ESSA Implementation Lessons Learned: Blog 1

ESSA Implementation Lessons Learned: Helping Connecticut Schools and Districts Identify Evidence-Based Practices

This blog is the first in a three-part series highlighting lessons learned by states as they implement their consolidated state plans for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This series will share insights and advice from state leaders on how they have organized their work and navigated challenges, specifically tailored for states engaged in similar efforts.

Connecticut Profile
State: Connecticut ESSA implementation approach: Cross-divisional teams to support opportunity districts in school improvement efforts

When implementing school-improvement interventions and activities, district and school leaders will need to identify and implement evidence-based practices that address the unique needs and challenges of their contexts.1 To that end, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) created cross-divisional teams to help districts with a high percentage of comprehensive support and improvement (CSI) or targeted support and improvement (TSI) schools to identify and implement evidence-based practices to address opportunities for school improvement.

To learn more, the State Support Network spoke with Desi Nesmith, Chief Turnaround Officer; Leslie Carson, school improvement consultant; and Peter Yazbak, director of communications at CSDE. Following are excerpts (edited for clarity) from the conversation:

Describe Connecticut’s overall approach to supporting districts and schools in using evidence-based practices.

Connecticut is a small state with a small department of education and limited resources. We realized that because approximately 70% of Connecticut’s Title I schools are in opportunity districts, it makes sense for CSDE to focus on providing supports for school improvement for these districts.

What are Opportunity Districts? Connecticut General Statute Section 10-262u recognizes the 33 lowest performing districts in the state as “alliance districts.” The statute allows alliance districts to receive additional funding from CSDE. Of the alliance districts, the 10 lowest performing also are identified as “opportunity districts.”

CSDE created cross-divisional support teams to ensure that state funding is directed toward implementation of the evidenced-based practices outlined in district plans. Historically, CSDE staff have worked in silos; using cross-divisional support teams, however, we can address challenges in a more comprehensive and coordinated way. Now, each opportunity district has support from a team that represents multiple aspects of education (e.g., educator talent, academics, special education).

The makeup of each cross-divisional team varies from district to district because each district faces unique challenges. It doesn’t work to try and address every issue at once, so CSDE asked each opportunity district to identify its top three priorities for improvement. CSDE leadership and cross-divisional teams meet with opportunity districts three times a year and subsequently provide technical assistance in the three priority areas.

What challenges did you face in helping districts implement evidence-based practices? How have you addressed those challenges so far?

There are two big challenges in increasing the use of evidence-based practices in opportunity districts:

  1. The desire to find a “quick fix” without really examining the root causes of the district’s implementation challenges
  2. Selecting the best evidence-based practices that will actually address the district’s challenges

To address these challenges, CSDE cross-divisional teams are working to help districts understand what it means to identify root causes. Once districts understand the core of their challenges, we can work with them to find evidence-based strategies that can help them improve. CSDE also has created evidence-based practice guides to help schools and districts decide which practices can best support their goals. There are currently seven guides, and they all map practices to the ESSA tiers of evidence (Strong, Moderate, Promising, and evidence that Demonstrates a Rationale).

At the end of the day, districts need to understand that they’re responsible for student success. Unfavorable test results or accountability measures can’t be ascribed to the student population— educators and administrators need to take action for results to improve. This can be a different way of thinking for educators; they really have to dig deep about what’s happening in their schools.

What successes have you had so far? What will you need to accomplish in the future to ensure long-term, meaningful change?

One major success is the wraparound approach to support cross-divisional teams, which allows CSDE to provide more comprehensive and cohesive support to opportunity districts. In the past, one consultant might have provided support for English learner education, while another would have provided literacy support for the same district without much interaction. Through cross-divisional teams, these consultants can work together to provide support for increasing literacy among English learners.

Working collaboratively benefits both the state agency and districts. Districts have provided positive feedback about the cross-divisional teams and cited successes, such as:

  • Having more coherent district goals
  • Receiving more intensive support from the state
  • Having more conversations about data

What resources would you recommend that other states consider regarding evidence-based practices?

Success doesn’t happen unless you have an excellent team comprising experts who know their content. Many states are hiring staff to provide support, so they have a great opportunity to form effective and knowledgeable teams.

It’s great when we can network with other states about approaches to supporting school improvement. CSDE is happy to support other states that are focusing on implementation of evidence-based practices. We also work with external partners; for example:


Click here to check out the next post in the series, “How Colorado Supports the Educational Stability of Students in Foster Care.”


1 Under ESEA Title I, Section 1003 (School Improvement), states, districts, and schools are required to use interventions that demonstrate strong, moderate, or promising evidence or that are based on a rationale rooted in high-quality research findings and that include ongoing efforts to examine the effects of such interventions (see section 8101(21) of ESEA). CSI and TSI schools must include one or more evidence-based interventions in their CSI/TSI improvement plans. [Back]