Improving School Improvement: ESSA’s New Requirements

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) fundamentally changes how states and districts identify and intervene in underperforming schools. As states work through the federal ESSA approval process and gear up for implementing major provisions of the law in the 2018-19 school year, it is important to gain a better understanding of ESSA’s changes to identifying schools for improvement and intervention.


As background, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) required each district to identify schools that did not make adequate yearly progress (AYP) for a certain number of years for school improvement, corrective action, and restructuring. With every passing year under NCLB, the number of schools identified for one these categories went up and up, making it hard for states and districts to focus on the schools with the greatest needs. And remember supplemental educational services? All of this is gone under ESSA.

The Obama Administration’s NCLB waivers (sometimes referred to as ESEA waivers) created a new school improvement scheme. Under the waiver policy, priority schools were the lowest 5% of Title I schools based on performance in reading and mathematics and/or graduation rates (<60%). Focus schools were the next lowest 10% of Title I schools with achievement gaps between high performing and low performing subgroups or large gaps in graduation rates, or schools that have a subgroup or subgroups with low achievement or low graduation rates. The goal was to limit the number of schools identified in order for states and districts to concentrate on the lowest performing schools.

essa timeline and actions

Two Categories of Schools

Things are vastly simplified under ESSA, though similar to the NCLB waivers that preceded the law’s passage. There are two categories of schools that must be identified starting with the 2018-19 school year:

1. Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) – must be identified at least once every 3 years:

  • The lowest performing 5% of Title I schools;
  • High schools with graduation rates below 67%;
  • Can also include schools initially identified for TSI (see below) that do not improve enough on a state-specific timeline.

2. Targeted Support and Improvement (TSI) – must be identified annually:

  • Schools that have one or more persistently under-performing student subgroup(s) (typically that perform at an equivalent level as the lowest 5% of schools/subgroups).

How do these schools get identified? ESSA requires state accountability plans to include five indicators. These indicators are: 1) proficiency on assessments; 2) growth in proficiency in grades below high school; 3) high school graduation rates; 4) progress of ELs toward proficiency; and 5) a fifth “other” indicator that can measure school quality or student success. These five indicators must be used to create a summative rating for each school that can “meaningful differentiate” among schools for purposes of school identification.


ESSA provides funding to support the improvement activities in schools that have been identified by the state’s accountability system. ESSA uses a different method for distributing school improvement funds by requiring 7% of Title I to be set aside instead of 4% under NCLB. Also, there is no separate School Improvement Grant program under ESSA.

The net result is that about the same amount of funds – just over $1 billion – will be available for school improvement across the country. Keep in mind, though, that those funds will be distributed across a somewhat smaller number of identified schools, meaning there should be more money available per school for improvement activities.

There are a few other ESSA school improvement funding requirements to keep in mind:
• Districts serving the highest number or percentage of identified schools must be given a priority for funding;
• There is no longer a cap on the amount of funding any single district may receive.
• At least six states plan to run a competition for school improvement funding rather than distribute the funds through a formula: CT, LA, MA, NV, NM & TN.


It is important to note that there are no longer any federal criteria regarding required interventions or models that school improvement funds must be used to support. Once CSI schools are identified by the state, districts must work with the school and stakeholders to conduct a needs assessment to develop and implement an improvement plan that addresses the reason for its identification; includes evidence-based interventions and identifies resource inequities; and is approved by both the district and the state.

TSI schools must work with stakeholders to conduct a needs assessment to develop a school improvement plan that: includes evidence-based intervention(s); is approved and monitored by the LEA; and is designed to improve outcomes for sub-group(s) that led to identification.

A common denominator for CSI and TSI schools is that they can only use school improvement funding on activities, strategies, or interventions that demonstrate a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes based on strong, moderate, or promising evidence (as defined by the law).

External Providers

Overall, while ESSA may have eliminated some of NCLB’s more onerous school improvement provisions, there are still a number of important requirements for states, districts, schools and providers to know. There is also real potential for innovation, personalization, and stakeholder input in the more locally-driven intervention process.

Some states are looking to external providers to play a significant role in school improvement and intervention. The decision to proactively include external providers is up to each state and some states have included external providers (whether for- or non-profit) into their ESSA state plans, including IL, DE, CA, and NY.

Key questions for vendors to consider include:

  • Do you know your target states’ ESSA plan(s) and what they say about identification and improvement? (In other words, do you know why schools are flagged and what they have to do?)
  • How does your product or service align with identified needs?
  • What level of evidence can you meet?

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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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