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New Research: How State ESSA Plans Say They’ll Support Evidence-Based Interventions

Special Education

In an unprecedented maneuver, ESSA brought data to the forefront of its equity-focused mission. Specific reporting rules require education agencies at every level to collect and use more data ― data that will likely expose education inequities in funding as well as access to rigorous curriculum and effective teachers. ESSA outlines clear requirements targeting statewide accountability systems that address progress gaps for groups of low-performing students.

As a key part of the equity focus, ESSA affords states the flexibility to develop or strengthen their multi-tiered systems of support to address students’ academic, behavioral and social-emotional needs. The term “multi-tiered system of support” is addressed within ESSA as “a comprehensive continuum of evidence-based, systemic practices to support a rapid response to students’ needs, with regular observation to facilitate data-based instructional decision making” (Title IX, Sec. 8002(33)).

ESSA does not require districts to adopt a specific framework or program to meet this requirement. So how do the state ESSA plans indicate that states intend to provide support for schools and their intervention efforts?

The Research: State ESSA Plans and School Support

The Collaborative for Student Success, in partnership with Bellwether Education Partners, instituted an independent peer review to capture the strengths and weaknesses of each state’s (and the District of Columbia) official ESSA plan.

The organizations recruited more than 45 peer reviewers, representing bipartisan viewpoints, and included eight former state chiefs, 14 former teachers, state education leaders, members of the civil rights and disability communities, and education experts from around the country (Collaborative for Student Success, 2017). The full review is available at CheckStatePlans.org.

Finding #1: Supporting Schools

While some states and districts will focus on strengthening and sustaining well-underway response-to-intervention (RTI) efforts or other similar frameworks, other states will begin implementation of a multi-tiered system of support to provide differentiated academic and behavior support for all learners.

But how did states score overall for having clearly identified plans under the “Supporting Schools” category?
School Support State Scores
Less than a quarter of the state ESSA plans (12) received a rating of 4 or 5 – indicating that, as a whole, the state ESSA plans do not include clearly identified plans for providing school support.

Finding #2: Required Funding for Evidence-based Interventions

With access to federal funding streams identified in ESSA, states and districts have flexibility to make decisions based on what the specific state or district needs. States are required to set aside at least 7% of their Title I, Part A funds for school improvement programs that include “evidence-based” interventions meeting the standard defined in ESSA. Title II funds may also be targeted for professional development to improve and increase effectiveness of intervention programs.

The question is, do states provide detail outlining how they will use the 7% set-aside funding required for school improvement programs that include “evidence-based” interventions?

Once again, the state plans lack some clarity, with over half (56%) not specifying how they will use required funds to support school-level improvement plans and evidence-based interventions.

Finding #3: Optional Funding for Evidence-based Interventions

ESSA also allows for an additional (optional) 3% to be set aside for funding school improvement programs.

Do states identify how/if they plan to use the optional 3% set-aside funding for school improvement programs?
Optional Funding
The results are even more dramatic than the required funding, with a majority (80%) of state ESSA plans lacking detail for how they might use the optional funds for school improvement programs.

Finding #4: Support for RTI, MTSS and Other Intervention Frameworks

Lastly, the peer review looked for clear mentions of recognized intervention frameworks, including RTI and MTSS, that the ESSA state plans said they intended to indicate.

While states address multi-tiered system of supports in their plans, many are leaving it up to local districts to design and implement a framework. There will continue to be a great variance in the type of intervention and services offered in states, districts and schools.

ESSA does not require states to adopt any specific framework. Arguably, it makes sense that the design of a tiered support system must fit the local context. However, implementation fidelity is critical in attaining a successful system of supports, resulting in improved student outcomes rooted in equitable practices. States should provide schools and districts with tools and resources to support implementation fidelity and continuous improvement

Additional Resources

Engage in key questions regarding equity and special education classification with the Equity Roadmap
Get the Roadmap at www.FrontlineEducation.com

Putting It into Action

As implementation of ESSA plans continues this school year, do state plans hold promise for education equity, accountability and flexibility to improve and increase learning for all students nationwide? It remains to be seen to what degree each state delivers on the intended promise.

Regardless, strong leadership at all levels will be key to the success of ESSA’s equity-focused mission. With insights derived from dialogue and data, leaders can continuously pivot into action on the equity journey. State, district and school leaders should continue to seek deeper understanding by asking questions like:

  1. What measures are working to successfully address the needs of students?
  2. How do you know these measures are working successfully?
  3. What story does your data tell and with whom are you sharing your story?

Continuous reflection on equitable practices can move the needle toward providing meaningful supports and services to ALL students in pursuit of educational excellence.

In addition, these 10 steps for putting data into action can help you as you design, implement and strengthen an equitable tiered system of supports.

Get the Action Steps  


Bellwether Education Partners. (n.d.). An independent review of ESSA state plans. Retrieved from https://bellwethereducation.org/sites/default/files/Bellwether_PeerRubric_Final.pdf

Collaborative for Student Success. (2017). Independent peer re view finds lofty education goals untethered to actual accountability plans.  Retrieved from


Gibbons, K. (2016). Effective Leadership Within an MTSS Framework. FastBridge Learning. Retrieved from http://www.fastbridge.org/2016/04/effective-leadership-within-an-mtss-framework/

National Association of School Psychologists. (2016). ESSA and Multitiered Systems of Support for Decision-Makers. Retrieved from: https://www.nasponline.org/research-and-policy/current-law-and-policy-priorities/policy-priorities/the-every-student-succeeds-act/essa-implementation-resources/essa-and-mtss-for-decision-makers

Samuels, C. (2016). What Are Multitiered Systems of Supports? EdWeek. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/12/14/what-are-multitiered-systems-of-supports.html

Jo Ann Hanrahan

Jo Ann Hanrahan has over 20 years of experience in K-12 education serving students, teachers, district and state education leaders. She started her career as a classroom teacher and then transitioned into administrative roles in the areas of professional learning, teacher (alternative) certification, curriculum, assessment, & instruction, and educator effectiveness. With a Master of Arts in Education and decades of diverse experiences, Jo Ann is currently pursuing her Ph.D. and serves Frontline Education as the Director of Research & Data Analysis.