Do School Districts Really Have Difficulty Meeting ESSA Evidence Standards?

The Center for Educational Policy recently released a report on how school districts are responding to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requirement that schools seeking school improvement grants select programs that meet ESSA’s strong, moderate, or promising standards of evidence. Education Week ran a story on the CEP report.

The report noted that many states, districts, and schools are taking the evidence requirements seriously, and are looking at websites and consulting with researchers to help them identify programs that meet the standards. This is all to the good.

However, the report also notes continuing problems districts and schools are having finding out “what works.” Two particular problems were cited. One was that districts and schools were not equipped to review research to find out what works. The other was that rural districts and schools found few programs proven effective in rural schools.

I find these concerns astounding. The same concerns were expressed when ESSA was first passed, in 2015. But that was almost four years ago. Since 2015, the What Works Clearinghouse has added information to help schools identify programs that meet the top two ESSA evidence categories, strong and moderate. Our own Evidence for ESSA, launched in February, 2017, has up-to-date information on virtually all PK-12 reading and math programs currently in dissemination. Among hundreds of programs examined, 113 meet ESSA standards for strong, moderate, or promising evidence of effectiveness. WWC, Evidence for ESSA, and other sources are available online at no cost. The contents of the entire Evidence for ESSA website were imported into Ohio’s own website on this topic, and dozens of states, perhaps all of them, have informed their districts and schools about these sources.

The idea that districts and schools could not find information on proven programs if they wanted to do so is difficult to believe, especially among schools eligible for school improvement grants. Such schools, and the districts in which they are located, write a lot of grant proposals for federal and state funding. The application forms for school improvement grants always explain the evidence requirements, because that is the law. Someone in every state involved with federal funding knows about the WWC and Evidence for ESSA websites. More than 90,000 unique users have used Evidence for ESSA, and more than 800 more sign on each week.

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As to rural schools, it is true that many studies of educational programs have taken place in urban areas. However, 47 of the 113 programs qualified by Evidence for ESSA were validated in at least one rural study, or a study including a large enough rural sample to enable researchers to separately report program impacts for rural students. Also, almost all widely disseminated programs have been used in many rural schools. So rural districts and schools that care about evidence can find programs that have been evaluated in rural locations, or at least that were evaluated in urban or suburban schools but widely disseminated in rural schools.

Also, it is important to note that if a program was successfully evaluated only in urban or suburban schools, the program still meets the ESSA evidence standards. If no studies of a given outcome were done in rural locations, a rural school in need of better outcomes could, in effect, be asked to choose between a program proven to work somewhere and probably used in dissemination in rural schools, or they could choose a program not proven to work anywhere. Every school and district has to make the best choices for their kids, but if I were a rural superintendent or principal, I’d read up on proven programs, and then go visit some rural schools using that program nearby. Wouldn’t you?

I have no reason to suspect that the CEP survey is incorrect. There are many indications that district and school leaders often do feel that the ESSA evidence rules are too difficult to meet. So what is really going on?

My guess is that there are many district and school leaders who do not want to know about evidence on proven programs. For example, they may have longstanding, positive relationships with representatives of publishers or software developers, or they may be comfortable and happy with the materials and services they are already using, evidence-proven or not. If they do not have evidence of effectiveness that would pass muster with WWC or Evidence for ESSA, the publishers and software developers may push hard on state and district officials, put forward dubious claims for evidence (such as studies with no control groups), and do their best to get by in a system that increasingly demands evidence that they lack. In my experience, district and state officials often complain about having inadequate staff to review evidence of effectiveness, but their concern may be less often finding out what works as it is defending themselves from publishers, software developers, or current district or school users of programs, who maintain that they have been unfairly rated by WWC, Evidence for ESSA, or other reviews. State and district leaders who stand up to this pressure may have to spend a lot of time reviewing evidence or hearing arguments.

On the plus side, at the same time that publishers and software producers may be seeking recognition for their current products, many are also sponsoring evaluations of some of their products that they feel are mostly likely to perform well in rigorous evaluations. Some may be creating new programs that resemble programs that have met evidence standards. If the federal ESSA law continues to demand evidence for certain federal funding purposes, or even to expand this requirement to additional parts of federal grant-making, then over time the ESSA law will have its desired effect, rewarding the creation and evaluation of programs that do meet standards by making it easier to disseminate such programs. The difficulties the evidence movement is experiencing are likely to diminish over time as more proven programs appear, and as federal, state, district, and school leaders get comfortable with evidence.

Evidence-based reform was always going to be difficult, because of the amount of change it entails and the stakes involved. But sooner or later, it is the right thing to do, and leaders who insist on evidence will see increasing levels of learning among their students, at minimal cost beyond what they already spend on untested or ineffective approaches. Medicine went through a similar transition in 1962, when the U.S. Congress first required that medicines be rigorously evaluated for effectiveness and safety. At first, many leaders in the medical profession resisted the changes, but after a while, they came to insist on them. The key is political leadership willing to support the evidence requirement strongly and permanently, so that educators and vendors alike will see that the best way forward is to embrace evidence and make it work for kids.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

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.

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