Watching the slow, uneven, uncertain rollout of the ESSA evidence standards gives me a mixture of hope and despair. The hope stems from the fact that from coast to coast, educational leaders are actually talking about proven programs and practices at all. That was certainly rare before ESSA. But despair in that I hear many educational leaders trying to find the absolute least their states and districts can do to just barely comply with the law. The ESSA evidence standards apply in particular to schools seeking school improvement funding, which are those in the lowest 5% of their states in academic performance. A previous program with a similar name but more capital letters, School Improvement, was used under NCLB, before ESSA. A large-scale evaluation by MDRC found that the earlier School Improvement made no difference in student achievement, despite billions of dollars in investments. So you’d imagine that this time around, educators responsible for school improvement would be eager to use the new law to introduce proven programs into their lowest-achieving schools. In fact, there are individual leaders, districts, and states who have exactly this intention, and may ultimately provide good examples to the rest. But they face substantial obstacles.
One of the obstacles I hear about often is an opposition among state departments of education to disseminating lists of proven programs. I very much understand and sympathize with their reluctance, as schools have been over-regulated for a long time. However, I do not see how the ESSA evidence standards can make much of a difference if everyone makes their own list of programs. Determining which studies meet ESSA evidence standards is difficult, and requires a great deal of knowledge about research (I know this, of course, because we do such reviews ourselves; see www.evidenceforessa.org).
Some say that they want programs that have been evaluated in their own states. But after taking into account demographics (e.g., urban/rural, ELL/not ELL, etc), are state-to-state differences so great as to require different research in each? We used to work with a school located on the Ohio-Indiana border, which ran right through the building. Were there really programs that were effective on one side of the building but not on the other?
Further, state department leaders frequently complain that they have too few staff to adequately manage school improvement across their states. Should that capacity be concentrated on reviewing research to determine which programs meet ESSA evidence standards and which do not?
The irony of opposing lists for ESSA evidence standards is that most states are chock full of lists that restrict the textbooks, software, and professional development schools can select using state funds. These lists may focus on paperweight, binding, and other minimum quality issues, but they almost never have anything to do with evidence of effectiveness. One state asked us to review their textbook adoption lists for reading and math, grades K-12. Collectively, there were hundreds of books, but just a handful had even a shred of evidence of effectiveness.
Educational leaders are constantly buffeted by opposing interest groups, from politicians to school board members to leaders of unions, from PTAs presidents to university presidents, to for-profit companies promoting their own materials and programs. Educational leaders need a consistent way to ensure that the decisions they make are in the best interests of children, not the often self-serving interests of adults. The ESSA evidence standards, if used wisely, give education leaders an opportunity to say to the whole cacophony of cries for special consideration, “I’d love to help you all, but we can only approve programs for our lowest-achieving schools that are known from rigorous research to benefit our children. We say this because it is the law, but also because we believe our children, and especially our lowest achievers, deserve the most effective programs, no matter what the law says.”
To back up such a radical statement, educational leaders need clarity about what their standards are and which specific programs meet those standards. Otherwise, they either have an “anything goes’ strategy that in effect means that evidence does not matter, or they have competing vendors claiming an evidence base for their favored program. Lists of proven programs can disappoint those whose programs aren’t on the list, but they are at least clear and unambiguous, and communicate to those who want to add to the list exactly what kind of evidence they will need.
States or large districts can create lists of proven programs by starting with existing national lists (such as the What Works Clearinghouse or Evidence for ESSA) and then modifying them, perhaps by adding additional programs that meet the same standards and/or eliminating programs not available in a given location. Over time, existing or new programs can be added as new evidence appears. We, at Evidence for ESSA, are willing to review programs being considered by state or local educators for addition to their own lists, and we will do it for free and in about two weeks. Then we’ll add them to our national list if they qualify.
It is important to say that while lists are necessary, they are not sufficient. Thoughtful needs assessments, information on proven programs (such as effective methods fairs and visits to local users of proven programs), and planning for high-quality implementation of proven programs are also necessary. However, students in struggling schools cannot wait for every school, district, and state to reinvent the wheel. They need the best we can give them right now, while the field is working on even better solutions for the future.
Whether a state or district uses a national list, or starts with such a list and modifies it for its own purposes, a list of proven programs provides an excellent starting point for struggling schools. It plants a flag for all to see, one that says “Because this (state/district/school) is committed to the success of every child, we select and carefully implement programs known to work. Please join us in this enterprise.”
This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.