Evidence for ESSA
By Andrew Myers
The website Evidence for ESSA, considered by some to be the Consumer Reports of education programs, has expanded its offerings this month to include evaluations of social-emotional learning programs nationwide.
In December 2015, the U.S. Congress passed the national education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). It replaced No Child Left Behind (NCLB). ESSA covers a lot of the same territory as NCLB, with one key exception: It defines what it means for an educational program to have “strong,” “moderate,” or “promising” evidence of effectiveness. ESSA encourages use of proven programs, but for certain federal funding programs that serve disadvantaged students, it requires that schools seeking funding use programs proven effective.
The ESSA definitions are a major step forward in the use of evidence to influence federal education policy. No government in the world has ever undertaken an effort to encourage use of programs proven to improve student achievement through high-quality studies.
As revolutionary as its evidence requirements are, however, ESSA left out one big piece of the equation. It did not provide any sort of list of programs that met its own high federal standard. Observers assumed that this task would fall to the government’s traditional repository of educational research, the What Works Clearinghouse, but the Clearinghouse declined to align itself with ESSA standards.
“It was left up to the school districts to figure it out,” says Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, who saw that gap and decided to close it. He and a group of colleagues and graduate students created a free, web-based initiative known as Evidence for ESSA that provides objective, fair, and current reviews of programs in major areas of education, from pre-K to 12th grade.
“It’s a bit like Consumer Reports for the education community,” says Slavin, who is a member of the National Academy of Education and a fellow of the American Educational Research Association, where he was awarded the 2019 Distinguished Contributions to Research in Education Award for achievement in education research.
Creating Evidence for ESSA was no small task. The team had to comb through hundreds of existing studies, assess them objectively against the standards set down in ESSA, and then provide readable reviews of the successful programs and the evidence. Slavin had the help of many colleagues, including Sooyeon Byun, a PhD candidate, Amanda Inns, an assistant research scientist, and Cynthia Lake, a research associate, who all work in the Slavin-led Center for Research and Reform in Education.
In February 2017, the site launched, but it covered only reading and math programs. Since then, Slavin and team have labored to keep the reading and math sections current while adding two additional sections on social-emotional learning and attendance. The new sections, launched on February 6, were made possible by financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of educational resilience—how children bounce back after adverse experiences,” explains Sooyeon Byun, of her sense of personal investment in reviewing programs analyzed in the social-emotional learning section. “Social-emotional interventions are strong contributors to resilience in kids. That connection is what led me to Evidence for ESSA.”
The challenges inherent in interpreting research on social-emotional skills, in particular, made this most recently added section more difficult. Often, Slavin says, SEL programs may appear more effective than others because they use subjective measures such as self-reporting or ratings by the teachers who teach the program. In contrast, objective measures, such as independent observations, tend to obtain smaller impacts. “Social-emotional learning and attendance are major concerns under ESSA,” Slavin says. “And until now, there had not been a complete review of available programs.”
Since Evidence for ESSA launched in 2017, 100,000 unique visitors have come to the Evidence for ESSA website, making it a leading resource for state and local education leaders trying to meet the ESSA evidence standards.
“That’s a lot of people putting their trust in us,” Slavin says.