April 19, 2016

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Guest Blog Post: Unlocking the Key to School Improvement Success under ESSA

Today's guest post comes from Chelsea Straus, Policy Analyst for the K-12 Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

During the recent signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), President Barack Obama remarked that the new education law “focuses on a national goal of ensuring that all of our students graduate prepared for college and future careers.” To help meet this goal, ESSA requires that states and districts take action in their lowest-performing schools to dramatically improve student outcomes.

While No Child Left Behind (NCLB) prescribed specific actions for every struggling school, ESSA gives district leaders significant flexibility in selecting school improvement strategies. However, the law does require that district leaders implement “evidence-based” practices in these schools. 

Unfortunately, there are a limited number of school improvement strategies supported by substantial evidence. The key question is: Now that districts are in the driver’s seat, where should they look for help when crafting school improvement plans and selecting effective intervention strategies? The answer is fairly simple: follow the lead of districts that have successfully turned around low-performing schools. 

A new report from the Center for American Progress investigates how three districts – Houston, Texas; Denver, Colorado; and Lawrence, Massachusetts – improved their schools using a specific set of evidence-based practices. These practices include data-driven instruction, excellence in teaching and leadership, a culture of high expectations, frequent and intensive tutoring, and an extended school day and year.

All three of these districts were able to improve student achievement in many underperforming schools. Through strategic preparation and perseverance, these districts overcame barriers associated with allotting sufficient planning time, recruiting and training exemplary teachers, financing the reforms, and securing stakeholder investment. These districts were able to achieve success through increased planning time, school-level budgeting, aggressive recruiting tactics, and word-of-mouth around the effectiveness of these practices. 

As other districts contemplate how to improve low-performing schools under ESSA, they should use CAP’s report as a guide to help ensure a smooth and effective school improvement process. 

ESSA gives districts a new opportunity to take on the challenges of turning around their lowest-performing schools, without the restrictive mandates of NCLB. Although this flexibility can be overwhelming, district leaders can and should follow in the footsteps of their peers in places like Houston, Denver, and Lawrence. These three districts help shed light on the types of practices that have evidence of effectiveness and they have created a path forward for other districts. 

Now districts should seize ESSA implementation as an opportunity to infuse these practices into their low-performing schools. Improving underperforming schools with evidence-based practices will help move us closer to ensuring that all students graduate college- and career-ready. 



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