ESSA Deep Dive: Educator and Leader Support

Definitive research shows teachers and principals are the first and second most important in-school influencers on student achievement. Does federal law help educators and leaders in tangible ways? In fact, it does.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides states and districts the chance to revamp how they use federal funding to “more effectively attract, select, place, support, and retain excellent educators [and leaders]; revisit traditional uses of these funds; and consider new and additional uses of Title II, Part A funds that are innovative and evidence-based,” according to the U.S. Department of Education guidance.

Title II Part A Funding

ESSA’s policies allow for a more comprehensive and aligned approach to human capital strategy, including more equitable access to great educators and leaders, as well as improving the overall success of their education systems. As one example of this opportunity, ESSA requires states and districts to consult with teachers, principals, and other stakeholders to determine the best uses of funding for teacher and leader development. This represents a terrific opportunity to engage educators in key processes that directly affect them.

Evolving Evaluation

The federal law also shifts away from educator evaluation and promotion based largely on student results. Previously and controversially, the Obama Administration had required states, as a condition of receiving waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, to significantly revamp their approach to teacher evaluation to align with this student outcomes-based approach. ESSA swept this approach away.

Some states have elected to take advantage of ESSA’s shift by realigning their educator evaluation with multiple measures of evidence, including a balance of quantitative and qualitative data. Many states, though, have kept requirements for incorporating student achievement data, but have reduced the importance of that data on a teacher’s overall evaluation. According to the Education Commission of the States, in 2015, 43 states had a significant requirement for using student achievement/growth in evaluation, while in 2017, 39 states still have some form of that requirement.

The generally more nuanced and comprehensive evaluation systems implemented by many states should benefit teachers and leaders by better identifying areas for growth, development, and support. What had increasingly felt like a move to punitive evaluation is now being supplanted by evaluation focused more on development and growth.

Policy Progress

In addition, under the new federal law, states may now use their teacher-focused funding to support residency-based teacher-prep programs, where aspiring teachers can get mentored into the profession over a year’s time. States can also create teacher-preparation "academies," which could be independent of traditional teacher prep routes and systems.

ESSA also emphasizes professional development to enable teachers to effectively incorporate education technology to enable teachers and instructional leaders to increase student achievement through provisions in Title IV, the Student Support and Academic Achievement Block Grant. For example, when districts apply for Title IV funds, they must look at “access to personalized learning experiences supported by technology and professional development for the effective use of data and technology.”

Through the use of data and targeted needs analysis, Title II and Title IV seek to boost personalized PD for teachers, a key strategy to improve the quality and effectiveness of the training through more individualized identification of needs and targeted delivery of support.

It should also be noted that the hated – and ineffective – requirement that teachers be “highly qualified” is gone under ESSA as well (this means that districts no longer have to show teachers are highly qualified to receive Title I funding). The new standard is whatever standard states have for state certification, including alternative routes to certification. This focus on the credentials of teachers has been replaced by a focus on aligned professional development based on local needs and oriented around improving outcomes. (But keep in mind that ESSA retains the requirement that para-educators be highly qualified, as defined by the law.)

Principal Provisions

But what about principals? Under ESSA’s Title II, states can reserve up to 3% of funds to support the recruitment, preparation, and training of high-quality leaders. It is estimated that as many as 20 states may take advantage of this opportunity.

Principals impact student achievement through their influence on classroom instruction, organizational conditions, community support, and setting the teaching and learning conditions in schools. What is less well-known is research that indicates principals are the second most important in-school factor impacting student and school results. ESSA also maintains a separate Teacher Incentive Fund program, renaming it the Teacher and School Leader Incentive Fund with an expanded purview of supporting principals as well.

Title II Funding Shifts

Another significant change is that ESSA modifies the formula for distributing funds to states and districts to be more focused on the percentages of students in poverty, which will result in a large shift in how much districts receive under Title II. A Congressional Research Service analysis projects that by fiscal year 2023, these states’ annual allocation will decrease by $10 million or more from their 2016 funding level: Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and Puerto Rico. On the other hand, these states’ allocations are likely to see increases of $10 million or more: California, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.


Federal law has moved appreciably toward more flexible, common-sense policies for supporting teacher and principal development. States and districts are now on the front lines of changing their approaches to address systems of finding, supporting, developing, and retaining talented educators and leaders. With many states and districts experiencing significant teacher shortages, these new policy and funding opportunities come at a critically important time. Without great teachers and leaders, we will not realize the potential of every student.


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About the Author

Doug Mesecar is Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategy at IO Education. He has a diverse background having held senior operational and policy roles at leading education companies, the U.S. Department of Education, and in Congress. Reach him on Twitter @dmes.

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