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'Overwhelmed': Leaders Talk School Improvement Under ESSA


Education leaders who oversee school improvement are having a tough time getting a handle on the role evidence must play in turnaround efforts—and some are worried about the sheer volume of schools that could get identified as needing some sort of intervention in the age of the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

Those are two main conclusions from a new report from the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan Washington think tank that works to improve public schools. In addition, leaders interviewed for "How States are Responding to ESSA's Evidence Requirements for School Improvement" say they're re-examining their relationships with education-technology and other vendors to see if the products they provide have evidence to back up whether they work. The types of support states are giving to districts also varies, with the approaches ranging from providing optional lists of improvement strategies to using regional education agencies for assistance.

Turnaround strategies under ESSA must meet one of four tiers of evidence (see page 13 of the CEP's report for these tiers). Earlier this month, my colleague Alyson Klein looked at how schools are handling ESSA's demand for evidence in turnaround strategies.  

See In-Depth Education Week Coverage:Putting ESSA's Puzzle Together

The group interviewed officials from seven states (selected for their diversity on a range of measures like population and governance), as part of the first phase of a CEP project on the topic. These officials are not identified by name in the report.  

On the number of schools identified for improvement, for example, one state leader told the CEP that, " We didn't expect that student achievement would be that low among subgroups in so many schools. That was an awakening for all of us." Another leader said that feedback from community members indicated that being persistently identified as a school needing improvement was "self-defeating" in many instances; as a result, this leader said the state wanted to make it easier for schools to shed the label. 

What about state capacity to support improvement? One leader gave a mixed outlook: "Right now, we think we are going to be able to do this [carry out school improvement responsibilities]. We know that there are going to be issues when we start trying to provide all the resources we need. Dollarwise, we definitely have concerns. I think for the past two years we've done a good job at being more involved and building up peoples' capacity."

In terms of actual state support for turnaround efforts and the need for evidence-based strategies, one leader said, "We put together a guidance document on how to use evidence-based practices. It walks districts through the problem-solving cycle of identifying their needs, selecting their interventions, implementation, and examining progress." But another told the CEP there were concerns on the consumer end: "Schools are not generally made up of people who can read or consume research ... Our schools are struggling with this, our advocates are struggling with this."

As for the U.S. Department of Education's role in all of this? One person criticized the "political upheaval" at the agency, adding, "We don't feel like we are getting near the support from them."

However, another respondent told the CEP that the department was at its most helpful when it left states alone. "Anytime you get an email from them you kind of cringe," the state official told the group. Although the department might take issue with that particular sentiment, in general Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has stressed that she doesn't want her team to take a heavy-handed approach to the law. (That doesn't always mean she's thrilled wih how states are handling ESSA, however.)

Read the full CEP report below:

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