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Using ESSER Funds to Advance Equity


We’ve all seen the simple graphic representation comparing the concepts of equality and equity: three people of different heights stand behind a fence, trying to watch a baseball game. In an equal distribution of resources, the three people all receive a box of the same height; this helps one person see over the fence but fails to support the other two.

With these equitable supports, each person is raised to a height from which he can see over the fence to watch the baseball game.

That is, different people need different supports to access what is available. And for students and families, being able to access what is available from schools — learning and belonging — is of the utmost importance.

Seizing ESSER as an Opportunity for Equity

Nearly every school district in the country represents a diverse community. Families in the district vary in socioeconomic status, by income, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, or more detailed factors, such as the number of children attending the school district or the level of education of the parents. For this reason, an equal distribution of resources — while sometimes easier to administrate from the school’s perspective — can create barriers to offering equitable opportunities for the community at large.

So, when a once-in-a-generation investment in education comes through the system, it behooves school leaders to consider how to achieve an equitable distribution of that investment. Equitable distribution gets closer to ensuring each student has the individual services they need in order to access learning, provides differentiated PD for teachers which contributes to retention, and brings veteran teachers into classrooms with traditionally underserved students to capitalize on their expertise.

Put simply, that means that equitable distribution can lead to:

  • Stronger learning outcomes for students
  • Greater retention of new and veteran teachers
  • Greater return on veteran teachers’ investment in their craft


When a once-in-a-generation investment in education comes through the system, it behooves school leaders to consider how to achieve an equitable distribution of that investment.


Tools for Investing Resources Equitably

An equal distribution of resources is simpler than an equitable one. That’s because district administrators can manage equal investment across the board without detailed data; if everyone is getting the same thing, leaders can “slice up the pie” without questioning whether the allocations are going to the places where they’ll be most effective.

But to achieve equitable distribution, leaders need access to information that shows them what’s really going on with student experience and the factors that affect it.

And they can go about accessing that information in two ways:

  1. Pose discovery questions.
  2. Use data analytics tools.


Pose Discovery Questions

As with any research project, it’s better to begin with questions rather than assumptions. When you have to rely solely on observations, past experiences, and ad hoc data collection, an educated guess of how resources would be best allocated might be the only option. But when you have ways of accessing comprehensive data, you can pose questions that will frame your assessment of that data, then trust that your tools will surface insights.

A new white paper out of Frontline Education’s Research & Learning Institute on ESSER and Equity offers a list of essential questions that can guide school leaders to ensuring equity. The questions position student performance, student needs, teacher experience, and professional learning as four areas where equitable investment can make a great impact.

A simplified version of those questions looks like this:

  • What resources can students access in their home neighborhoods (food, healthcare, community centers, libraries)?
  • How novice or veteran is the average teacher in the district?
  • Are novice teachers largely serving students who are economically marginalized? And are veteran teachers largely serving students who are not economically marginalized?
  • What professional learning do both novice and veteran teachers have the opportunity to engage in that is differentiated to their needs and designed to address the needs of students who receive services?

These questions — and any other points of focus that may be unique to your district — can help you frame data assessment and seek specific insights that can guide equitable investment.

Use Data Analytics Tools

Data analytics tools can greatly accelerate your quest for equitable investment, largely because they allow you to move beyond the data collection phase, which requires massive effort when starting from scratch and can stop a project before it ever begins. Data analytics tools use the data that you already have stored across disparate platforms — attendance tracking, course grades, discipline records, location information, demographics, and provided services — to see visual, easy-to-read reports that help you identify need across your school community.

When collection is taken care of, leaders can focus on data assessment and deployment. That is, they can focus on how real-time insights can inform decision-making, and which investments are best suited to alleviate gaps in support for students and their families.

Tools that support comparative analytics, financial planning, and budget management are useful in projecting the impact of various investment scenarios or understanding financing in peer districts — but in order to gain visibility into your school community and their needs for equitable investment, student- and family-centric data analytics tools are foundational.

That’s where student analytics and location analytics come in.

Student Analytics

Frontline’s Student Analytics consolidates data from across platforms that measure student performance and determine opportunity gaps to assess equity and improve student outcomes.

These datasets center around:

  • Attendance tracking
  • Course grades
  • Discipline records

This triangulation of student experience can reveal opportunity gaps, a concept which focuses on a strategic approach that targets need to ensure equity, and can shift focus from where the student is or is not succeeding to where the system is or is not creating equitable access to opportunities. When the perspective broadens from the student to the system, teacher experience and the factors that affect it come into view.

Investing in certain types of professional learning for teachers can not only support educators and increase retention but can also advance equity. An essential question asked earlier concerns whether novice and veteran teachers have the opportunity for professional learning that is unique to their needs, and whether those opportunities are meant to address the needs of students who receive services.

When assessing data within the Student Analytics tool, attendance, grades, and discipline data can be compared against which teachers in the district are supporting that student — and if those teachers are set up for success via professional learning.

In this data assessment, actionable queries follow, such as:

  • Are teachers with less than five years’ experience often serving students who receive services?
  • If so, can more experienced teachers support students who are at risk of disengaging with the school community?
  • In both instances, what learning opportunities support teachers in their positions?

In this way, Student Analytics may reveal effective investment initiatives that extend beyond individual students to the types of support they receive. And this analysis of the full spectrum of the student experience can move resource distribution towards systemic equity.


Location Analytics

To dig deeper into the root causes of student disengagement, school leaders can look beyond the physical school setting to see what is accessible in students’ own neighborhoods. It can prevent well-intended wrap-around services from falling flat because they’re just not what families really need or can easily access.

Specifically, Frontline’s Location Analytics can reveal what barriers may exist between students and their access to:

  • Transportation
  • Food
  • Health care
  • Internet connection

Empowered with this information, district leaders can more easily understand which groups of students live clustered in which areas, where services might be most effectively located to serve students and their families, what community centers might be powerful partners, and where hotspots should be deployed to close the ‘digital divide.’

This bird’s-eye view can help broaden your perspective from student-specific to system-wide to more fully understand where the system has opportunity gaps and how relief funding can be smartly allocated to minimize those gaps.


The Time for Equitable Investment is Now

Together, Frontline’s Student Analytics Lab and Location Analytics can be a powerful tool in seeking greater equity in your school district as an outcome of ESSER funding. With so much pressure placed on schools throughout COVID to find new, innovative ways to reach students and support families through the impossible, it would make sense if now feels like the moment to regroup. As federal relief funds may or may not continue, and the resources that are in play will be set in next year’s budgets, the time for equitable investment is now. Filling short-term opportunity gaps with sustainable, repeatable supports that yield return on student achievement and community well-being can improve equity for students, teachers, and the community at large.

Interested in More?

Read the full white paper,“ESSER and Equity: Leveraging Stimulus Funding to Increase Equitable Opportunities,” to see how Student and Location Analytics can support equitable spending of ESSER dollars for solutions that work for today and in your 3- to 5-year financial plans and goals.


Meg Kende

Meg Kende is a writer specializing in education and educational technology. She is a former New York City teacher with a master’s degree in teaching English and now writes for organizations who are cheerleaders and change-makers for schools.