Finding ‘Evidence’-Backed ESSA Strategies a Challenge for Districts, Report Finds

School districts are searching for education vendors whose products have evidence to highlight their effectiveness, but it’s often a struggle for them to find a match. 

That’s one of the conclusions of a new report published by the Center on Education Policy, which focuses on how federal rules regulating district spending on interventions for low-performing schools are playing out when it comes to evidence requirements, and examines a number of challenges for education companies and educators.

Some districts mistakenly believed they had to cancel all of their contracts with vendors because of federal requirements. Others have struggled to find vendors with the necessary evidence base, the report found. And some were working with vendors whose products they believed were effective, but had to cut ties when companies had no proof of that impact.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires that districts use strategies that are “evidence-based” to tap federal dollars to turn around low-performing schools. The law outlines four tiers of evidence ranging from “strong” to “demonstrates a rationale.”

The report, “District Interviews: How School Districts Are Responding to ESSA’s Evidence Requirements for School Improvement,” took a close look at five school districts of varying characteristics—located in different rural, suburban, and urban settings–that have grappled with the federal evidence requirements.

“Vendors should know that if they want to be of assistance in school improvement efforts, they have to have evidence for their strategies,” said Diane Stark Rentner, deputy director at the Center on Education Policy, a non-partisan group that does research around public education. “They won’t be able to play unless they can show this.”

A recent EdWeek Market Brief story took an in-depth look at how these evidence requirements are unfolding at the state level and the impact they’re having on vendors and on districts. This story took a close look at four specific states to see how they’re each approaching the need for evidence from vendors.

Rural-Urban Mismatch

Educators from the districts studied in the CEP report “credited ESSA with causing their districts to re-examine their relationships with vendors,” researchers wrote. This meant the districts asked vendors for the evidence and sometimes parted ways with companies that weren’t able to offer any, the report noted.

But the CEP report found that rural districts faced significant challenges with the ESSA mandate. It was difficult for those K-12 systems to find interventions supported by evidence-based strategies. Companies that did have evidence often had conducted research on their products in heavily populated districts or districts that didn’t have the same types of challenges or student enrollment.

“The vetted-vendors that the state provided all had track records…mostly in urban areas,” said one rural district official quoted in the report.

An additional problem for some districts is a lack of capacity and expertise among staff to evaluate the evidence that vendors put forward. Moreover, some education companies don’t present evidence for their products in a way that aligns with the tiers of evidence laid out by ESSA. Some districts, however, have been able to partner with local universities and researchers to help evaluating that evidence, the report found.

The Center for Education Policy published a related report earlier this year that examined how a handful of states were responding to ESSA’s evidence requirements.

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8 thoughts on “Finding ‘Evidence’-Backed ESSA Strategies a Challenge for Districts, Report Finds

  1. ESSA, the federal education law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, requires schools identified by their states as in need of improvement to adopt school improvement strategies. The law gives them broad flexibility in the approach they select, but it requires that those efforts be “evidence-based” and designed with input from families and community members. Under ESSA, states must use at least 7 percent of their Title I funding—which is a large pot of money targeted at schools with large enrollments of low-income students—to fund school-improvement efforts. School systems that use that funding for improvement can select anything that meets ESSA’s requirements for “strong,” “moderate,” or “promising” evidence. Those that don’t receive that federal improvement funding must demonstrate some rationale and study the effectiveness of their plans, but they aren’t held to as high standards for evidence.

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