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Much More than a Law: Using ESSA to Guide Intervention Program Decisions7

The Reading, Writing, and Math Intervention Specialist
Updated on
Modified on June 22, 2023
  • ESSA
  • Math Intervention
  • Reading Intervention


I remember the first time I served on a committee charged with selecting a new program for all students in my district’s 14 elementary schools. I was a second-year teacher and, as such, I was still finding my way around a classroom while continuing to wrap my head around multiple content areas and published programs in use. I felt honored to be selected rather than being—as several colleagues opined—the recipient of the proverbial “short straw.” I was determined to do such an exemplary job that everyone from the lunchroom aide to the district superintendent would be aware of my abilities.

The content area was science, NOT my favorite nor one where I felt particularly competent. Not only were we, as a committee, charged with selecting a new program, but with writing a new science curriculum as well. To add a level of difficulty was the fact that few guidelines were offered to help us with either task. An even more illogical element was: program selection was to be first and curriculum-writing second. Yes! You are correct if you’re thinking, “Well that’s certainly an absurd sequence of two critical tasks.”

Thankfully, times have changed in countless ways with regard to education as have curriculum‑planning, instructional materials, and criteria for program selection. ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, while necessary and right for the mid-1960s, did not go far enough nor was it specific enough to help educators nourish the most fragile learners. With the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, districts and schools were required to use interventions and programs rooted in “scientifically-based research.” ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act signed into law in 2015, took another step forward by requiring interventions to be “evidence-based.”

What exactly does “evidence-based” mean?

ESSA defines “evidence-based” by offering a four-tiered framework, each tier representing a different degree of evidence as presented by a program’s most up-to-the-minute evidence‑collection results. These tiers are 1-Strong Evidence, 2-Moderate Evidence, 3-Promising Evidence, and 4-Demonstrates a Rationale. For more detailed information about each tier, refer to the Summary of Evidence Levels section of A Helpful Guide to Understanding ESSA.

Why is there a need for evidence-based instruction?

For educators, the most important task and often the most challenging, is to ensure every student succeeds to the very best of her/his ability. Thinking of this in relation to the most fragile learners, it is obvious how much more challenging this task becomes. Understanding that, educators recognize the importance of offering quality instruction, best practices, and instructional materials that have been shown to achieve the outcomes required for that student population. It is incumbent upon decision makers to select from among those instructional materials that already offer evidence of those outcomes.

Why four tiers of evidence? Why not just evidence-based vs. non-evidence based?

The answer to that lies in the fact that not all interventions have been or are being developed at the same time. Some have been available long enough to already have amassed a robust body of evidence while other, more recently developed ones are still in varying stages of evidence collection. However, for inclusion in any given ESSA tier, an intervention must meet specific to-date requirements. For this reason, an intervention should not be ruled out simply because it is still in the evidence-collection phase.

Considering this ESSA four-tiered model, what are implications for districts or schools preparing to select an intervention program?

Within this four-tiered framework, ESSA also delineates, four types of evidence 1-Anecdotal, 2-Descriptive, 3-Causal, and 4-Correlational, ranked in order of efficacy. It is important for a committee of decision makers to review not only the tiers but also the evidence type(s) offered by the developer of each program under consideration. This review will assist in evaluating the efficacy of the evidence and, used carefully, will contribute to a district’s/school’s ability to make an informed decision regarding an intervention program. For more specific details about the four evidence types, refer to the Types of Evidence section in A Helpful Guide to Understanding ESSA. (hyperlink to guide)

So, what is the principal takeaway regarding the selection of new materials to serve our most fragile learners?

It is: When selecting an intervention program for struggling students, it must be done only after careful investigation of its research base AND examination of the evidence for its efficacy in achieving the desired outcomes for students. Only then, may educators feel confident that their most vulnerable learners will have the greatest chance of achieving success.