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Every Student Succeeds Act

Districts Face Hurdles Finding Evidence-Based Improvement Strategies Under ESSA

By Evie Blad — September 04, 2019 4 min read
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The Every Student Succeeds Act requires struggling schools to choose turnaround strategies that are backed by evidence. But that requirement is more complicated for school leaders than simply saying, “I want to do this and I found a study to back it up.”

For one thing, simply accessing and interpreting education research can be difficult for school leaders. Another issue: Research on school improvement may have been conducted in schools and districts with very different challenges than their own.

Researchers from the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, a nonpartisan research organization, interviewed administrators from five very different school systems and explored how their districts are handling the evidence requirements—and the challenges they’ve faced in doing so—in a new report. Here are some key findings.

What does ESSA say about evidence?

ESSA, the federal education law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, requires schools identified by their states as in need of improvement to adopt school improvement strategies. The law gives them broad flexibility in the approach they select, but it requires that those efforts be “evidence-based” and designed with input from families and community members.

Under ESSA, states must use at least 7 percent of their Title I funding—which is a large pot of money targeted at schools with large enrollments of low-income students—to fund school-improvement efforts. School systems that use that funding for improvement can select anything that meets ESSA’s requirements for “strong,” “moderate,” or “promising” evidence. Those that don’t receive that federal improvement funding must demonstrate some rationale and study the effectiveness of their plans, but they aren’t held to as high standards for evidence. Read more about those requirements here.

Requirements challenge smaller districts.

Administrators of larger, urban and suburban school districts told CEP interviewers that their existing research and evaluation teams helped them sort through program evaluations and evidence as they designed their strategies.

But the rural school district leader said even accessing research was difficult. Many journal articles are behind paywalls, and district funds are limited. At one point, that administrator even asked her son, a college student in another state, to log into his university’s research database to find articles about school improvement. She also reached out to other districts in her state for help.

“The only thing that got me through ESSA evidence without getting really upset was that I could log into this major university and I had access,” the administrator told CEP. “I kept asking our state, ‘Why don’t we have this?’ It makes no sense that you are asking us to find evidence and we can’t even look for it.”

Other administrators told CEP that their grant writers had informally cooperated to identify strong, evidence-based strategies they could adapt to their needs.

Turning research into reality is tough.

While schools have more freedom to select improvement models under ESSA, they may struggle with finding the capacity to do it, some administrators said. And sometimes school systems disagree with their state education departments about how to interpret and apply the evidence requirements.

A leader of a countywide district said principals are already overly stretched with current responsibilities, and some aren’t comfortable interpreting research. Some school leaders also complained their state wouldn’t approve strategies principals found to be effective because they didn’t agree that they met the evidence requirements.

“The state has a conservative approach so things that we know work within the context of our schools, like strong PLCs [Professional Learning Communities], which would meet evidence level 2 if you implement them right ... the state won’t allow those because you have to have a study specific to that project ... So that has made it a little more difficult,” that administrator told CEP.

Relationships matter.

School improvement can’t be done in isolation. It takes support from state agencies, other districts, and outside vendors to work.

The rural administrator said this was a particularly challenging aspect of school improvement.

“One of the problems with having vendors come to our district is that we are too big geographically, so you can’t go to a school [in one community] and then go to a school [in another community],” that administrator said. “It’s going to take you a week pretty much to spend any valuable time in those schools. I know our principals feel like [vendors] come for two days and then they don’t see them for a really long period of time.”

A school administrator from a mid-sized district told interviewers that some vendors acted like “piranhas” and inaccurately characterized their products as evidence-based “when most of the evidence comes from the vendor’s in-house evaluations.”

Leaders reported varying levels of satisfaction with how their states handled the requirements.

The rural district leader said her state department had vetted strategies that hadn’t been tested in rural schools. Another administrator reported some tension with his state department, which interpreted the requirements more strictly than his district had. And an administrator from a small city school system said turnover and capacity issues at the state agency made it difficult for him to trust its guidance.

“We don’t have a whole lot of faith that what they put in place will be helpful, so we are just depending on ourselves to make sure that what we are doing is working, and it is,” he told CEP.

You can read the whole report here.

Photo: Getty