ESSA, evidence, and the role of intermediary organizations

When I am outside the Beltway, I often feel like my job doesn’t meet the “Grandma Test.” I lead an association, Knowledge Alliance, which advocates for the federal investment in evidence and the greater use of evidence in policymaking. When I describe my job, I usually get a quizzical look followed by the question your grandma would ask: “Well, why wouldn’t policymakers already be using evidence? I mean who is against that?”

While it’s true that most policymakers are not “against” the use of evidence, there are many other factors that influence their decisionmaking. Moreover, the research community does not always do a great job of making its work digestible and accessible to policymakers. For this reason, intermediary organizations, like Knowledge Alliance, play an important role. And, the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), highlights the role of intermediaries in advancing the use of research in our nation’s schools.

As Harvard professor Marty West has previously written, ESSA includes a tiered evidence structure that is widely seen as an improvement on the narrow “scientifically based research” definition of No Child Left Behind. At the same time, he makes clear that the new evidence definition will only have an impact if it is implemented well.  For that to happen, in my view, intermediary organizations are needed.

Vivian Tseng and others have written that it is not sufficient to simply direct stakeholders to the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) or other resources. Honest brokers are needed who can work with stakeholders—in this case states, districts and schools—to translate evidence into the local context.

In fact, the law’s authors anticipated this concern, which is why they specifically called out the Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) to serve as intermediary organizations to assist states and districts in sort through the available evidence and applying it to their contexts.  Each REL has at least two researchers who are certified as WWC reviewers and have in-depth knowledge of the WWC standards and how the standards are applied.  It’s also worth noting that while many intermediary organizations do not have the capacity to serve rural areas, RELs have historically filled that void.

I believe that increasing evidence use, particularly in the area of school improvement, is one of the strongest theories of change in ESSA. And, as Mark Dynarski proposes in this blog post, ESSA provides the opportunity for research innovations, such as “implementation science,” a model popularized by the Carnegie Institute.

These innovations have the potential to produce better results for schools and, ultimately students.  As I noted in my recent blog post for the WT Grant Foundation, if research isn’t used and doesn’t benefit schools and students, then really, what’s the point? We should all take an interest in putting good research to good use in our schools. That’s something even my grandma would understand.