School Improvement: Strategy Selection

After conducting a needs assessment,1 districts and schools identified for comprehensive support and improvement (CSI) are required under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (link is external), to identify evidence-based strategies, school activities, or interventions (i.e., strategies supported by research findings or with a rationale for potential effectiveness). Districts and schools should identify innovative evidence-based strategies, school activities, and interventions that are likely to help address the school’s highest priority needs as well as carefully consider those that have been successful in the past or in similar districts. It is important to note that if school improvement funds (i.e., funds under ESEA section 1003) are used for evidence-based interventions, then they can only be used to support evidence-based activities that meet a rigorous standard of evidence (for more information on identifying evidence-based strategies, please see the Evidence-Based Practices resource from the State Support Network here). Although a district is not required to use section 1003 funds for evidence-based interventions, any evidence-based activity, strategy, or intervention paid for with funds under ESEA section 1003(a) must demonstrate a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes or other relevant outcomes based on:2

  • strong evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented experimental study;
  • moderate evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented quasi-experimental study; or
  • promising evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented correlational study with statistical controls for selection bias.

(For more information, see the U.S. Department of Education’s Non-Regulatory Guidance: Using Evidence to Strengthen Education Investments.)

As part of the school improvement plan development process, districts often work with schools and their communities to reflect on what strategies have and have not worked in their local context by evaluating implementation and impact. These reflections help districts effectively assess the rationale for continuing, refining, or abandoning past and existing improvement strategies. The school improvement plan development process must ensure that the strategies outlined in the plan are aligned to the needs assessment. This process provides a valuable opportunity to ensure that school improvement efforts are both feasible and sustainable over time.


Common Challenges and Potential Risks

Schools and districts face common challenges around identifying and implementing appropriate evidence-based strategies as part of school improvement plan development. These challenges may include the following:

  • Districts and schools may attempt to implement many different strategies to address a broad range of challenges all at once rather than identifying a feasible number of evidence-based strategies that are tailored to the most critical identified needs of the school and students.
  • Districts and schools may struggle to identify the root-cause of the issue that resulted in needs identified by the results of the needs assessment. When this happens, districts may not identify evidence-based strategies to truly meet their needs. They may unintentionally use the needs assessment to justify predetermined improvement strategies rather than allowing the needs assessment to guide and prioritize strategies.
  • State educational agencies (SEAs) may struggle to provide guidance and resources that meet the diverse needs of districts and schools in identifying, selecting, and implementing evidence-based practices as part of school improvement planning.
  • Districts and schools may focus too much on the evidence requirements for improvement strategies without adequately considering fit with local school context and evidence related to implementation and impact of existing (ongoing) interventions.


Approaches for Selecting Evidence-based Strategies

Examples of approaches SEAs can use when selecting evidence-based strategies for school improvement are provided below.

  • Facilitate district-level improvement planning targeted to the needs of low-performing schools across the district or region.
  • Support districts to assess the capacity of school staff to effectively implement selected strategies prior to approving the school improvement plan. SEAs may also work with districts to improve their capacity to implement evidence-based interventions over time.
  • Share examples of strategies that may be used to address common needs, including information on the context or population with which the strategy was successful.
  • Provide districts and schools with clear expectations and adequate resources to plan and implement school improvement strategies (e.g., implementation of standards-aligned curriculum and assessments).
  • Provide guidance to districts to provide schools with clear expectations and adequate resources to plan and implement district-priority strategies, while providing flexibility and space for school-identified priority strategies.
  • Ensure that districts and schools establish SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based) goals related to the implementation and impact of strategies that facilitate short-cycle (e.g., quarterly) evaluation and refinement of strategies.
  • Provide guidance to districts to place limits on the number and scale of improvement strategies that are articulated and tracked in a school improvement plan to better focus on highest-priority strategies and streamline (and concentrate) progress-monitoring activities.


State Examples

Examples of state approaches to selecting strategies

In its State plan, the Colorado Department of Education committed to assembling a list of evidence-based interventions, strategies, and partnerships that offer support to the range of needs in CSI schools. The list will be a resource and reference rather than a required selection list and will evolve over time to incorporate the most recent research. It will also be structured to gather and disseminate users’ feedback and input on their experiences with the selected strategies, partnerships, or interventions.

Source: Colorado Department of Education. (2017). Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): The Colorado Plan. State ESSA Plan Approved April 16, 2018. Retrieved from


The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education created the “How Do We Know?” initiative, which provides resources to help their districts find existing research and to help measure implementation and impact [of selected strategies] as part of their improvement strategy. This website includes resources on what can be used as evidence-based resources, how to build and share evidence, and how to gauge the strength of identified interventions. It also includes links to multiple clearing houses.

Source: Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. (2018). The How We Know Initiative: Using, Building, and Sharing Outcomes to Improve Students Outcomes [website]. State ESSA Plan Approved September 15, 2017. Retrieved from


The Connecticut Department of Education created evidence-based guidance in seven key areas that districts can use to select evidence-based interventions that meet their needs. These areas include:

  • Climate and culture
  • Early learning
  • English language proficiency
  • Mathematics
  • On track Graduation
  • Reading
  • Student/Family/Community Engagement

The SEA also plans to create a rubric for evaluating additional, district-proposed evidence-based interventions.

Source:Connecticut Department of Education. (2019). Connecticut State Department of Education Evidence-Based Practice Guides [website]. State ESSA Plan Approved August 4, 2017. Retrieved from


Additional Resources3

Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) Principles of Effective School Improvement Systems, Deep Dive 4 (link is external) This resource from the Council of Chief State School Officers allows readers to select at each level of evidence the strategy that best matches the context at hand—from districts and schools designing evidence-based improvement plans to SEAs exercising the most appropriate state-level authority to intervene in non-exiting schools.

Evidence-Based Practices Community of Practice Resources This community of practice (CoP), supported by the State Support Network, helped SEAs craft plans for identifying and implementing evidence-based practices. As an outcome from the CoP, there are a number of resources, both those provided by subject matter experts (SMEs) and shared by participating member states.

Evidence for ESSA (link is external) The Evidence for ESSA website provides information on programs that may meet ESEA requirements for evidence-based practices (depending on context and needs assessment), supporting educators and communities in selecting effective educational tools to improve student success.

Measures of Last Resort: Assessing Strategies for State Initiated Turnaround (link is external) This resource from Results for America aims to help SEAs ensure their support is “more targeted, better received, and ultimately, more effective” as they set out to develop and implement new school improvement processes under the ESEA. This report highlights a variety of mechanisms to consider when engaging in state-initiated improvement efforts, often but not exclusively for CSI schools that do not exit CSI status after the state-determined timeframe. The report draws on lessons from eight states’ turnaround efforts and explores five common state-led turnaround approaches.

Non-regulatory Guidance: Using Evidence to Strengthen Education Investments This guidance document from the U.S. Department of Education outlines how SEAs may support districts in identifying evidence-based interventions.

Strategies to Improve Low-Performing Schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act: How Three Districts Found Success Using Evidence-Based Practices This report from the State Support Network followed three school systems that implemented evidence-based strategies: (1) data-driven instruction; (2) excellence in teaching and leadership; (3) culture of high expectations; (4) frequent and intensive tutoring, or high-dosage tutoring; (5) extended school day and year.

What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) The What Works Clearinghouse website provides searchable reviews of existing research in a wide variety of areas such as mathematics, literacy, and science, dropout prevention, teacher excellence, and working with English learners, among others. The “Find What Works” tool allows users to easily search for studies by topic area, such as mathematics or science, to find studies where there is evidence of positive effects.

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Section 1: Needs Assessment Section 2: Strategy Selection Section 3: Grant Fund Distribution Section 4: Implementation and Progress Monitoring

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1 For more information, see the Root Cause Analysis Workbook from the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders here (link is external). [Return]

2 Funds under section 1003 must be used to pay for evidence-based interventions that are based on strong, moderate, or promising evidence. That means section 1003 funds may not be used for activities, strategies, or interventions that “demonstrate a rationale”, e.g. that are based on high-quality research findings that such activity, strategy, or intervention is likely to improve student outcomes or other relevant outcomes, and include ongoing evaluation efforts. [Return]

3 The inclusion of information or links on this site from sources outside the U.S. Department of Education is done for purposes of information-sharing only and does not imply endorsement of any such information, products, or services by the U.S. Department of Education. [Return]