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ESSA Strategy Guide Says 'Lighter Lift' Should Be an Option for School Leaders


By now, there are a host of recommendations and blueprints available to school leaders when it comes to implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act. But a study released last month suggests that when it comes to using evidence to improve schools, state and local leaders don't always have to go for the most demanding option.

The ESSA report from Results For America, a research and advocacy group, highlights "five ways to prioritize evidence in state and local spending decisions." In its "Education Roadmap," the group says K-12 leaders should try to ensure that there is a "common definition of evidence" across education programs and practices. And there should also be an emphasis on prioritizing evidence when awarding contracts for goods and services, the group says.

But leaders shouldn't just stubbornly mandate or push those approaches, Results for America says. In fact, for each of its five recommendations, its report puts possible actions into two buckets: a "lighter lift" approach for districts that may have relatively slim central offices and resources available to them, and a "heavier lift" version for those with bigger budgets and more, better-trained personnel.

For example, the report's second recommendation is to "prioritize evidence of effectiveness when allocating federal and state education funds to school districts and schools." However, Results for America also sounds a note of caution about this: "Some states may witness an unintended consequence of steering dollars toward evidence-based programs and practices, namely that it can exacerbate equity gaps. High-capacity districts (or other funding applicants) with extra time and resources can more easily show they are using evidence-based approaches or spend money on evaluations, while smaller or lower-capacity districts/applicants may be unsure where to begin." 

The report's "lighter lift" and "heavier lift" options for that second recommendation are as follows:

Lighter Lift

• Give applicants for federal and state competitive grant funds preference points or an absolute priority if they propose investing those funds in evidence-based programs and practices.

• Require applicants for all types of federal and state education funds to describe in their applications how they will use evidence-based programs and practices and promote continuous improvement.

Heavier Lift

• Incentivize or require (when allowed) applicants for federal and state noncompetitive funds to invest a portion or all of their funds in evidence-based programs and practices.

• Provide applicants for federal and state noncompetitive funds, who agree to use evidence-based programs and practices additional federal or state competitive funds or preference points for those funds.

Rural schools can have a particularly difficult time finding and implementing evidence-based school turnaround strategies, as my Politics K-12 co-author Evie Blad wrote recently. For example, one school administrator in Tennessee said he tends to trust plans he hears about from other rural K-12 leaders: "Honestly, rural folks are skeptical of outsiders in the sense that we want to build a trust with people. ... That word-of-mouth goes a long way. It gives you that extra confidence." (As Evie wrote earlier this week, rural school continue to educate a large share of the nation's students and face a host of challenges.) 

Read the full report below: 

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