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Investing ESSER Funds to Accelerate Instruction in Grades K-5 Math

Rennie Center | April 2022

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund represents a once-in-a-generation federal investment in public education. The following brief provides a rationale for investing ESSER funds in grades K-5 math instruction, outlines evidence-based K-5 math acceleration and intervention strategies, and provides recommended resources for districts seeking to make high-leverage math investments.


In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and districts must determine how to address gaps in knowledge, skills, and understanding that have resulted from the disruptions of the past two years. Though missed learning took place across subject areas, schools saw particularly large declines in math scores. In order to address unfinished learning and provide for long-term success in middle and high school, schools must focus on building students’ foundational math skills in grades K-5.

This brief draws upon recent research on learning during the pandemic along with interviews with math experts at the state and local levels to highlight the approaches most likely to have an impact on K-5 math learning. It is designed to provide guidance for districts as they navigate a way forward to address students’ missed learning in elementary math.

Evidence of the Issue

In fall 2020, local school districts were responsible for designing—and then implementing at scale—entirely new educational models, such as hybrid and remote learning. Over the course of a few weeks in September, countless variations were rolled out across the Commonwealth. The result of these new models, whether due to transitions, technology, or simply fewer hours of live instruction from a teacher, was less learning than in a typical year for the vast majority of students.

It is important to emphasize that there is no evidence of widespread “learning loss”; while students learned less in school than they may have in a typical school year, they still increased their knowledge and skills over the course of the year. This has been called “missed learning” by many researchers.

In Massachusetts, where prior to the pandemic half of all elementary students were meeting or exceeding expectations on the math MCAS, only one-third met that benchmark in spring 2021. And data in some communities is even more stark: nearly 20 Massachusetts districts and charter schools saw the share of students meeting or exceeding expectations on the 3rd grade math MCAS drop by 30 or more percentage points. Not surprisingly, student growth percentiles, which measure students’ progress each year compared to their academic peers, showed lower-than-expected growth in the vast majority of districts and charter schools (Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, 2021). National data released in summer 2021 show a similar pattern, with estimates of an average of five to six months of missed learning in math during the 2020-21 school year, and even greater gaps for students from low-income families and in high-poverty schools (Dorn et al., 2021; Lewis et al., 2021).

This data highlights the need for schools and districts to ensure students are continuing to learn grade-level math content while filling in any gaps due to disruptions over the past two years.

What evidence-based practices can schools use to improve in this area?

Selecting and Implementing High-Quality Instructional Materials

Research has found significant benefits to teaching students grade-level standards while addressing students’ learning gaps in a just-in-time fashion, rather than remediating by teaching below-grade-level material first (TNTP, 2021). This “acceleration over remediation” approach is particularly vital in math, where new learning requires a strong foundation in previously taught skills. Traditional re-teaching to the entire class can set students on a slower trajectory that will have implications on their math learning for years into the future.

The centerpiece of this approach is the consistent use of a high-quality curriculum, which includes an investment in training and coaching for teachers to implement the curriculum with fidelity. Strong standards-aligned instructional materials will identify the foundational skills and knowledge that students require to understand and learn grade-level content, as well as resources for teaching missed content from prior years. Districts can use curriculum review resources, such as those from EdReports and Massachusetts’ Curriculum Ratings by Teachers (CURATE) project, to evaluate the strength of current materials and select new instructional materials if necessary.

Effective implementation of these materials requires that teachers understand the supplemental resources provided through the curriculum and have deep knowledge of what students are learning in the grade levels before and after the one they are teaching. A useful tool to understand connections across grade levels is the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Standards Navigator.

When selecting new instructional materials, it is critical that administrators develop an ongoing professional learning plan to ensure successful implementation. Alongside one-time professional development to introduce teachers to the materials, this plan should include a long-term collaborative structure through which teachers come together to strengthen the way they teach using the curriculum. Research from the Learning Policy Institute describes the key factors of high-quality, content-focused professional learning, while Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s IMplement MA provides a step-by-step approach to implementing a new curriculum.

​Key Resources


Curriculum Ratings by Teachers (CURATE), Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Standards Navigator, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Effective Teacher Professional Development, Learning Policy Institute

IMplement MA, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Focusing on Priority Standards

The importance of adopting a high-quality curriculum goes hand-in-hand with the need to identify which standards and units at each grade level are foundational to subsequent understanding. Those priority standards need to be allocated additional time in the teaching schedule, while other standards can be streamlined or combined. Guidance around priority standards and changes to pacing should come from district math offices to ensure coherence and consistency across classrooms and schools. Useful guidance on foundational standards that require particular attention and time is included in Student Achievement Partners’ 2020-21 Priority Instructional Content and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Standards Navigator. A sample approach to allocating time to priority standards can be found in Instruction Partners’ Supporting Unfinished Learning In Math.

Key Resources

2020-21 Priority Instructional Content, Student Achievement Partners

Standards Navigator, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Assessments to Identify Student Learning Gaps

While high-quality instructional materials and strong teaching of the curriculum are critical to schools’ and districts’ ability to ensure students’ continued learning going forward, in the near term, teachers may also need tools to identify and target specific gaps in student knowledge and learning. As noted earlier, many high-quality curricula offer teachers these tools and should be the first place to look, but several online providers also aim to help teachers diagnose and address students’ missed learning.

Unlike assessments commonly used by schools and districts to evaluate students' learning at the end of a unit or term, the most useful tools for diagnosing missed learning allow teachers to both identify gaps in student learning before they introduce new content and make appropriate instructional decisions about areas where additional support may be needed. The most popular tools, including iReady, FastBridge, and MobyMax, typically offer an initial diagnostic assessment paired with smaller formative assessments to drill down on particular standards. In addition to identifying learning gaps, these tools allow teachers to benchmark all students’ progress and identify students’ strengths.

Potential Diagnostic Tools to Identify Learning Gaps

Note: Costs vary. Contact providers for pricing information.

iReady, Curriculum Associates

FastBridge, Illuminate Education

MobyMax, Learn Without Limits

Providing Just-in-Time Supports

Once teachers diagnose missed learning, they must then address those gaps to ensure students are able to access grade-level instruction and have a strong foundation for future learning. A necessary building block for delivering just-in-time supports is ensuring that teachers have the time and space to reflect (both on their own and with their peers) about how to carry out this work. In order to effectively deliver just-in-time support to students, schools will need to reexamine their schedules to ensure teachers are able to do this work effectively. Teachers will need additional time to look at student assessment results, develop instructional plans to address individual student learning needs, and deliver the needed instruction.

Creative scheduling can unlock additional time for teachers to meet, while also allowing time for intervention blocks where students can receive additional instruction from teachers and practice skills in a supervised environment. These structures include WIN (What I Need) blocks, during which students receive small-group instruction based on their individual needs. Resources such as ERS’ Three Steps to a Strategic Schedule can help schools align their schedules to priorities, while ABL’s The Unlocking Time Survey Results can provide ideas from other schools who are using a variety of approaches to scheduling around student and teacher needs.

When it comes to identifying resources for just-in-time support, most high-quality curricula offer a range of supplemental instructional materials to help teachers address student learning gaps. At the same time, teachers can turn to a variety of online tools to provide additional instruction on missed content and bolster skills beyond what a teacher can provide in the classroom. All of these tools should be closely monitored and reinforced by the teacher to ensure students are truly learning the missed content and focusing on the areas where they have specific gaps.

Several tools for re-teaching (iReady, Zearn), additional practice (iXL), or strengthening conceptual understanding (STMath) are listed in the second table below. Regardless of the specific online tools used, classrooms will need access to laptops, a laminated list of student passwords, plenty of scrap paper for students, and a room setup that allows for teachers to monitor student activity in order to maximize the effectiveness of online tools.

Resources for Developing a Schedule Aligned to Priorities

The Unlocking Time Survey Results, Unlocking Time by ABL

Potential Tools to Deliver Just-In-Time Supports

Note: Costs vary. Contact providers for pricing information.

iReady, Curriculum Associates

Zearn, Zearn

iXL, iXL Learning

STMath, MIND Research Institute

When Students Need a Higher Level of Support

In some cases, students will need more support than a classroom teacher or online platform can provide. More intensive remediation efforts to address significant gaps in student understanding and knowledge can be provided through ongoing high-dose tutoring or acceleration academies offered during school breaks that are taught by experienced educators with a strong foundation in math. When delivering these interventions, care should be taken to ensure that students are still receiving instruction in their grade-level content in math and that missed learning is addressed in a way that doesn’t put them on a lower learning trajectory that will require more intensive intervention to correct in future years. For guidance on intensive intervention, see the Time and Attention section of the EdImpact Resource Toolbox.


It has never been more important for teachers to have access to resources to address missed learning, such as a strong curriculum and a deep understanding of the standards in the grade levels below and above the one they are teaching. To address missed math learning, school leadership must provide training and support to build teachers’ pedagogical knowledge to deliver just-in-time support. Schools can carry out this work by designing a schedule that provides teachers with time to analyze student data, plan interventions, and deliver extra instruction around priority standards. These approaches, which are designed to address gaps in student learning, will have a long-term impact by ensuring each student has access to rigorous, grade-appropriate instruction.




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