement efforts. Espinoza has served as a technical assistance consultant for several federally funded programs, including the State Support Network and the Comprehensive Literacy State Development grant. In both roles, she helped facilitate connections across state education agencies while increasing knowledge and skills in specific areas such as school improvement, comprehensive needs assessments, progress monitoring, and program coherence.


John Spence, MA, is a senior technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and serves as the co-lead with the Region 9 Comprehensive Center (R9CC), supporting the ARP ESSER project. From 2014 to 2019, he was the state liaison and deputy director for the Texas Comprehensive Center (TXCC), where he led a variety of projects to help build the capacity of the state’s public education system through collaborative work with education service centers (ESCs), districts, institutions of higher education, statewide associations, school boards, vendors, and the greater public. In John’s 30 years in education, he has served as director of enrollment for a blended learning nonprofit, an associate director at a regional education service center in Texas, an education specialist at the Texas Education Agency, and an independent consultant. He holds an M.A. in history from Indiana University, Bloomington.