The Ins and Outs of ESSA and What The Law Means for Edtech

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the still new federal law that replaces the No Child Left Behind Act, has many provisions that, if taken advantage of by states, districts, and schools, could fundamentally change the old, teach-to-the-middle, manufacturing-based approach to teaching and learning still so prevalent today. ESSA is a disruptive policy innovation that provides states and districts more funding and flexibility to use breakthrough education technology (edtech).


The law is based on a more comprehensive view of academic and student success, requiring multiple measures of educational outcomes, including indicators of academic growth and social-emotional learning. This shift from narrow, summative, test-based accountability complements the use of edtech for instructional approaches like personalized learning, which utilizes a broader context for achievement and can better engage students.

ESSA established college and career-readiness — as defined by each state — as the goal for the K-12 system, not grade-level proficiency as under NCLB. This is a significant shift that focuses on the end-goal of schooling, not the way stations that may add up to a fully prepared student.

Diving deeper, the statute defines a number of terms like “blended learning” and “digital learning.” This matters because federal, state, and local funding decisions will be made using them, which should bring more consistency in how edtech is integrated and implemented.


Title IV of ESSA (the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Block Grant) is an important new, flexible program that encourages states, districts, and schools to think more broadly and creatively about meeting identified student needs. Authorized at $1.65 billion (but most recently funded at $400 million), up to 60 percent of the grant funds can be used for edtech strategies (importantly, though, no more than 15 percent can go toward technology infrastructure). 

And for the actual expenditure of grant funds, ESSA makes significant changes to the “supplement not supplant” and Title I “schoolwide” rules, making it easier for districts to use funding to procure innovative edtech to deliver a more relevant, engaging experience for students.

Learning Models

Advances in edtech products and services enable educators to personalize every student’s assessment, curriculum, and learning path to accommodate the particulars of each student’s learning needs. Throughout ESSA are references to and allowable uses of funds to support next-gen teaching and learning models.

The law addresses effectively using data to customize learning and deliver improved targeted professional development. Without high-quality data, effective and efficient teaching and learn-ing are not possible; without timely data, teachers are often trying to drive academic achievement by looking in the rearview mirror of prior-year summative data.

Innovative edtech products can be supported through the major programs in the federal legislation, including Titles I, II and III. Title IV of ESSA adds to these other sources of funds and could be the key that unlocks the potential of edtech-driven learning models. The U.S. Department of Education helpfully laid out the ways in which federal funds can be used for edtech in a dear colleague letter from the Office of Educational Technology.

Professional Development

ESSA emphasizes professional development (PD) designed to meaningfully enable educators to increase student achievement. The law emphasizes initial – and ongoing – PD for innovative learning models and the effective integration of edtech. 

Through the use of data and targeted needs analysis, Title II of ESSA seeks to boost personal-ized teacher training, a key strategy to improve quality and effectiveness. In addition, under Title IV, districts must look at “access to personalized learning experiences supported by technology and professional development for the effective use of data and technology.” 

A recent survey found over 40% of teachers believe their districts have a clear plan to support teachers in productively using edtech in lessons and curriculum. ESSA may get states and districts to address these concerns from the field.

Evidence-Based Practices

The importance of evidence-based activities is an obvious priority in the law. Title IV makes it clear that a district should select relevant “evidence-based” activities that will have the likelihood of working within the district based on a needs assessment. 

States are to encourage their districts to use evidence-based practices when it comes to using Title II funds and Title III language instruction programs. And, ESSA requires evidence-based strategies for schools that are identified for Comprehensive Support and Improvement or Targeted Support and Improvement.

ESSA contains the Education Innovation and Research authority (a revamped Investing in Innovation program) that districts and nonprofits can apply for to receive funds to pilot or scale-up evidence-based strategies.


The policies, funding, flexibilities, and programs in ESSA provide states, districts, and schools with the means to use innovative edtech providers, solutions, and strategies. The law’s empowerment of “local control” for states and districts means they have the latitude and responsibility to address their unique needs and circumstances to leverage innovative efforts.

Effectively implemented and leveraged by states and districts, ESSA can help educators and leaders be more innovative with edtech and more successful in improving student outcomes.


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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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