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New Report Provides Education Leaders with School Interventions That Work

WASHINGTON, DC—As state, district, and school leaders begin work under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to identify and intervene in low-performing schools and among under-achieving groups of students, a new report released today by the Alliance for Excellent Education offers action steps and research-backed solutions to guide their work.

“We want doctors to treat more than just symptoms; to cure an illness, they have to treat the cause,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “Similarly, education leaders should not tackle issues of underperformance, such as low math or reading scores, without knowing the root causes, which could include poor instruction, poor curriculum, or even chronic absenteeism.”

Under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), states and districts chose from a handful of school interventions approved by the U.S. Department of Education. ESSA, which replaced NCLB, grants states and districts much more flexibility, stipulating that states must identify schools for improvement based on the performance of all students as well as individual groups of students, but it largely leaves the type of intervention up to schools and districts.

“The nation’s main education law has changed, but state, district, and school leaders must still act to improve low-performing schools and students,” said Wise. “The main difference is that the law no longer dictates how they should do so. This report outlines key factors that help education leaders make good decisions.”

The report, School Interventions That Work: Targeted Support for Low-Performing Students, breaks out key steps in the identification and improvement process, focusing on (1) a diagnosis of school needs; (2) a plan to improve schools; and (3) evidenced-based interventions that work.

The diagnosis of school needs, known as a school needs assessment, contains four key elements:

  1. An organized display of data that combines students’ academic performance with school climate indicators
  2. An understanding of what’s going on inside the numbers—provided by additional descriptors such as diagnostic, formative, and interim assessment data
  3. A theory of action for data collection around what teachers are teaching and how effectively they are teaching it
  4. An analysis of adult actions and student results that represents the school’s best effort to link specific adult behaviors to specific problematic student academic outcomes

When a needs assessment is done effectively, school districts, with possible assistance from states, can match research-based interventions to a low-performing school’s most critical challenges. Action steps for districts to take include reviewing literature to find relevant, research-based strategies to address the weaknesses that showed up in the data and examining how similar states or districts implemented solutions to tackle similar challenges.

The report also offers resources for evidence-based solutions such as the Best Evidence Encyclopedia’s “Evidence for ESSA” tool and the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse. It lists a series of studies showing robust, multi-year demonstrations of successful interventions for English language learners and students with disabilities.

In the interest of acting quickly, education leaders may be tempted to adopt a school improvement plan (SIP) without undertaking needs assessments, but the report advises against it.

“Without an exacting, detailed self-assessment, a check by an external visiting team, and the careful matching of strongly researched interventions to the specific identified needs of schools, SIPs will capture best intentions but will fail to improve student learning,” the report warns.

“ESSA gives education leaders the freedom to develop the interventions that work best in their schools,” said Wise. “Now is the time for schools, districts, and states to work together to bring the most effective assistance possible to those who are, every day, trying to make a difference for students who need it the most.”

School Interventions That Work is available at It was released in conjunction with a U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on state and local reform efforts under ESSA that featured testimony from Phillip Lovell, the Alliance’s vice president of policy development and government relations. Lovell’s testimony is available at

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The Alliance for Excellent Education is a Washington, DC–based national policy, practice, and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring all students, particularly those traditionally underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship.