16 Ways State Education Agencies Are Using Federal Relief Funds to Invest in Data, Evidence, and Continuous Improvement

“We’re experimenting at scale but we need to match that with continuous improvement at scale.”

ver the summer, State Education Agency (SEA) officials worked hard to map out their intentions for using the unprecedented federal stimulus funding to meet students’ and schools’ unprecedented needs. We have reviewed the 46 SEA American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund (ARP ESSER) plans approved by the U.S. Department of Education thus far, looking for examples of investments in data, evidence, and continuous improvement. Although there is significant room for improvement in these areas, we identified several state plans that outlined promising strategies to support students in the short- and long-term through the following five categories of investments: use of set aside funds; evaluation; continuous improvement; data collection and infrastructure; and evidence-based practices.

Before highlighting the promising SEA plans, it is worth noting that — with three more summers and two more school years to implement ARP ESSER dollars — there is no time like the present to continuously improve. Rather than only focusing on picking the “right” interventions to invest in, SEAs have a chance to build mechanisms allowing them (and their local education agencies (LEAs)) to measure, learn, and adjust their approaches over time. Together, states and districts can build a more contextualized evidence base for what is or is not effective as a recovery strategy and thereby better serve their students. We strongly urge SEAs and LEAs to use the upcoming SY22–23 budget cycle to review, reflect on, and revise their recovery plans.

Use of set-aside funds

Under ARP ESSER, SEAs directly control up to 10% of their ARP ESSER funds with requirements to use those funds to meet students’ needs. Several SEA plans leveraged data, evidence, and continuous improvement in their proposed use of those state set-asides.

  • The Massachusetts Department of Secondary and Elementary Education (MADESE) is working in partnership with its LEAs to determine what data the LEAs will be responsible for collecting.
  • The Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) will dedicate a portion of its set aside funds to teacher professional development. Course studies of evidence-based interventions in reading will be available to K-3 teachers and in mathematics to K-5 educators in an effort to address students’ unfinished learning. OSDE will evaluate this and other uses of its set-aside funds for effectiveness.
  • The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) will use a portion of the state’s set-aside funds for the LEAP District Support Program, which offers strategic support matching grants for eligible 1- and 2-Star LEAs, or those identified as low performing through district accountability. This program aims to incentivize LEAs to adopt high-leverage, evidence-based interventions and to provide additional support to RIDE’s most historically under-resourced communities.

Evaluation

SEAs have rightfully prioritized providing immediate support to students, schools, and districts. But this recovery phase and the federal funds provided to support it provide an important opportunity to build new evidence of effectiveness and increase our ability to respond to similar challenges in the future.

  • Beginning in the 2021–2022 school year, the Hawaii Department of Education (HIDOE) will carry out a longitudinal study tracking students’ outcomes over time, assessing the impact of recovery strategies and interventions on students’ academic and non-academic performance.
  • MADESE has piloted an evaluation toolkit that will allow districts and schools to measure and track the progress of evidence-based interventions that address lost instructional time. Additionally, MADESE will annually evaluate evidence-based summer learning and enrichment programs funded by ARP ESSER. As part of these evaluations, MADESE will encourage utilizing the Survey of Academic Youth Outcomes (SAYO). SAYO is a research-based evaluation tool that can show changes in youths’ academic performance and social emotional learning, changes that occur over the course of a one-year period and are associated with participation in high-quality, academically enriching, out-of-school time programs.
  • For the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), all programs using ARP ESSER funds will develop evaluation plans at the outset of their project launches. Using standardized tools and with the support from the ODE Office of Research and Evaluation, programs will develop a scope of work, identify internal and/or external evaluation teams, execute formative and summative evaluation plans, and report on the impact of projects.

Continuous improvement

In these unprecedented and challenging times, it will be harder than usual to “get it right” from the beginning. Some SEAs have prioritized systems of continuous improvement to help monitor progress and improve along the way, both at the state and district levels.

  • In Kentucky, the Department of Education (KDE) began a monitoring process for ARP ESSER funds in partnership with districts. This continuous improvement process begins with a risk assessment to prioritize districts for monitoring, followed by district self-evaluations to identify weakness in program implementation and strategies for improvement. With this data, KDE can support district improvement efforts and share exemplary strategies with other districts.
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Educations’ (PDE) Accelerated Learning through an Integrated System provides a systematic process and technical support for school communities to make key decisions for the school year. The roadmap encourages a ‘Cycle of Continuous Improvement mindset’ that focuses on high-quality academics, fosters supportive learning environments, establishes healthy system conditions, and designs a system of scaffolded supports.

Data collection and infrastructure

Several SEA plans proposed expanded use of data to inform resource allocation and even new investments in improving data systems that are so critical to informing both continuous improvement and evaluation efforts.

  • ARP ESSER funding will support the District of Columbia’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) in expanding its existing data infrastructure and commitment to transparency. OSSE will build technical assistance resources aimed at increasing LEA data capacity, ensuring schools have the most accurate and useful data to inform recovery. This investment will also lay the groundwork for the collection of coursework and academic data.
  • The Louisiana Department of Education (LDE) is partnering with Louisiana State University’s Social Research and Evaluation Center (SREC) to establish a statewide partnership to support attendance in Louisiana’s schools. SREC will work with Louisiana school districts to use their local data systems to identify students that educators need to re-engage. Further, SREC will provide local and state officials with updates on progress towards re-enrolling students in school.
  • MADESE will continue to collect and analyze student data in areas such as chronic absenteeism, enrollment and attendance, and data compiled in the Early Warning Indicator System. The agency’s strong commitment to data collection and reporting was an immense asset during the pandemic and enabled MADESE to make data driven decisions with familiar and established data systems. As MADESE states “accurate data, transparently presented to the public and to our stakeholders, is the beginning of a conversation about needs, challenges, goals for the future, and action.”
  • The Missouri Department of Education (MDE) will use ARP ESSER funds to upgrade their statewide longitudinal data systems to improve the availability and usability of data for decision-making, resource allocation and public reporting. Upgrades to the system will specifically focus on increasing interoperability between state and local data systems, increasing the frequency of data collection and continuing to build on data analytics and visualization tools.
  • RIDE plans to invest ARP ESSER funds into technical assistance and training for LEAs, enabling them to better report data to RIDE, and improve access and use of data available to them. Similarly, RIDE plans to seek contracted support for data analysis, sharing, and research related to COVID-19 recovery and implementation of projects funded by ESSER.

Evidence-based resources

With ARP ESSER requiring LEAs invest at least 20% of their recovery funds in evidence-based interventions, some states have prioritized helping their districts make thoughtful decisions about investing in evidence-based practices or programs best suited to their needs and contexts. Numerous SEA’s have collected and shared evidence-based interventions and strategies in an effort to lift up and centralize practices of LEAs. While certainly not an exhaustive list, here are some examples of SEA evidence-based resources:

Many of these evidence-focused states participate in Results for America’s State Education Agency Fellowship, which brings together SEAs’ senior evaluation and program leaders into a single network focused on accelerating the generation and use of evidence. State Education Fellows are champions of investing in what works and are helping make evidence-based policymaking the new normal in education. They are applying these principles to their states’ approaches to investing federal ARP ESSER funds in data-driven, evidence-based ways.

States implementing these strategies have already begun to make data use, evidence and evaluation part of education’s new normal. As SEAs continue investing their ARP ESSER dollars over the next few years, we encourage states to keep innovating and to seize this historic opportunity to make lasting change.

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Working with decision-makers at all levels of government to harness the power of evidence and data to solve the world’s greatest challenges.