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Every Student Succeeds Act

ESSA Guidance Issued on ‘Evidence Based’ School Improvement

By Alyson Klein — September 16, 2016 4 min read
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The Every Student Succeeds Act represents a whole new ball game when it comes to school improvement: States and districts will get to come up with interventions and turnaround strategies, as long as they have evidence to back up their approaches. That’s a big departure from the law’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.

But fixing-up long-foundering schools, and even helping struggling groups of students in otherwise good schools, is notoriously difficult work.

So what’s the best way for states and districts to approach school improvement in the ESSA era? And what does it mean for an intervention to be “evidence-based” anyway?

The U.S. Department of Education has developed guidance to help states, districts, and schools grapple with those questions. (Importantly, guidance is nonbinding, so local officials should consider this what the feds see as best practices, not a list of musts.)

Overall, the department is urging states, districts, and schools to use interventions that have a strong record of making a difference with the types of students or schools that need help, and to think deliberately at every step of the turnaround process.

The guidance urges states, districts, and schools to use interventions that have a strong record of making a difference with the types of students or schools that need help, and to think deliberately at every step of the turnaround process.

And the guidance has suggestions for better defining the evidence tiers—including the top three evidence tiers used for school improvement funds. It offers a rigorous set of criteria for what constitutes “promising,” “moderate,” and “strong” evidence that a particular intervention will work.

Importantly, interventions that would meet the department’s gold standard aren’t easy to find—states and districts would almost certainly have to look to the What Works Clearinghouse, which (luckily) has just been revamped.

The guidance includes this helpful chart on the department’s proposed process:

Here’s a little more explanation on each of those:

Identifying local needs: States and districts should do extensive outreach to communities, including pouring over data and talking to parents, teachers, and students to get a sense of where a school’s problems may stem from. They should consider whether the school, or a particular population within the school, is getting access to a fair share of resources (including good teachers).

Selecting evidence: States and districts should go with the highest level of evidence possible (i.e. “strong”) and consider whether there is evidence that a strategy has worked in the context they want it to. For instance, if a district is trying to help a school do a better job educating rural English-language learners, the best intervention should be one that’s been shown to work with that population.

Plan for implementation: That means coming up with clear goals and timelines and figuring out what resources a school needs to get its turnaround off the ground.

Examine and reflect: Schools, districts, and states should think carefully about why the intervention has worked—or hasn’t—and what needs to be tweaked. And they should make sure that the school shares what worked and what didn’t with others.

A second part of the guidance offers states and districts suggestions for setting a high bar when it comes to defining the different “tiers” of evidence (promising, moderate, and strong).

If a significant number of states and districts decide to take the department’s proposed definitions to heart, it could have

serious implications for the research community. As of right now, there aren’t a ton of interventions that meet the highest standard laid out in this guidance. And there would need to much more high-quality research on how particular interventions impact different populations. More from Sarah Sparks of Inside School Research fame.

“Sometimes when you put things in regulations, it can cause a backlash and focus people on just compliance,” said Jim Kohlmoos of Edge Consulting, who works with education groups on research-use issues. “So I’m pleased with the guidance, because ... it’s more trying to stimulate a lot of innovation and creativity as opposed to compliance.”

Michele Jolin, the founder of Results for America, a nonprofit that supports evidence-based practices in education, gave the guidance the thumbs-up in a statement.

“These guidelines will strengthen the effectiveness of education strategies by making clear what it means for a program to be evidence-based and encouraging states and school districts to use more—and better—evidence,” she said.

Bus Tour Connection

Not coincidentally, the guidance on “evidence-based interventions” comes on the last day of John B. King, Jr.'s Back-to-School bus tour.

He’ll end the day at Cohen College Prep, a charter school in New Orleans that participated in a nearly $30 million Investing in Innovation grant to New Schools for New Orleans. The grant was aimed at helping flailing schools find success by “restarting” as charters. All of the school’s graduates were accepted to college, the department said.

As most Politics K-12 readers know, i3 was aimed at helping school districts and nonprofits test out promising strategies. It has a successor program under ESSA, the Education Innovation and Research program, or EIR. The Obama administration bet big on a separate program aimed at school turnarounds—the School Improvement Grant program—which yielded mixed results and was scrapped under ESSA.

CLARIFICATION: Language in this post has been clarified to better explain the Education Department’s interpretation of the law’s evidence-based requirements for states and districts.

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