Five Lessons from Massachusetts that Can Help District Leaders Use Evidence to Simplify Decision-Making

By Annelise Eaton, Senior Director of Research, Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy and EdResearch for Recovery, a joint initiative of Results for America and the Annenberg Institute.

As students return to school for the first time in three years without most COVID precautions in place, the impact of the pandemic lingers on in our nation’s classrooms. Educators, who work tirelessly to ensure students are cared for and academically challenged, face ongoing, unprecedented challenges as they seek to accelerate learning.

Recent data shows significant (and expected) declines in students’ academic proficiency as a result of missed instruction.¹ However, thanks to a historic federal investment in education, schools have an opportunity to drive bold improvement efforts. Guided by a belief that this funding has the potential to dramatically improve learning experiences, the Rennie Center and EdResearch partnered with five Massachusetts districts to improve alignment of their existing programs and investments with evidence-based strategies.

We saw firsthand the many decisions weighing on district leaders’ minds. And, of course, while evidence is an important factor in making those decisions, it is not the only factor that district leaders must consider. The good news is that evidence can help simplify decision-making.

Here are five key takeaways from our district partnership work that can help district leaders use evidence to cut through the noise, simplify decision-making, and improve students’ results:

1. Narrow Your Focus

A large influx of funding carries with it a temptation to tackle several priorities all at once. Districts that make the difficult choice to prioritize a small number of high-leverage initiatives — and are intentional about making connections across these initiatives — will see the strongest results. In addition to funding, efforts to fundamentally shift teacher practice require a large investment of professional learning time. Professional learning that is focused on a set of mutually reinforcing priorities has the greatest impact and is less likely to contribute to educator burnout.

2. Prioritize Belonging & Connection

In the face of alarming data on academic declines, district and school leaders may be hesitant to focus limited professional learning and instructional time away from academic instruction. At the same time, research shows that efforts to ensure all students feel known, accepted, and included at school pay dividends in academic performance and student wellbeing.² If making large-scale changes to school culture feels overwhelming, consider creating a 1-year action plan with discrete, achievable steps, such as ensuring that every student has a strong relationship with at least one staff member.

3. Provide Robust Support for Curriculum Implementation

Research shows that the quality of instructional materials matters.³ Many districts are investing federal funds in strengthening curriculum across grade levels and subject areas. For districts to harness the benefits of high-quality materials, it is critical to invest in robust implementation support. This includes ongoing, differentiated professional learning that is built into the school’s structures, such as common planning time and teacher coaching.

4. Rethink Traditional Approaches to Tutoring

Tutoring is a high-impact investment with the potential to rapidly accelerate student learning. Many districts already invest in tutoring programs that can serve as a starting point for improving support for students. By aligning existing programs with evidence-based practices, schools can maximize the impact of tutoring. Strong tutoring programs should use data to identify students’ unique needs, be time-intensive (~3x/week for 10+ weeks), and include tailored instruction aligned to core classroom content.

5. Focus on a Limited Set of Actionable Data

Collecting and acting upon student data is a critical component of teachers’ work. Some teachers report a growing feeling of data overwhelm, particularly in cases where data is difficult to understand or where teachers’ action steps are unclear. Before investing in new data systems, districts should consider inventorying existing data sources and identifying high-leverage data points that everyone in the school will focus on improving together. All staff should receive training on how they can act upon data within their locus of control.

In addition to accelerating student learning in the short term, many of these strategies will have a lasting impact on student learning. By investing in strategies that improve teacher pedagogy, boost student wellbeing, and strengthen academic intervention, districts will improve learning experiences for both current and future students.

  1. NAEP Long-Term Trend Assessment Results: Reading and Mathematics. “Reading and mathematics scores decline during COVID-19 pandemic.” September 2022.
  2. Turnaround for Children Toolbox: Science and Equity-Driven Tools for Whole-Child School Redesign. Turnaround for Children.
  3. Matthew M. Chingos and Grover J. Whitehurst, “Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core” (Brookings, July 29, 2016).

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Results for America

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