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ESSA: How Can States Figure Out If New School Improvement Ideas Work?

By Alyson Klein — May 17, 2018 2 min read

One of the biggest changes in the Every Student Succeeds Act is that states and districts get to come up with their own school improvement ideas, as long as they are backed by evidence.

Here’s how that works: Schools that get Title I money that’s been specifically set aside for school improvement have to come up with a plan with at least one component that has at least one well-designed “correlational study” to back it up. Ideally, the law encourages districts and states to push schools toward ideas that have at least one strong randomized control trial behind it. (A randomized control trail is considered a better test of a strategy than a correlational study, researchers say.)

So what about schools that have been flagged as low-performing but aren’t getting school improvement funds? Schools don’t have to choose a strategy with a particular study to back it up, but they do need to come up with a plan that has a rationale behind it, and then carefully study the results.

So how should states go about that? Results for America, a research organization, and Chiefs for Change, an advocacy organization for state and district officials, have some thoughts and recommendation, outlined in a new report released Thursday.

The organizations created this chart, which provides a good explanation of how evidence-based interventions are supposed to work.

And the groups write that local leaders don’t have to limit study of their interventions to randomized control trials. (That’s what many researchers consider the gold standard, but it may not always be practical.) Instead, states should decide what questions they want to answer and pick the best design to address them. Staff members don’t need Ph.D.'s to conduct these studies. And districts and states don’t have to automatically yank funding from an intervention that doesn’t immediately get results. Instead, they can find ways to tweak it.

Secondly, the groups recommend that states seeking to study the impact of new interventions.Here are some possibilities for doing that:

Develop and adapt policies and procedures and build evidence - That could mean anything from having a single staff member who takes ownership for the new approach to encouraging districts to use their own funding for evaluations. Massachusetts, for instance, has an Office of Planning and Research that carefully studies school improvement work.

Build tools and infrastructure to make evidence-building possible - That includes things like building or expanding the state’s capacity to do research in-house, something that Tennessee did back in 2012.

Establish partnerships to strengthen and accelerate evidence-building efforts - That could mean getting districts together to figure out research questions, priorities, and more. For instance, Ohio is teaming up with Harvard University’s Proving Ground to help test out interventions aimed at combatting chronic absenteeism.

Looking carefully at how systems are playing out and tweaking them is a big part of “continuous improvement"—a new buzzword for the fairly unsexy work of using data and “feedback loops” to help things get gradually better over time. Believe it or not, the concept is alive and well in ESSA plans. Check out this story for more.

Image: Getty Images

Want to learn more about the Every Student Succeeds Act? Here’s some useful information:

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