It’s the first finding of pretty much any education study, regardless of the topic or the intervention: We need more research. But for teachers, administrators, and policymakers trying to figure out how to improve student learning under the Every Student Succeeds Act, understanding the good-enough evidence can be more important than finding the best silver bullet.
Sean Ross, the director of Arizona’s $45 million statewide Move On When Reading initiative, has become one of those looking.
“I think Arizona is the triage story, ESSA under the gun,” Ross said in a discussion at last month’s meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness.
Arizona is one of 13 states which requires schools to hold back any student who is not reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade. As a result, districts must submit annual literacy-improvement plans, which are subject to ESSA’s requirement that interventions provide evidence of effectiveness.
“We had 30 days from the change in legislation to the submission of plans from districts to help the field understand what this all meant,” Ross said. “Many of the core reading programs in use around Arizona did not have that evidence provided; districts had no funding to buy new core reading programs if we find their reading programs are not meeting ESSA evidence levels, and there’s virtually no understanding of ESSA in the field at this time.”
The state adopted a three-step process to help districts identify supporting research quickly:
- Districts using programs from large vendors such as Scholastic were provided link and email templates to help them look up specific evidence on vendor web sites, and were given model letters to request research from representatives of the companies if it wasn’t easily available. “A number of the districts had spent all this money and they had never called their local vendors; we wanted to get them talking,” Ross said.
- For those whose contractors or vendors couldn’t provide research, the state provided guides on how administrators could break down a program into its foundational pieces and look up supporting research on their own, via the federal What Works Clearinghouse or even Google Scholar. “We knocked out 95 percent of our districts with options one and two,” Ross said.
- Districts and charter schools that couldn’t provide research to back up their programs could, in their first year, provide three years’ worth of data from their own students showing the program was increasing reading achievement. The state helped these districts partner with research groups such as the Regional Educational Laboratory West’s (REL West’s) Arizona Literacy Partnership to identify interventions with stronger evidence going forward.
“The spirit of the evidence provisions in ESSA are really about continuous improvement,” said Lenay Dunn, the partnership lead for REL-West. “When you really step back, it’s an opportunity to say what are we really doing well, what are our needs, what are we doing to address those needs, what’s working, and what’s not working.”
Building Layers of Evidence
Arizona is one of several states working to pair quick ESSA compliance with the development of longterm partnerships to help educators become savvy research-shoppers.
In a recent report, the nonprofit group Results for America found 14 states have tied education funding for school improvement to the use of evidence, and nine call for school improvement plans to focus on “continuous improvement,” by not just finding research, but studying the effectiveness of interventions as the school implements them.
“We were really excited to do it,” said Sonja Robertson, the director of school improvement for the Mississippi department of education. She noted that state statute already requires Mississippi school improvement plans to include “proven strategies that have an evidence base,” but ESSA provided more guidance on what kinds of research—including both randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental studies—could be used.
Mississippi worked with the Regional Education Laboratory Southeast to provide self-study guides for districts to find research supporting their programs and also to plan and study their own implementation of those programs.
“It doesn’t do much good if you select a strong intervention but it is not tailored to the needs of your state or district,” said Laurie Lee, the literacy research allianace manager at REL Southeast.