Learning innovation has been in the spotlight this year. In December, the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law, presenting opportunities for states and districts to try out creative approaches to education. In granting this flexibility, however, the federal government tells states they have a responsibility to make sure the new approaches work.

Under ESSA, states and districts are encouraged or mandated to employ “evidence based” strategies and interventions. When a school is identified as needing improvement, for example, states must step in. Under ESSA, the state can determine its method of intervention, but the approach must be based on evidence of what is proven to help students.

ESSA also includes competitive grants and funding—awarded by the federal government to states, or by states to districts and other institutions. Whether that money is designated for developing literacy, improving American history instruction, or boosting professional development offerings, the recipient’s approach must be based on—you guessed it—evidence. In some cases, federal funds can be used to evaluate new approaches, building evidence in an under-studied field.

What qualifies as evidence?

But what exactly qualifies as evidence? ESSA includes a definition, and it departs from past education laws.

ESSA replaces the controversial No Child Left Behind, and its focus on “evidence” replaces NCLB’s fixation with “scientifically based research.” (The phrase appeared more than 100 times in the law, a fact that didn’t get past critics.) NCLB defined scientifically based research as randomized or experimental trials, which are the “gold standard” of research studies, but also quite expensive to conduct. Critics said the narrow definition wrongfully dismissed other valid forms of research and limited options because many interventions simply had not yet been studied.

ESSA places a lot of weight on evidence but provides a more liberal interpretation of what qualifies. Interventions must demonstrate “a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes or other relevant outcomes.” However, in most cases, it does not have to meet the highest possible standards that, say, a randomized control study would.

ESSA divides acceptable evidence into four tiers:

  • Strong evidence from an experimental study.
  • Moderate evidence from a quasi-experimental study.
  • Promising evidence from a correlational study.
  • Evidence “based on high-quality research findings” that “includes ongoing efforts to determine the effects.”

When states receive federal funds to intervene in low-performing schools, their strategies must at least meet the “promising evidence” mark. All other requirements in ESSA for “evidence-based” interventions can be satisfied with any of the tiers.

The inclusion of “ongoing efforts to determine the effects” is significant, says Brookings Institution’s Martin R. West. Those words, he writes, “if taken seriously and implemented with care, hold the potential to create and provide resources to sustain a new model for decision-making within state education agencies and school districts—a model that benefits students and taxpayers and, over time, enhances our knowledge of what works in education.” The thoughtful testing of promising programs could produce a trove of data, and evidence of what works and what does not.

The implication in ESSA’s definition of evidence, West says, is that states can use some federal funds to pay for evaluations of programs. That should be more explicitly encouraged, he says.

An emphasis on research-based programs is not new for the federal government. Obama’s Investing in Innovation program awards funding based on the strength of the evidence behind an applicant’s proposal. It also requires grantees to conduct independent evaluations of their work. (ESSA replaces i3 with a similar program.)

States and educators are not entirely on their own when it comes to meeting the new mandates. While increasing evidence requirements, the federal government has also boosted support for learning science research in recent years.

Evidence requirements ensure creative practices are based on what helps kids.

The federally funded What Works Clearinghouse reviews and aggregates studies on the strength of learning interventions and the research that evaluates those interventions. It is run by the Institute of Education Sciences, which contracts with education research firms. Policymakers can peruse the database to find studies on a number of topics, from education technology to school choice. WWC does not endorse the programs and strategies it reviews, but it produces “intervention reports” analyzing their effectiveness. The evidence standards WWC uses in its evaluations differ a bit from ESSA’s, which has drawn both criticism and praise.

ESSA emphasizes flexibility and innovation, and some wonder if that is inherently at odds with its devotion to evidence. Others say the evidence requirements provide needed regulation that ensures new creative practices, when possible, are based on some knowledge about what helps kids.

As with all of ESSA, the effect of the evidence-based provisions is anyone’s guess until the law goes into effect in 2017-2018.