May 17, 2018Policy Report

Evidence-Building Opportunities Under ESSA: How States Can and Should Generate Evidence to Drive Better Outcomes for Students

Local/State/ Education/ 2018/


The December 2015 passage of the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) marked a dramatic shift in recent federal education policy by granting states and school districts significantly more authority and flexibility to design education systems that reflect local needs and priorities. However, with increased flexibility comes increased responsibility and accountability for results. This is especially true with respect to states’ charge to improve outcomes in the lowest-performing schools.

Given that previous school improvement efforts have produced inconsistent results, it’s not surprising that there is considerable skepticism about ESSA’s emphasis on state-led school improvement. However, there is an important distinction: ESSA contains provisions that encourage, and in some cases require, the use of evidence-based approaches and continuous improvement. If implemented well, ESSA could help to ensure more resources are invested in policies, practices, and programs grounded in reliable evidence. It could also help to build the evidence base about what works, for whom, and under what circumstances.

The state and district education Chiefs who are members of Chiefs for Change are leaders in this area. They are using the evidence provisions in ESSA to support initiatives that accelerate academic progress, particularly for those students who are furthest behind. Members of Chiefs for Change are not only supporting initiatives in their own states, they are expanding the base of information avail- able to education leaders across the country. This report builds on the work Chiefs for Change has done to identify ways to leverage the evidence provisions in ESSA and use federal funds to support this approach. Specifically, the report offers guidance for state education agencies (SEAs) as they both use and build evidence to improve outcomes.

Many people in education have come to recognize that we can increase the likelihood of success, in some cases dramatically so, by regularly and thoughtfully using the best available evidence to inform decision making. However, it is not enough to simply use evidence. For a variety of reasons, we must continue to build evidence and expand our understanding of what works to improve academic achievement:

  1. ŒAlthough we have made important gains in understanding how students learn and how best to support that learning, the evidence base is still too thin to address the full range of challenges educators face.
  2. New insights and innovations—including but not limited to technological ones—might be more effective than the existing practices that have already been studied and thus are able to qualify as “evidence-based.”
  3. ŽEven “proven” approaches need ongoing research to con rm their effectiveness, particularly with different populations of students learning under different conditions than those examined in the original research.

Section I below summarizes the evidence provisions in ESSA with a focus on those related to evidence-building. Section II outlines a proposed organizational framework for advancing state leadership on evidence-building. The framework includes three categories for SEAs to strengthen evidence-building efforts at the state, district, and school levels: (i) develop and adopt policies and practices; (ii) build tools and infrastructure; and (iii) establish partnerships. The Appendix includes a complete list of suggested state actions for building evidence and a list of recommended resources for SEAs contemplating, or conducting, evidence-building efforts.

We offer both state-directed evidence-building actions and state-enabled evidence-building actions that take place at the district or even school levels. SEAs play an important role in creating a policy environment that prioritizes and even privileges evidence; therefore, a number of potential actions fall under the “state-enabling” category (e.g., giving priority in competitive grant-making to local education agencies (LEAs) that include plans for rigorous evaluation in their applications).

Our aim is to provide a clear sense of the policies, practices, and conditions states can establish to build evidence and apply it in ways that can help solve problems and improve outcomes for students.