The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) calls for interventions funded with federal dollars to be evidence-based. What does this mean for professional learning initiatives that use ESSA funds? We asked Learning Forward Senior Consultant Janice Poda to answer some common questions about the use of evidence according to the federal education law.
Q: What role does research evidence play in ESSA?
A: The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides the potential for great strides in supporting teachers and leaders and impacting student outcomes. Two overarching goals that members of Congress had as they crafted the law were to:
Evidence-based decisions are mandatory in some aspects of the law and strongly encouraged in others. States may spend Title IIA funds on professional learning, although they may also spend those funds on other initiatives such as class size reductions. Those approaches must meet certain standards of evidence.
Evidence-based decision-making may also be required for other aspects of ESSA that affect educator support and capacity-building. One example is a competitive grants priority for school leader recruitment and support programs.
Q: Why is evidence-based decision-making important?
A: There are many reasons to applaud the focus on evidence-based decisions:
Q: What does ESSA recognize as evidence?
A: The law acknowledges that evidence comes in multiple forms and that highly rigorous studies are not available for all types of interventions. As a result, it specifies four levels of evidence and encourages states and districts to use the most rigorous type of evidence available.
The top three levels require findings of a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes or other relevant outcomes:
The fourth level is useful when the research base on a particular type of intervention is not well-developed and few or no rigorous studies are available. It consists of interventions that are developing and promising but do not yet have evidence qualifying for the top three levels.
Q: What steps can educators take to find evidence?
A: More evidence on what works to increase student success is available now than ever before, but education leaders may not have extensive experience accessing that information. Recognizing the time and effort involved in this process, some states are providing research summaries or hiring organizations to make reviewing and selecting interventions easier for districts (Klein, 2018).
For those conducting your own reviews, the following tips can help you get started.
First, conduct a review of the literature and educational research. Select studies that are not older than 1990. Focus on studies in which the participants match or are similar to the students you serve. For example, evidence about a program that has been effective in elementary schools may not have the same impact on high school teachers and students. More evidence about the impact on high school students would be needed before selecting that program for implementation.
When reviewing studies, keep in mind that student achievement (usually measured on standardized tests) is an important metric of success, but not the only one. Educators can also consider the strategies’ alignment with state or national standards, consistency with current statements of experts or professional associations, and other indicators of quality.
Q: How can educators review the evidence?
A: One of the best tools to use to determine where and when to collect and use evidence is the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle. Plan-Do-Study-Act cycles can use and build evidence in multiple ways. Use the questions associated with each phase of the cycle to start using evidence today to help you solve your most vexing problems.
Questions that go with each cycle
Q: Where can I get more information?
A: Additional resources for selecting, evaluating, and using evidence can be found online.
The following websites are helpful resources for finding studies to review:
Klein, A. (2018). Districts aim to wield evidence-based tools in satisfying ESSA on school turnarounds. Education Week, 37(25), 9-11.
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