Evidently Better: How the New Elementary and Secondary Education Act Can Support Educational Improvement


December 3, 2015


The soon-to-be renewed Elementary and Secondary Education Act — a bipartisan effort based on experience and fashioned through compromise — addresses many of the identified deficiencies of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Passage of the law will herald a new era in education. It will offer increased opportunities for states and districts to find new ways to improve schooling in America, while still paying attention to the success of all students.

But, as states and districts undertake hundreds, even thousands, of new reform initiatives, what will guide their decision making, and how will they know whether they are succeeding?

For the answer to this question, we must acknowledge one of the advances that NCLB brought. Hidden among its flaws, NCLB ushered in the “evidence era” in education. Even if at times poorly conceived or wrongly applied, the focus over the past 15 years on evidence in education policy and practice has provided overall benefits to educators and students. In the years since NCLB’s passage in 2001, educators and policymakers have benefitted from greater access to improved data and data systems, reliable and relevant research (as well as guidance on its use), and evidence-based programs and practices. This is something we can build on, and Congress has.

As chairperson of Knowledge Alliance — a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on improving public education for all students by advocating for the widespread, effective use of research-based knowledge in policy and practice — and on behalf of my fellow members, I hail the bill’s ongoing and expanded focus on the production and use of evidence in education.

I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds, but it’s important to note that that the term “evidence-based” appears prominently in the proposed law, establishing it as a core principle to guide improvement efforts. It also defines different tiers of evidence and provides support so that decisionmakers can differentiate these levels in practice. Moreover, the new law includes the Education Innovation Research program, a fund that applies the tiered-evidence approach to promote novel approaches to improvement and scale-up proven ones. The new law’s emphasis on evidence will help guide effective state and local education policy and practice in areas including school improvement, professional development, school climate, discipline and student supports, and family and community engagement.

While some may be pleased with other significant elements of the new law, my colleagues at Knowledge Alliance are very grateful for its steadfast emphasis on the use of evidence to drive improvement. When policymakers and educators in states and districts across the country begin their new efforts to improve schools — or look at the ones they already have in place — they will have a sturdy national policy framework to provide them support. That’s something to cheer about.