I’ve been writing lately about our Evidence for ESSA web site, due to be launched at the end of February. It will make information on programs meeting ESSA evidence standards easy to access and use. I think it will be a wonderful tool. But today, I want to talk about what educational leaders need to do to make sure that the evidence they get from Evidence for ESSA will actually make a difference for students. Knowing what works is essential, but before searching for proven programs, it is important to know the problems you are trying to solve. The first step in any cycle of instructional improvement is conducting a needs assessment. You can’t fix a problem you don’t acknowledge and understand. Most implementation models also ask leaders to do a “root cause” analysis in order to understand what causes the problems that need to be solved.
Needs assessments and root cause analyses are necessary, but they are often, as Monty Python used to say, “a privileged glimpse into the perfectly obvious.” Any school, district, or state leadership team is likely to sit down with the data and conclude, for example, that on average, low achieving students are from less advantaged homes, or that they have learning disabilities, or that they are limited in English proficiency. They might dig deeper and find that low achievers or dropouts are concentrated among students with poor attendance, behavior problems, poor social-emotional skills, and low aspirations.
Please raise your hand if any of these are surprising, or if you haven’t been working on them your whole professional life. Seeing no hands raised, I’ll continue.
The problem with needs assessments and root cause analyses is that they usually do not suggest a pragmatic solution that isn’t already in use or hasn’t already been tried. And some root causes cannot, as a practical matter, be solved by schools. For example, if students live in substandard housing, or suffer from lead poisoning or chronic diseases, schools can help reduce the educational impact of these problems but cannot solve them.
Further, needs assessments often lead to solutions that are too narrow, and may therefore not be optimal or cost-effective. For example, a school improvement team might conclude that one-third of kindergartners are unlikely to reach third grade reading at grade level. This might lead the school to invest in a one-to-one tutoring program. Yet few schools can afford one-to-one tutoring for as many as one third of their children. A more cost-effective approach might be to invest in professional development in proven core instructional strategies for teachers of grades K-3, and then provide proven small-group tutoring for students for whom enhanced classroom reading instruction is not enough, and then provide one-to-one tutoring for the hopefully small number of students still not succeeding despite receiving proven whole-class and then small-group instruction. The school might check students’ vision and hearing to be sure that problems in these areas are not what is holding back some of the students.
In this example, note that the needs assessment might not lead directly to the best solution. A needs assessment might conclude that there is a big problem with early reading, and it might note the nature of the students likely to fail. But the needs assessment might not lead to improving classroom instruction or checking vision and hearing, because these may not seem directly targeted to the original problem. Improving classroom instruction or checking vision and hearing for all would end up benefitting students who never had a problem with reading. But so what? Some solutions, such as professional development for teachers, are so inexpensive (compared to, say, tutoring or special education) that it may be better to invest in the broader solution and let the benefits apply to all or most students rather than focus narrowly on the students with the problems.
An excellent example of this perspective relates to English learners. In many schools and districts, students who enter school with poor English skills are at particular risk, perhaps throughout their school careers. A needs assessment involving such schools would of course point to language proficiency as a key factor in students’ likelihood of success, on average. Yet if you look at the evidence on what works with English learners to improve their learning of English, reading, and other subjects, most solutions take place in heterogeneous classrooms and involve a lot of cooperative learning, where English learners have a lot of opportunities every day to use English in school contexts. A narrow interpretation of a needs assessment might try to focus on interventions for English learners alone, but alone is the last place they should be.
Needs assessments are necessary, but they should be carried out in light of the practical, proven solutions that are available. For example, imagine that a school leadership team carries out a needs assessment that arrays documented needs, and considers proven solutions, perhaps categorized as expensive (e.g., tutoring, summer school, after school), moderate (e.g., certain technology approaches, professional development with live, on-site coaching, vision and hearing services), or inexpensive (e.g., professional development without live coaching). The idea would be to bring together data on the problems and the solutions, leading to a systemic approach to change rather than either picking programs off a shelf or picking out needs and choosing solutions narrowly focused on those needs alone.
Doing needs assessments without proven solutions as part of the process from the outset would be like making a wish list of features you’d like in your next car without knowing anything about cars actually on the market, and without considering Consumer Reports ratings of their reliability. The result could be ending up with a car that breaks down a lot or one that costs a million dollars, or both.
Having easy access to reliable information on the effectiveness of proven programs should greatly change, but not dominate, the conversation about school improvement. It should facilitate intelligent, informed conversations among caring leaders, who need to build workable systems to use innovation to enhance outcomes. Those systems need to consider needs, proven programs, and requirements for effective implementation together, and create schools built around the needs of students, schools, and communities.