Five steps to understanding ESSA’s tiers of evidence

It's been four years since the Every Student Succeeds Act, but its tier system still confuses some educators, explains's Stacey Pusey.
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Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, but one area still challenging schools is the tiers for evidence-based interventions and materials.

In a recent webinar hosted by, leaders from the Ohio Department of Education explained how a statewide initiative is helping administrators and teachers not only understand the tiers but also provide assistance in selecting the best materials for their students. Eben Dowell, a senior research analyst in the department’s Office of Research, Evaluation and Advanced Analytics, explained the department’s five-step approach to getting their educators to embrace the evidence-based mindset.

1. Understand the value of evidence-based strategies for students and schools.

First, Dowell said the department focused on giving teachers confidence that their strategies and materials would work. He said teachers are looking for materials that will help provide positive results for students, and they need to know how the tiers can support that. He also reminded teachers that schools have limited budgets and time with students, so they need to maximize every educational opportunity.


The department also had to work with teachers to challenge their assumptions. When teachers say they want to keep a current approach because they think it works, for instance, they need to provide data to show why they know it works or develop a plan to prove the program’s value.

2. Consider your local needs.

School leaders and classroom teachers need reminders that just because a specific program or pedagogy has evidence that it works, that doesn’t mean it will work in every classroom. Each administrator and teacher needs to consider their students’ particular needs, school culture and available supports to determine what programs will assist with meeting learning goals. Administrators must also consider local buy-in. If teachers and communities are not going to get behind a strategy, the program won’t succeed, even if the administration supports it.

3. Learn the basics (about ESSA levels).

There are four overall tiers based on the design and evaluation of outcomes. Dowell told attendees that these levels convey confidence in, but not the amount of, positive effects. Using a Level 4 (lowest level) program, for instance, is a chance for districts to innovate and contribute to their knowledge base.


Educators should remember, Dowell said, that there are some areas where there just won’t be much evidence yet, such as literacy strategies in high school. There are also other considerations — such as cost, time, and implementation needs — that can influence which evidence-based programs teachers should pursue to pursue.

4. Make strategies prove their worth.

Diane A. Neal, an assistant director at the State Coordinator Rural Education Achievement Program at the Office of Federal Programs, said her office works with schools — without being punitive — to make sure that their programs are fulfilling the evidence-based requirements.

She said there is a dashboard where schools upload their information and explain why they chose each program, but the office also goes to great lengths to provide resources to continually educate teachers about evidence-based strategies. Teachers are not researchers, Neal said, and looking at the levels can be overwhelming. In fact, many teachers aren’t really qualified to judge the quality of research. All of the forms and check-ins and surveys are meant to guide educators through the process rather than demand expertise.

5. Tap into state resources.


With the assistance of Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest, a regional organization dedicated to bridging the worlds of education research and education practice, the Ohio Department of Education created Ohio’s Evidence-Based Clearinghouse. It provides access to programs that meet ESSA criteria, and users can receive further guidance on successful implementation. Schools aren’t required to use programs listed there, but by collecting information from other sources in one place, the department hopes to make it easier to find them.

Neal and her colleagues don’t want schools to purchase a program just because it is evidence-based — they should also look at how it will fit into their instructional practices.

“We all know it’s not one program that’s going to really address all the issues that a teacher has in her classroom and make all students succeed,” Neal said. “It’s often many different pieces that have to come together in an instructional environment so that students can be successful.”

About the presenters

Eben Dowell is a senior research analyst in the Office of Research, Evaluation and Advanced Analytics at the Ohio Department of Education. He provides consultation and coordination for data-driven projects across the agency, as well as oversight of data sharing with the external research community. His work supports the agency’s evidence-based initiatives and implementation of Ohio’s Strategic Plan for Education. Eben serves on the state’s institutional review board, on the stewardship committee of the Ohio Longitudinal Data Archive, and as a fellow with Harvard’s Strategic Data Project. Prior to coming to ODE in 2013, he worked at nonprofit research centers in Rhode Island and Ohio. Eben earned his master’s degree in city and regional planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Diane Neal, Ph.D. has 34 years’ experience in education. Retiring after 30 years in public education, Diane joined the Ohio Department of Education Office of Federal Programs. Today, she is the assistant director in the Office of Federal Programs. Diane’s experience includes teaching grades K-9, principal in grades K-12, and a federal programs director for a public-school district. Diane has more than 19 years’ experience working in federal programs.

About the host

Candice Dodson is the executive director for the State Education Technology Directors Association. Prior to joining the team at SETDA, she served as the director of eLearning for the Indiana Department of Education. In that role, Candice focused on advancing and expanding Indiana’s efforts to take advantage of technology to improve student outcomes. She and her eLearning team worked to boost the state’s efforts to connect Indiana to great ideas in educational technology, virtual and online learning, and new learning models and instructional practices. Her strategic work included the formation of an eLearning Leadership Cadre, statewide professional development opportunities including the Summer of eLearning conferences, Admin Academies, and digital learning grants, and resources and training to support digital learning. Prior to the Indiana Department of Education, Candice had 20 years of experience in a variety of roles from elementary teacher, media specialist, and high ability educator to curriculum and technology integration specialist, central office administrator, and assistant principal.

Candice’s most recent work prior to the IDOE centered on the implementation of a 6-12 one-to-one initiative, the development of leadership programs for district administrators, and expansion of professional development programs. Candice has previously represented Indiana on the Board of Directors of SETDA, and the Hoosier Educational Computer Coordinators Board. Candice continues to serve on the Indiana University School of Education Alumni Board of Directors. She has presented, in Indiana and nationally, various sessions and talks on leadership in the digital age.

Join the community


Professional Learning for Effective Practice: Leveraging Title IIA is a free professional learning community on that supports the effective implementation of the federal Title IIA program.

The edWeb webinar referenced above, hosted by SETDA and sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, can be found here.

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