The infusion of federal stimulus funds from the American Rescue Plan gives rural districts a rare opportunity to make generational, systemic change to improve student learning outcomes—both immediately and in the years ahead. Authors: Cory Epler, Ph.D. and Lauren Weisskirk

Of the COVID-19 pandemic’s countless challenges, many have been exacerbated for students and educators in rural districts. Meanwhile, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) represents an unprecedented infusion of federal stimulus funds for all school districts, including those in rural areas.

Among many necessary and urgent investments, we believe adopting and implementing high-quality instructional materials should be one of the highest ESSER spending priorities for rural districts. Quality-aligned content has the potential to offer lasting change and accelerate learning for all students.Pandemic education challenges heightened in rural communities 

School closures and remote learning have been particularly tough in rural areas. More than a third of rural Americans have little or no Internet access, and rural schools typically have fewer total teachers and additional support staff, instructional coaches, and curriculum specialists. In Nebraska, we invested funds from the March 2020 CARES Act to begin to close the digital gap.

However, while there was success getting devices and high-speed Internet to students and families, there continues to be a need to ensure all students have access to high-quality instructional materials designed for digital delivery. This is particularly true for students who have been historically marginalized, including students of color, students with disabilities, the economically disadvantaged, and English learners.

In February 2021, 30% of rural eighth-graders received less than an hour per day of live instruction, including 22% who received none at all. It’s no surprise that we’ve seen deepening inequities in the provision of high-quality learning experiences for rural students.

Why rural districts should invest in high-quality instructional materials

Adopting a high-quality core curriculum is a critical lever for promoting equity in learning. With regard to unfinished learning, the pandemic has undoubtedly made a bad problem worse. Challenges with providing students grade-level content persist in schools that have taught predominantly in-person over the past school year as much as schools that have used hybrid and remote instruction. And accelerating learning and truly preparing all students for college and careers cannot begin without access to high-quality, standards-aligned instructional materials. 

A 2021 study (1) found that, when selecting instructional materials, rural districts now set a premium on curriculum adaptability across shifting learning environments. Many publishers of high-quality materials demonstrated the value of that adaptability in 2020 by proactively providing adjusted scope and sequences and pandemic-specific supports for teachers, students, and caregivers. 

High-quality materials also facilitate curricular coherence across and within grades, further enabling equitable learning experiences in disrupted situations. In Nebraska, we saw some districts really rise above their challenges because they already had high-quality materials in place before the pandemic unfolded. These districts were much better positioned to provide a continuity of learning last spring and into the fall. 

How to get the most out of your district’s ESSER funds

As school systems evaluate how best to spend this injection of federal funds, we suggest the following four recommendations to leverage these dollars for returns now and in the future. 

1. Take the necessary time to make decisions 

Yes, there’s a tension between the need for comprehensive planning and the speed required by the ESSER application process. These are one-time funds that won’t be renewed, but they don’t all need to be spent immediately—there’s a succession of deadlines and the largest amount of funding does not need to be obligated until September 2024.

We have an opportunity to make significant progress against a range of intractable problems, both new and longstanding. To do so effectively, we must be thoughtful and take the necessary time to make critical investments for long-term systemic change, not Band-Aid fixes.

2. Make sure supplements, interventions, and assessments work in tandem with grade-level learning

Be wary of standalone products or interventions. When considering investments for social and emotional learning (SEL) or student mental health supports—two important and pressing needs—take a moment to zoom out. Remember, academics and SEL must work in tandem; high-quality materials must, by definition, have SEL supports embedded throughout. The same goes for curriculum-embedded assessments: they should align to grade-level standards just like the content students are learning, provide actionable information for instruction, offer multiple opportunities for evaluation, and meet the needs of all students.

Similarly, digital devices are necessary but insufficient tools. Students must be able to access quality content via those devices to make any big technology purchase a worthy investment.

3. Select and implement new high-quality core materials

Use EdReports’ 6 Key Adoption Steps. It was specifically designed to be adaptable to a district’s local context when selecting materials and emphasizes aligned professional learning—all activities that comply with a number of ESSER funding requirements.

Prioritize time to gather and examine all necessary inputs to establish an instructional vision. This stage includes finding the biggest gaps and filling those first and involving a wide variety of stakeholders. District teachers and parents should be intentionally engaged to pinpoint necessary student supports. They are also well-placed to help identify culturally relevant materials to ensure students can see themselves and their communities.

After you’ve put in the work to define your instructional vision, subsequent decisions can flow a little more rapidly. For example, you could limit your initial search to OER materials only, or restrict your final investigations to two curriculum options rather than five. Once you’ve made a decision, move directly to full launch and implementation instead of conducting a six-month pilot.

4. Invest in sustained materials-specific professional learning and implementation and learn from others

Investing fully in wraparound professional learning support is an essential accompaniment to choosing the right materials. Empowering your district’s educators with the knowledge and skills to deliver their new curriculum with confidence is crucial to converting high-quality materials into equitable student learning outcomes.

Nearby rural districts are likely in a similar position to you—reach out to find collaboration opportunities. If two or more neighboring districts adopt the same curriculum, that could significantly widen their pools for teacher professional learning communities. You could even team up on the selection process itself to make a shared, inter-district curriculum a certainty. In Nebraska, regional service units are uniquely positioned to create these kinds of professional learning networks.

Don’t pass up the chance to invest in a long-term good

Investing in high-quality core curricula and strong professional learning is not at odds with making other essential investments in health, safety, well-being, and school infrastructure. New instructional materials and professional learning support won’t consume a district’s entire ESSER budget. But make no mistake—these investments are critical to students and their futures. There is no educational challenge more urgent than addressing inequitable access to learning. Implementing high-quality curricula is the best way for rural schools to serve the students they have today and those they’ll have in three, five, and ten years’ time.

Cory Epler, Ph.D. is the Chief Academic Officer for the Nebraska Department of Education. Lauren Weisskirk is the Chief Strategy Officer for EdReports, a non-profit that provides free reviews of K–12 instructional materials. 

(1) Reith, A., LaVenia, M, & Weisskirk, L. (2021). Rural Districts’ Priorities and Decision-Making Around Curriculum and Instruction Before and During COVID-19.