Skip Navigation

The Road to Learning Recovery

Mark Schneider, Director of IES | March 16, 2021

I am pleased to announce that IES has been awarded $100 million from the American Rescue Plan to conduct research related to learning losses caused by COVID-19. IES will use these funds to help support learning recovery. I want to share with you some of our current and planned activities and invite your thoughts.

An executive order from President Biden: Survey our schools

IES was singled out in one of President Biden's first executive orders with a directive to administer a survey identifying how schools and instruction are changing in response to COVID. Accordingly, we are currently surveying a NAEP-based national sample of elementary and middle schools to ask how they are providing instruction (fully in-person/fully remote/hybrid), including information about specific types of students.

We intend to run this survey every month through the rest of the school year to measure changes in school status and enrollment patterns. Our longer-term plan is to launch a new "School Pulse" survey in August that will include high schools. While still in the final planning stages, we envision a nationally representative sample of schools that will constitute a panel we will survey monthly for 12–18 months. There will be a set of core questions focused tightly on actions schools are taking as they continue to recover from the pandemic and address learning losses. Akin to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse, there will be room in the survey for items of interest to other parts of the Department of Education and even to other agencies. For example, we are working with the CDC to share COVID-related data—and they are interested in conditions in schools. More generally, the School Pulse survey presents us with opportunities to consider how we can more quickly assess what is going on in schools across the nation.

This survey work fits in well with other work we do to understand conditions on the ground, including our support for state longitudinal data systems capable of tracking COVID-related changes. Federal and state governments have invested heavily in these systems over the last two decades, and we are trying to increase the return on that investment by incentivizing researchers to use the data available through these systems to assess learning recovery.

A focus on learning recovery

The American Rescue Plan provides an opportunity for IES to push forward on modernizing its investment portfolio by supporting innovative approaches to dealing with learning loss and furthering our long-standing commitment to closing academic gaps. Here are some of the first steps we are planning:

An investment in artificial intelligence

Two areas where we believe artificial intelligence can have a significant impact on education research are intelligent tutoring and students with special needs. A focus on intelligent tutoring would aim to answer a key question: How can we create a generation of intelligent tutors that help learning recovery and close learning gaps? Evidence to date on intelligent tutoring has been mixed—but those studies largely focused on earlier forms of AI. Given the rapidly accelerating sophistication of AI, we are ready to design and test the next generation of effective intelligent tutoring systems.

A focus on students with special needs would support a subpopulation that has been especially hard hit by the pandemic. The critical question here: Can AI help identify, assess, and support students with different disabilities? There is emerging evidence in medicine that AI is on par with human clinicians in diagnosing problems and suggesting effective treatments. It will be important to learn the extent to which the lessons from medicine can translate into innovation in education for students with disabilities.

To take advantage of the opportunity for AI to address these areas, we are exploring partnership with the National Science Foundation. NSF is home to the largest non-defense federal investment in AI R&D, and we are eager to join their transformative efforts alongside other government agencies, private industry, and a variety of experts from within and beyond the education research world. We are particularly excited about potential partnership with NSF since it would lead to involving IES with a host of scientists from fields that all too often bypass education research.

Learning from states, districts, and schools

Another effort will focus on learning from states, districts, and schools about how they are responding to pandemic-related challenges and which of these strategies work—or fail—for which students. The list of approaches employed is long and includes intensive tutoring, after-school enrichment, summer school, extended days, and hybrid instruction. IES has an obligation to identify which of these strategies work for whom under what conditions. While the pandemic will hopefully fade into the background over the next few months, its effects on schools and learning will likely linger for years. These COVID-induced approaches to learning recovery need to be tested and refined since they could be the foundation of a better education system—or at least one that is better prepared for future emergencies.

Supporting hard-hit populations

The pandemic's disruption has particularly affected certain student populations. For example, while special education students should receive additional support to ensure they have adequate opportunities to learn, we know anecdotally that many schools struggled to provide these students with the services to which they are entitled. Homeless students and children in foster care disproportionately missed out on instruction and key services. For these reasons, we will focus future RFAs on addressing the needs of these students.

Disseminating research and statistics

Finally, we are committed to disseminating everything we learn in more actionable formats. I have long been a fan of checklists and we are trying to figure out the extent to which that approach can help schools and school districts recover more quickly from the pandemic. But whether or not we use checklists, look for more accessible and easier-to-use lessons from our work on recovery.

We are thrilled by the new administration's vote of confidence in IES and its role in the recovery effort. We believe that these investments stand to help the nation recover as quickly as possible—and will help build the foundation of a more modern IES as we approach our 20th anniversary in 2022.

As always, please feel free to contact me at