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Every Student Succeeds Act

How Should School Interventions Work Under ESSA?

By Alyson Klein — September 13, 2016 4 min read
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For months, folks inside the Beltway have been talking mostly about how the Every Student Succeeds Act will change the way states look at school performance. But how will the law be different from the No Child Left Behind Act when it comes to helping low-performing schools get better?

The answer bangs that same ESSA drum again: more local control. States and districts will get to figure out how to intervene, but the strategies will have to be “evidence-based.”

So will this work?

This new provision could help schools make academic gains, if states, districts, and the feds offer smart leadership, according to a pair of reports released recently by the Center for American Progress, a think tank closely associated with the Obama administration.

CAP has identified some strategies for school improvement that seem to have worked in the past, and also unpacked the different roles of states, districts, and schools in crafting and implementing interventions with evidence to back them up.

So what are CAP’s suggestions? The most recent report, “Seven Tenets for Successful School Turnaround”, released Tuesday, was written with help from Education Resource Strategies, a non-profit that works to improve urban school districts.

It makes a list of recommendations for strong state-and-district led turnarounds, informed by interviews with district, federal, and state leaders, as well as a research review.

They include:


  • Allowing for big change by giving districts, and the state, a free hand to do what needs to be done to fix low-performing schools. That can mean giving principals and district leaders more say over how they hire, which teachers they retain, and how they spend money. The report called a couple places where this has been successful, including New Orleans’ Recovery School District, and the “iZone” run by Shelby County schools in Memphis.
  • Give serious financial support to turnaround schools over a span of several years, and make sure that competitive grants are accomplishing what they are intended to. Districts should give low-performing schools time to plan their transformations, and make sure that they are getting their fair share of resources before investing new money. Competitive grants can provide an extra boost for turnarounds. Under ESSA, states can use a portion of their Title I money to create these competitions, if they want to.
  • Develop a system that empowers districts to intervene in low-performing schools, but also holds them accountable. Massachusetts, which labels its districts, not just its schools, in its accountability system, is a good example to look at. We wrote about their system here.
  • Since some schools and districts will need more help than others, states should figure out how to create “tiers” of support. And they should make sure districts have access to information about what has worked elsewhere and what hasn’t. State agencies also should have staffers dedicated to turnaround work.
  • Help districts and schools engage with families and communities throughout the turnaround. The Lawrence school district in Massachusetts is a standout here.
  • Train and develop more turnaround leaders.
  • Work with research organizations and universities to figure out what’s working and what’s not in turnarounds. And make sure that districts and schools that are knee-deep in the process have access to that information.

The report makes specific suggestions on what role the feds, states, districts, and schools should take in this process.

And in an earlier report, “Better Evidence, Better Choices, Better Schools” released last month, CAP offered

a number of suggestions for making sure evidence-based interventions work well. These were culled from interviews last spring with a focus group of former state and district officials, as well as informal interviews with school improvement experts.

Here’s a sampling:


  • The feds, states, and districts should all figure out what their role will be when it comes to vetting evidence-based interventions.
  • Evidence-based interventions should be reviewed by clearinghouses, such as the department’s What Works Clearinghouse, since the folks who do that type of work are most likely to have expertise in this area. States should steer clear of making lists of what’s approved and what’s not.
  • The process of picking an intervention should consider not just evidence, but also the local context and involve parents, business leaders and others.
  • School districts and states should be “appropriately skeptical” of outside providers who say they have expertise in turnarounds and school improvement. Providers really need to have a good sense of the individual school districts’ needs.
  • States should get the technical assistance they need from organizations such as the Regional Education Laboratories and Comprehensive Centers, and keep looking at a schools’ results to make sure implementation is proceeding on schedule.

Where is all this going? Some folks have been wondering whether the department will choose to set up rules or write guidance on these “evidence-based interventions,” and CAP reports on this topic might mean we can expect more from the feds.

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