In early 2016, two Wallace staff members ventured to the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., to discuss promoting improvements in the principalship nationwide through the then-new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). They returned a bit crestfallen.
ESSA, the 2015 reauthorization of the law containing major sources of federal funding for public school education, encourages and in some cases requires that applicants for funding use approaches backed by research attesting to their effectiveness. But based on the meeting, the staff members recognized that if ESSA dollars were to go to strengthening the work of principals, the field first needed clarity on the number and results of school leadership studies that met ESSA evidence standards.
Out of this an idea was born: Why not commission an independent review of the research about school leadership and how it stacks up against ESSA requirements? A phone call to the RAND Corp. followed. “I think this could be a game-changer,” Ed Pauly, Wallace’s recently retired director of research, recalls telling a senior policy researcher there. “Are you up for it?”
Cut to three months later and the appearance of a report that, in Pauly’s words, “found a bunch of studies on school leadership that met ESSA evidence requirements.”
School Leadership Interventions Under the Every Student Succeeds Act: Evidence Review was just the beginning. After it became clear that the report was filling a knowledge void, Wallace went on to commission reviews about some of our other interest areas that intersect with ESSA: afterschool programs, summer learning, social and emotional learning, and arts education, both instruction in art in its own right and the use of art to teach other subjects, or “arts integration.”
We marked a milestone recently with the publication of the last of the six reports in this series.
One striking feature about the set is their sweep. ESSA categorizes research into four tiers of progressively greater rigor, with the top three being necessary for funding streams including sources within ESSA’s $16 billion Title I program. The six evidence reviews together documented more than 200 efforts (201, to be precise) that fit into the top three tiers, and a slew of others that fit into Tier IV, which can also help tap funding. That means readers can find out about scores of approaches whose efficacy is based on more than a good guess. In addition, the reports detail the variety of ESSA funding sources that the activities might qualify for.
At the same time, the reviews make clear that the body of research comes with limitations. One is that information useful to decision-makers, such as detailed descriptions of program components, often goes unreported. Another is that the collection of studies skews heavily to probes for academic benefits. That may work well for programs clearly intended to have an effect on, say, student reading and math achievement. But what about programs with important non-academic goals? Just because there’s scarce research about them doesn’t mean their effects aren’t real and beneficial to kids.
Whatever the shortcomings, the evidence reviews describe a wide-enough array of endeavors to keep readers engaged for hours. Here’s a small sampling:
In school leadership, a study found that the New Leaders Aspiring Principals Program had positive impacts on student achievement in 10 urban districts across the country. The Warrior After School program, meanwhile, produced benefits in reading and math achievement in the Georgia middle school where it linked teachers to small groups of at-risk students. The Crystal Bridges Museum Field Trip arts integration effort in Bentonville, Arkansas? Positive effects on critical thinking skills, empathy and tolerance—to say nothing of interest in art museums. As for arts education, New York City’s Arts Achieve effort, which used assessment and technology to inform public school instruction in dance, music, theater and visual arts, benefited students’ arts achievement. In social and emotional learning, a program for third graders called Making Choices had evidence of a range of positive “interpersonal outcomes,” including in responsible decision-making and acceptance of peers.
Finally, who couldn’t help but turn to the page in the summer review about an effort with the intriguing name of Boston Red Sox Summer Math Program? It’s described as “an at-home, nine-week, middle school summer math program thematically linked to the Boston Red Sox baseball team.” Result? Tier III evidence of math benefits.
Take that, Yankees fans.