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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

February 2020


What research is available on state-level evidence-based practices related to K–12 school improvement?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies and policy overviews on state-level evidence-based practices related to K–12 school improvement. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Childs, J., & Russell, J. L. (2017). Improving low-achieving schools: Building state capacity to support school improvement through Race to the Top. Urban Education, 52(2), 236–266. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Improving low-achieving schools is a critical challenge facing urban education. Recent national policy shifts have pressed states to take an expanded role in school improvement efforts. In 2009, a federal grant competition called Race to the Top (RttT) compelled states to improve their capacity to implement ambitious education reform agendas. Drawing on the theory of organizational capacity, the study sampled five RttT winning states’ plans to support improving low-achieving schools. Findings indicate that states sought to build capacity to productively enact an expanded role and focus resources and expertise toward school improvement initiatives.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Donley, J. (2019). Effective practices: Research briefs and evidence rating. Philadelphia, PA: Center on Innovations in Learning, Temple University. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The Center on Innovations in Learning (CIL) is a national content center established to work with regional comprehensive centers and state education agencies (SEA) to build SEAs’ capacity to stimulate, select, implement, and scale up innovation in learning. This report is a collection of evidence ratings and practice briefs. The categories for both the Evidence Base and Effect Size Rating for Effective Practices and the Effective Practice Briefs are: (1) School Leadership and Decision-Making; (2) Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction Planning; (3) Classroom Instruction; (4) Personalized Learning: Digital Learning; (5) Personalized Learning: Blended Learning; (6) Personalized Learning: Cognitive Competency; (7) Personalized Learning: Metacognitive Competency; (8) Personalized Learning: Motivational Competency; (9) Personalized Learning: Social/Emotional Competency; (10) Family Engagement in a School Community; (11) Preschool Early Learning; (12) High School: Leadership and Decision-Making; (13) High School: Opportunity to Learn; and (14) District Support for School Success.”

Dunn, L., & Ambroso, E. (2019). Balancing act: State and district roles in school improvement under ESSA. San Francisco, CA: WestEd. Retrieved from

From the description: “The purpose of this brief from the Center on School Turnaround (CST) at WestEd is to provide examples of how states and districts are working together to improve low-performing schools under ESSA. This brief includes a description of state and district roles in school improvement based on an analysis of 23 state ESSA plans. It also provides examples, based on interviews, of how 10 states are carrying out those roles.”

Fleischman, S., Scott, C., & Sargrad, S. (2016). Better evidence, better choices, better schools: State supports for evidence-based school improvement and the Every Student Succeeds Act. (Series on implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act). Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Signed into law in December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers state education agencies significant opportunities to use evidence to support the improvement of schools and ensure better outcomes for all students. ESSA replaces the law, regulations, and guidance established through the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), but two elements of the new legislation stand out: (1) the shift away from federal mandates toward greater state and local authority; and (2) the emphasis on evidence-based school improvement practices. This report addresses this second element by clarifying the definition of ‘evidence-based’ that ESSA uses, distinguishing it from the ‘scientifically based research’ provisions of NCLB and providing a framework for how state education agencies can maximize collaborative efforts to implement evidence-based school improvement practices. In summary, the evidence-based approach encourages state and district leaders to consider multiple tiers of evidence and examine the strength of the evidence in making decisions. On the other hand, scientifically-based research sets a very specific, narrow standard for acceptable evidence. These two terms will also be examined in this report.”

Gross, B., & Jochim, A. (2015). The SEA of the future: Building agency capacity for evidence-based policymaking (Volume 5). San Antonio, TX: Building State Capacity and Productivity Center. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “‘The SEA of the Future’ is an education publication series examining how state education agencies can shift from a compliance to a performance-oriented organization through strategic planning and performance management tools to meet growing demands to support education reform while improving productivity. This volume, the fifth in the series, draws on the experiences of state agency staff from Massachusetts, Michigan, and Tennessee, as well as the work of the Regional Comprehensive Centers, to explore how state education agencies can bolster their ability to use research and data to drive key spending, policy, and program decisions. Volume 5 includes practical tools state agencies can use to assist with research and data…”

Hale, S., Dunn, L., Filby, N., Rice, J., & Van Houten, L. (2017). Evidence-based improvement: A guide for states to strengthen their frameworks and supports aligned to the evidence requirements of ESSA. San Francisco, CA: WestEd. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “One of the broad intents of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is to encourage evidence-based decision-making as a way of doing business. Nonregulatory guidance issued in September 2016 by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) clarifies and expands on both the nature of evidence-based improvement and the levels of evidence that are specified in the law. This guide builds on that ED guidance and provides an initial set of tools to help states and districts understand and plan for implementing evidence-based improvement strategies. This guide recognizes school and district improvement as a continuous, systemic, and cyclical process, and emphasizes the use of evidence in decision-making throughout continuous improvement. In other words, the guide is not aimed at isolated decisions; rather, it is meant to support evidence-based decision-making that is nested within a larger improvement process. The primary audience for this guide is state education agency (SEA) staff who are responsible for understanding and implementing the evidence-based provisions of ESSA. The purpose of the guide is to build capacity of SEAs and their intermediaries to support LEAs in understanding the evidence-related requirements of ESSA and, consequently, selecting and implementing interventions that are evidence-based and that have strong potential to improve student outcomes.”

Jochim, A., & Gross, B. (2016). The SEA of the future: Maximizing opportunities under ESSA (Volume 6). San Antonio, TX: Building State Capacity and Productivity Center. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “‘The SEA of the Future’ is an education publication series examining how state education agencies can shift from a compliance to a performance-oriented organization through strategic planning and performance management tools to meet growing demands to support education reform while improving productivity. This volume, the sixth in the series, explores how state education agencies can: (1) craft accountability systems that can drive continuous improvement systemwide; and (2) redefine their role in supporting educators, schools, and districts. Undergirding this volume’s essays are five principles that should guide states’ planning and implementation around the newly revamped Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). As states revisit their improvement and accountability strategies for K-12 education, they should ensure their plans are: (1) Comprehensive; (2) Deliberate about how rich data are used and by whom; (3) Clear in defining nonoverlapping roles and responsibilities for the state and districts; (4) Nimble enough to allow for triage; and (5) Focused on fostering continuous improvement systemwide.”

Klute, M. M., Welp, L. C., Yanoski, D. C., Mason, K. M., & Reale, M. L. (2016). State policies for intervening in chronically low-performing schools: A 50-state scan (REL 2016-131). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Central. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Recent federal initiatives such as School Improvement Grants and Elementary and Secondary Education Act flexibility emphasize the role of state education agencies in improving chronically low-performing schools. But state policies limit what actions state education agencies can take. As state education leaders and policymakers consider how best to intervene to improve these schools, they may wish to learn about the policies in other states. This report summarizes current policies in all 50 states related to state interventions in chronically low-performing schools. The policies describe the types of interventions that states are legally authorized to implement; however, states likely vary in the extent to which they actually implement the interventions. Six categories of policies related to intervening in chronically low-performing schools were identified: (1) Development or monitoring of school improvement plans; (2) Changes in staffing; (3) Closing a school; (4) Financial incentives or interventions; (5) Reforms to the day-to-day operation of the school; and (6) Changes related to the entity that governs or operates the school. State policies show a great deal of consistency in approaches to supporting chronically low-performing schools, perhaps because many of the interventions align closely with federal guidance for improving these schools. Despite strong alignment of state policies with federal guidance, state policies vary in the breadth of interventions they allow states to implement. About a third of states have policies in all six categories of interventions. Seven states have more limited options, with policies allowing interventions in only two or three of the six categories. State policies also vary in the specific interventions allowed within each category. This report can help state education leaders and policymakers learn how other states are approaching the challenge of turning around their chronically low-performing schools, which can facilitate communication among states that are considering similar approaches.”

Lee, L., Hughes, J., Smith, K., & Foorman, B. (2016). An SEA guide for identifying evidence-based interventions for school improvement. Tallahassee, FL: Florida Center for Reading Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) challenges state education agencies (SEAs) to improve student outcomes by addressing the student-, teacher-, and school-level factors that drive achievement gains. This Guide for Identifying Evidence-Based Interventions for School Improvement is intended to help State Education Agencies (SEAs) carefully consider the evidence supporting intervention options that they will require or recommend in their state ESSA plan and funding applications. SEAs could indicate in their state ESSA plan how they have used or will use the self-study process to identify interventions, in partnership with stakeholders. The purpose of the guide is to help SEAs: (1) evaluate the evidence base for interventions as they identify those to be included in the state plan for ESSA as options for schools in need of comprehensive or targeted support; (2) determine the interventions that have strong evidence, and are relevant and appropriate to meeting the needs of the Local Education Agencies (LEAs); and (3) plan to provide resources for LEAs to help them choose the best evidence-based option(s) for schools in need of comprehensive or targeted support to include in school improvement plans.”

Metz, R., & Socol, A. R. (2017). Tackling gaps in access to strong teachers: What state leaders can do. Washington, DC: Education Trust. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Of the many inequities in the education system, gaps in access to strong teaching have proven to be among the most stubborn. That is not to say that there are not excellent teachers in high-poverty schools. Research shows an indisputable and wide-spread pattern in schools and districts across the country: Low-income children and children of color do not have the same access to strong, consistent teaching as their White and higher-income peers. Although district and school leaders make many of the decisions about recruiting, hiring, assigning, and supporting teachers, state education n officials also have a critical role to play in addressing disparities in teaching quality. This report presents five ways, drawn from promising equity-focused initiatives, state education leaders can incentivize and support leaders in districts--both traditional and charter--to remedy inequities in access to strong teachers.”

Meyers, C. V., Redding, S., Hitt, D. H., McCauley, C., Dunn, L., Chapman, K., et al. (2017). Four domains for rapid school improvement: A systems framework. Sacramento, CA: Center on School Turnaround at WestEd. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The Center on School Turnaround at WestEd has developed a framework to assist states, districts, and schools in leading and managing rapid improvement efforts. The framework shares, in practical language, the critical practices of successful school turnaround in four domains, or areas of focus, that research and experience suggest are central to rapid and significant improvement: turnaround leadership, talent development, instructional transformation, and culture shift. At a more fine-grained level, the framework then offers examples of how each practice would be put into action at each level of the system.”

Proger, A. R., Bhatt, M. P., Cirks, V., & Gurke, D. (2017). Establishing and sustaining networked improvement communities: Lessons from Michigan and Minnesota (REL 2017-264). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This report describes the process of forming networked improvement communities in Michigan and Minnesota after state education agency leaders requested assistance from Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest to support state-led efforts to use improvement science to raise student achievement and narrow achievement gaps in schools with the widest achievement gaps (focus schools). The resulting collaborations led to the establishment of two networked improvement communities during the 2015/16 school year, one in Michigan and one in Minnesota, focused on improvement in schools identified as needing support under their accountability systems. The REL Midwest project team used guidance from the literature and other improvement science efforts (for example, Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahieu, 2015) to direct its activities.”

Rhim, L. (2013). State-initiated school turnaround strategies. Leveraging the state education agency to drive meaningful change. San Francisco, CA: Center on School Turnaround and Improvement at WestEd. Retrieved from

From the executive summary: “This monograph presents findings from an analysis, sponsored by the PLE, that examined eight states’ approaches to initiating a turnaround model and identified lessons learned to inform future practice for the PLE and for the field. While this analysis focuses on states that directly collaborated with the PLE, the emerging lessons have implications for any state interested in more proactively implementing and supporting targeted school turnaround efforts. As SEAs assume a more significant role in school reform under initiatives such as the federal Race to the Top, the School Improvement Grant program, and Elementary and Secondary Education Act Flexibility Waivers, findings from these states’ turnaround work can hone the efficacy of future efforts.”

Riley, D. L., & Meredith, J. (2017). State efforts to strengthen school leadership: Insights from CCSSO action groups. Washington, DC: Policy Studies Associates. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Many states across the nation are working to improve school leadership, some on a substantial scale. Several factors encourage state-level work focused on principals, including: research evidence of principal effects on student learning, flexibility in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), new national professional standards for principals, lessons learned from teacher evaluation and development, and available support from organizations with a focus on school leadership. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), with funding from The Wallace Foundation, supported states through two principal-focused ‘action groups’ during the 2016-17 school year. Each action group convened teams of state staff for a series of facilitated in-person meetings and webinars through which each state could develop and carry out action plans that identified a problem of practice and strategies for rapid implementation. Teams included state education agency (SEA) division directors, program managers, and line staff. Twenty-eight states joined the groups, with a shared interest in working on principal evaluation and support and/or principal professional learning. This brief is intended to inform state leaders and others in the field about the participating states’ efforts to strengthen the recruitment, preparation, support, and supervision of school leaders. It summarizes the state teams’ priorities, accomplishments, and perspectives related to school leadership. These states are not representative of the nation, but their priorities and activities in school leadership reveal trends in approaches and needs, along with examples of state initiatives underway or planned.”

Riley, D. L., Meredith, J., & Butler, A. N. (2019). State responsibilities and opportunities for school improvement under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “States across the country are urgently building and initiating systems to improve schools, including those identified as low-performing under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). With their state ESSA plans approved by the U.S. Department of Education in 2017-2018, state education agencies (SEAs) are moving forward to carry out the vision, requirements, and opportunities put forth in the legislation. ESSA introduces new responsibilities and opportunities for SEAs, local education agencies (LEAs), and schools, especially in regard to school improvement. At the time of this report, SEAs are working closely with stakeholders at the local and state levels to innovate and learn as they go to do what is best for students. This report gathers timely comprehensive information across SEAs on how state leaders are working to implement their vision for school improvement under ESSA. The goal is for SEA leaders to use the information, resources, and examples provided in this report to inform their school improvement efforts.”

Shah, R. (2011). From compliance to service: Evolving the state role to support district data efforts to improve student achievement. Washington, DC: Data Quality Campaign. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “As a result of state, national and federal leadership and political will, states have dramatically increased their capacity to collect robust longitudinal education data. However, without an equally ambitious effort to ensure access and build stakeholders’ capacity to use data to increase student achievement, these infrastructure investments cannot be fully realized. Because districts are the agents that directly affect teaching and learning, states cannot succeed in this evolution in policy and practice unless they actively engage their districts. This engagement requires state education agencies to evolve from their traditional role of primarily ensuring compliance with state and federal laws to a new role as service providers that meet the diverse needs of all districts in the state.”

Weiss, J., & McGuinn, P. (2017). The evolving role of the state education agency in the era of ESSA and Trump: Past, present, and uncertain future (CPRE Working Paper. WP 2017-1). Philadelphia, PA: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015, states have considerably more flexibility and authority in K-12 education than they had under the previous federal education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The Trump administration and the Republican Congress, meanwhile, moved in 2017 to further loosen federal accountability rules and give states even more control over their school systems. With this increased power for states comes the increased responsibility to support the improvement of educational outcomes for every student. Leaders at the helm of state education agencies (SEAs) find themselves in a moment of both great change and great opportunity, as many agencies move away from a predominant focus on compliance with federal regulations and programmatically dictated uses of funds, and toward a broader focus on supporting districts and schools. For many advocates of low-performing students, it is also a moment of potential peril if states fail to embrace their new responsibilities or weaken their commitment to improving educational opportunity and outcomes. This paper contains two major components: (1) after a brief overview of the evolving role of SEAs, the authors introduce and examine several of the critical issues in organizing and resourcing SEAs for success under ESSA; and (2) they examine the range of essential and potential roles for SEAs in the ESSA era. The goal of the paper is not to emphasize how states should comply with ESSA, but rather to analyze the ways in which SEAs can support the work of schools and districts in the ESSA era.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Center on School Turnaround and Improvement at –

From the website: “The Center for School Turnaround and Improvement (CSTI) at WestEd is a nationally recognized leader in the research and development of solutions that support systemic improvement for all schools. We work with you at all levels—from SEAs to districts to individual schools—to identify and help sustain evidence-based, promising practices that ensure equity and drive systemwide change for rapid improvement.”

District and School Improvement Center at American Institutes for Research –

From the website: “The District and School Improvement Center helps school districts and schools achieve a coherent, disciplined approach to teaching and learning that is embedded throughout school and district practices; improve school climate and culture; develop more effective teachers and leaders; foster improved parent and community engagement; and create higher expectations and results for all students.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “School improvement”

  • “State departments of education” “educational improvement”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.