In December, 2015, the U.S. Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Among many other provisions, ESSA defined levels of evidence supporting educational programs: Strong (at least one randomized experiment with positive outcomes), moderate (at least one quasi-experimental study with positive outcomes), and promising (at least one correlational study with positive outcomes). For various forms of federal funding, schools are required (in school improvement) or encouraged (in seven other funding streams) to use programs falling into one of these top three categories. There is also a fourth category, “demonstrates a rationale,” but this one has few practical consequences.
3 ½ years later, the ESSA evidence standards are increasing interest in evidence of effectiveness for educational programs, especially among schools applying for school improvement funding and in state departments of education, which are responsible for managing the school improvement grant process. All of this is to the good, in my view.
On the other hand, evidence is not yet transforming educational practice. Even in portions of ESSA that encourage or require use of proven programs among schools seeking federal funding, schools and districts often try to find ways around the evidence requirements rather than truly embracing them. Even when schools do say they used evidence in their proposals, they may have just accepted assurances from publishers or developers stating that their programs meet ESSA standards, even when this is clearly not so.
Educators care a great deal about their children’s achievement, and they work hard to ensure their success. Implementing proven, effective programs does not guarantee success, but it greatly increases the chances. So why has evidence of effectiveness played such a limited role in program selection and implementation, even when ESSA, the national education law, defines evidence and requires use of proven programs under certain circumstances?
The Center on Education Policy Report
Not long ago, the Center on Education Policy (CEP) at George Washington University published a report of telephone interviews of state leaders in seven states. The interviews focused on problems states and districts were having with implementation of the ESSA evidence standards. Six themes emerged:
- Educational leaders are not comfortable with educational research methods.
- State leaders feel overwhelmed serving large numbers of schools qualifying for school improvement.
- Districts have to seriously re-evaluate longstanding relationships with vendors of education products.
- State and district staff are confused about the prohibition on using Title I school improvement funds on “Tier 4” programs (ones that demonstrate a rationale, but have not been successfully evaluated in a rigorous study).
- Some state officials complained that the U.S. Department of Education had not been sufficiently helpful with implementation of ESSA evidence standards.
- State leaders had suggestions to make education research more accessible to educators.
What is the Reality?
I’m sure that the concerns expressed by the state and district leaders in the CEP report are sincerely felt. But most of them raise issues that have already been solved at the federal, state, and/or district levels. If these concerns are as widespread as they appear to be, then we have serious problems of communication.
- The first theme in the CEP report is one I hear all the time. I find it astonishing, in light of the reality.
No educator needs to be a research expert to find evidence of effectiveness for educational programs. The federal What Works Clearinghouse (https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/) and our Evidence for ESSA (www.evidenceforessa.org) provide free information on the outcomes of programs, at least in reading and mathematics, that is easy to understand and interpret. Evidence for ESSA provides information on programs that do meet ESSA standards as well as those that do not. We are constantly scouring the literature for studies of replicable programs, and when asked, we review entire state and district lists of adopted programs and textbooks, at no cost. The What Works Clearinghouse is not as up-to-date and has little information on programs lacking positive findings, but it also provides easily interpreted information on what works in education.
In fact, few educational leaders anywhere are evaluating the effectiveness of individual programs by reading research reports one at a time. The What Works Clearinghouse and Evidence for ESSA employ experts who know how to find and evaluate outcomes of valid research and to describe the findings clearly. Why would every state and district re-do this job for themselves? It would be like having every state do its own version of Consumer Reports, or its own reviews of medical treatments. It just makes no sense. In fact, at least in the case of Evidence for ESSA, we know that more than 80,000 unique readers have used Evidence for ESSA since it launched in 2017. I’m sure even larger numbers have used the What Works Clearinghouse and other reviews. The State of Ohio took our entire Evidence for ESSA website and put it on its own state servers with some other information. Several other states have strongly promoted the site. The bottom line is that educational leaders do not have to be research mavens to know what works, and tens of thousands of them know where to find fair and useful information.
- State leaders are overwhelmed. I’m sure this is true, but most state departments of education have long been understaffed. This problem is not unique to ESSA.
- Districts have to seriously re-evaluate longstanding relationships with vendors. I suspect that this concern is at the core of the problem on evidence. The fact is that most commercial programs do not have adequate evidence of effectiveness. Either they have no qualifying studies (by far the largest number), or they do have qualifying evidence that is not significantly positive. A vendor with programs that do not meet ESSA standards is not going to be a big fan of evidence, or ESSA. These are often powerful organizations with deep personal relationships with state and district leaders. When state officials adhere to a strict definition of evidence, defined in ESSA, local vendors push back hard. Understaffed state departments are poorly placed to fight with vendors and their friends in district offices, so they may be forced to accept weak or no evidence.
- Confusions about Tier 4 evidence. ESSA is clear that to receive certain federal funds schools must use programs with evidence in Tiers 1, 2, or 3, but not 4. The reality is that definitions of Tier 4 are so weak that any program on Earth can meet this standard. What program anywhere does not have a rationale? The problem is that districts, states, and vendors have used confusion about Tier 4 to justify any program they wish. Some states are more sophisticated than others and do not allow this, but the very existence of Tier 4 in ESSA language creates a loophole that any clever sales rep or educator can use, or at least try to get away with.
- The U. S. Department of Education is not helpful enough. In reality, USDoE is understaffed and overwhelmed on many fronts. In any case, ESSA puts a lot of emphasis on state autonomy, so the feds feel unwelcome in performing oversight.
The Future of Evidence in Education
Despite the serious problems in implementation of ESSA, I still think it is a giant step forward. Every successful field, such as medicine, agriculture, and technology, has started its own evidence revolution fighting entrenched interests and anxious stakeholders. As late as the 1920s, surgeons refused to wash their hands before operations, despite substantial evidence going back to the 1800s that handwashing was essential. Evidence eventually triumphs, though it often takes many years. Education is just at the beginning of its evidence revolution, and it will take many years to prevail. But I am unaware of any field that embraced evidence, only to retreat in the face of opposition. Evidence eventually prevails because it is focused on improving outcomes for people, and people vote. Sooner or later, evidence will transform the practice of education, as it has in so many other fields.
Photo credit: Roger Price from Hong Kong, Hong Kong [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
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.