July 9, 2018Op-ed

The 74: Analysis: ESSA Offers a Real Chance to Drive Real Change in America’s Schools — but Only If We Follow the Evidence

by Melody Barnes and John Bridgeland

Federal/ Education/ 2018/

Federal policymakers have been working to reduce massive disparities in educational outcomes for youth in America for 60 years, with disappointing results. Fortunately, the newest iteration in our nation’s quest to address persisting education challenges, the Every Student Succeeds Act, looks very different from past attempts.

The key to the new law is that it gives states and local districts new authority to design education systems that reflect their needs and priorities, provided the new designs are based on evidence. If state and local leaders fully embrace the law, it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the status quo in education.

If implemented well, ESSA could ensure that more resources — up to $2 billion annually — are invested in solutions that have a proven track record of improving student outcomes. Those investments could help decision makers make better use of data and evidence of what works in education, which in turn might encourage further study and ultimately generate new evidence. If these evidence-based approaches are replicated to scale, we might finally see a marked shift in our approach to education policy, rather than the incremental changes we’ve seen so far.

The data are essential to success. Current experiments in education reform are already fostering compelling shifts in learning approaches. For example, many schools and districts are implementing a strategy that integrates academic, social, and emotional development of children, because there’s evidence that it boosts all the indicators we already measure. A council of distinguished scientists unanimously agreed, noting that the approach boosted metrics such as grades, standardized test scores, social interaction, graduation rates, and college success. It’s already paying dividends: Tacoma, Washington; Fresno, California; Cleveland, Ohio, and other districts have adopted this approach with impressive results, particularly in turning around low-performing schools.