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Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December 2015, Congress made significant changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In an effort to assist states, districts and schools to better understand the effects of ESSA, Positive Action has analyzed the legislation in its entirety. As the implementation of the new law takes effect, many rules have not been completed and are currently under discussion. This analysis includes a discussion on the different funding streams, new initiatives and strategies for complying with ESSA. As the new rules become available, Positive Action will update this document to reflect the most recent news.


ESSA has shifted the balance between federal involvement and state’s rights in education. States now have more control over the direction and appropriation of federal education dollars. It also adjusted many of the signature initiatives from the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The resulting legislation includes progressive reforms that were needed to alleviate many operational and philosophical obstacles to providing a high-quality education to our nation’s students.

While no piece of legislation is ever perfect, ESSA is a platform for public education to transition towards a more equitable and effective model. Legislators are beginning to structurally address the needs of the “whole child” and not just arbitrary benchmarks. While it will take time for this transition, Positive Action is committed to helping districts and schools make the best use of federal contributions to education.

This analysis includes an overview on the new “Evidence-Based” requirements and reviews the major funding streams including Title I and Title IV.


Congress has made it clear that sound science is important to the nation’s public education system. Many new and old provisions now require the use of “evidence-based” activities, strategies, or interventions. To clarify congressional intent, framers defined evidence-based with three tiers of evidence:

Sec 8002 (21)(A) The term ‘evidence-based’ when used with respect to a State, local educational agency, or school activity, means an activity, strategy, or intervention that-

(i) demonstrates a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes or relevant outcomes based on –

(I) strong evidence from at least 1 well-designed and well-implemented experimental study;

(II) moderate evidence from at least 1 well-designed and well-implemented quasi-experimental study; or

(III) promising evidence from at least 1 well-designed and well-implemented correlational study with statistical controls for selection bias

Positive Action has completed three Randomized-Control Trials (RCT) that meet the ESSA “strong evidence” criteria and three studies that meets the “moderate evidence” criteria. While this standard differs somewhat from previous Department of Education (DoEd) definitions, its application in so many different sections of the law will require educators to identify and implement programs that work.

The first Positive Action RCT in Hawaii achieved positive results in academics and behavior. The Hawaii RCT was conducted between 2001 and 2006 in conjunction with the University of Illinois-Chicago and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institute of Health (NIH). The second RCT in Chicago saw similar results in both academics and behavior. The Chicago RCT was conducted between 2005 and 2010, in conjunction with the University of Illinois-Chicago and the U.S. Department of Education. Seven scientific journal articles have been published. Investigators found effects in academics, behavior and physical health.

Previously, DoEd’s What Works Clearinghouse only recognized strong and moderate evidence for inclusion in its registry. This presented a challenge to lawmakers as only a few programs could meet such a stringent threshold. In 2014, Congress modified the School Improvement Grant (SIG) initiative to include the “Whole-School Reform” model which required strong evidence to be approved. After evaluating all the applicants, DoEd found only three providers met the eligibility requirements, including Positive Action. In fact, Positive Action was the only provider that has achieved strong evidence of results in both academic and behavior domains.

In addition to the new ESSA requirements for evidence-based instruction, the federal government has recently created a new commission to draft public policy based on sound science. The commission is tasked with integrating public policy with evidence of effectiveness. While this legislation does not have an immediate effect on education policy, it clearly indicates that Congress is making evidence-based practices a priority throughout the government. States, districts and schools should take notice and prepare for more evidence-based requirements in the future.

Title I

The new provisions give States more discretion in the allocation and distribution of Title I dollars. The law also includes new requirements for States to formulate their own response. Each of these initiatives contains the Evidence-Based requirement.

Statewide Accountability System

ESSA requires each State to design a statewide accountability system to improve student academic achievement and school success. This includes indicators for academic achievement, student growth, graduation rates, English language proficiency, and school quality. The school quality indicator includes a school climate and safety requirement.

Sec 1111 (c)(4)(B)(v) School quality or student success, which may include:
(III)    student engagement
(IV)    educator engagement
(V)     student access to and completion of advanced coursework
(VI)    postsecondary readiness
(VII)   school climate and safety

Positive Action has an established record of improving school climate. The six-unit design incorporates school climate development and features a role for school leaders to reinforce critical topics in the communal areas of the school. This approach has been proven effective. Research from the Hawaii RCT found significant improvements in school quality and safety. The following results were published in the Journal of School Health in 2012:

  • 24%  Improvement in student safety and well-being
  • 48%  Improvement in school satisfaction
  • 21%  Improvement in school quality
  • 50%  Improvement in academic motivation
  • 8%    Improvement in school involvement
  • 21%  Improvement in coordinated team work
  • 25%  Improvement in professionalism and system capacity

Researchers also found significant effects in reducing school violence. The following results have been published in multiple academic journals:

  • 75%  Reduction in violent behaviors
  • 33%  Reduction in physical fights
  • 63%  Reduction in carrying knifes or razors
  • 56%  Reduction in carrying a gun

When a State includes these important indicators in their accountability plans, they must also consider how districts and schools can achieve the goals set forth in the State plans. By implementing Positive Action, school climate, safety and engagement can be improved in dramatic ways and be compliant with ESSA.

Comprehensive Support and Improvement

The next major initiative is to develop a plan for comprehensive support and improvement for schools that have been identified in need of improvement. Identified schools must develop an improvement plan:

Sec 1111(d)(1)(B) The local educational agency shall, for each school identified by the State and in partnership with stakeholders (including principals and other school leaders, teachers, and parents), locally develop and implement a comprehensive support and improvement plan for the school to improve student outcomes, that includes evidence based-interventions.

Districts and schools have many options for developing their improvement plans. They also have a wide body of evidence to consider. The SIG initiative from NCLB allowed districts and schools to adopt one of several options. After nearly 10 years of SIG plans, educators have a better understanding of which improvement plans are effective. Many plans proved not to be effective and Congress modified the program to include Whole-School Reform as a proven option for educators to consider.

While ESSA has eliminated the SIG initiative, districts and schools now have the option of pursuing improvement plans that are similar to Whole-School Reform. As an approved provider for Whole-School Reform, districts and schools can implement Positive Action to meet the comprehensive support and improvement requirements of ESSA.

Targeted Support and Improvement

In an effort to improve conditions for special populations, ESSA requires districts and schools to address the needs of subgroups of students that consistently underperform. The language includes a requirement to use an evidence-based intervention:

Sec 1111(d)(2)(B) Each school receiving a notification shall develop and implement a school-level targeted support and improvement plan to improve student outcomes, based on the indicators in the statewide accountability system, that includes evidence-based interventions.

The accountability system language defines subgroups with the following categories:

Sec 1111 (c)(2):
(A) economically disadvantaged students;
(B) students from major racial and ethnic groups;
(C) children with disabilities
(D) English learners

Reaching these populations with a single, evidence-based intervention is a difficult challenge. Fortunately, Positive Action has been proven to be effective for these populations. Both the Hawaii and Chicago RCT’s indicated significant academic and behavior improvements within these populations. Both locations included students from major racial and ethnic groups, and economically disadvantaged students.

When addressing students with disabilities, Positive Action recognizes the unique value of each person by providing academic, physical, social, and emotional guidance in a safe and supportive environment. It works with special needs students of all types, including autism, ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities, emotionally disturbed, physical disabilities, and cognitive disabilities. In addition, Positive Action has been recognized by the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE) as an effective product for students in special education settings.

English learners also benefit from Positive Action as each lesson includes embedded language arts learning objectives. Positive Action commissioned an analysis to determine program alignment with contemporary academic standards. An independent evaluation found that each Positive Action lesson includes at least seven language arts learning objectives.

Improve School Conditions

In an effort to increase academic achievement, ESSA requires that State plans must also include assistance to improve learning conditions in identified schools:

Sec 1111(g)(C) State educational agency will support local educational agencies receiving assistance under this part to improve school conditions for student learning, inducing through reducing-
(i)      incidences of bullying and harassment;
(ii)   the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom; and
(iii)   the use of aversive behavioral interventions that compromise student health and safety;

By implementing Positive Action in identified schools, Positive Action will achieve each of these goals. Both the Hawaii and Chicago RCT’s found significant effects for bullying and researchers have published the following results:

  • 51%  Reduction in bullying behaviors
  • 62%  Reduction in the students threatening to cut or stab someone
  • 29%  Reduction in students making general threats to other
  • 59%  Reduction in normative beliefs in support of aggression

The framers were clear with their intent; States must adopt plans that ensure a safe and effective learning environment for all students. This requires districts and schools to implement programs that are proven effective to meet these goals. Positive Action satisfies both of these requirements.

Title IV

ESSA also consolidated many Title IV programs such as Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Counseling Programs into a single block grant. The new funding distribution mechanism is similar to the Title I formulas. In contrast to Title I, a portion of Title IV block grant funds may be used on school-wide initiatives. These initiatives are designed to improve the health and safety of students:

Sec 4108(a)
(1) Are coordinated with other schools and community-based services and programs
(2) Foster safe, healthy, supportive, and drug-free environments that support student academic achievement
(3) Promote the involvement of parents in the activity or program
(4) May be conducted in partnership with an entity with a demonstrated record of success in implementing activities described in this section
(5) Drug and violence prevention activities and programs that are evidence-based
(A) drug and violence prevention activities that are evidence-based
(B) school-based mental health services
(C) health and safety:
i. integrate health and safety practices into school or athletic programs
ii. support a healthy, active lifestyle, including nutritional education and regular, structured physical education activities and programs
iii. help prevent bullying and harassment
iv. improve instructional practices for developing relationship-building skills, such as effective communication, and improve safety through the recognition and prevention of coercion, violence, or abuse, including teen and dating violence, stalking, domestic abuse, and sexual violence and harassment
v. provide mentoring and school counseling to all students, including children who are at risk of academic failure, dropping out of school, involvement in criminal or delinquent activities, or drug use and abuse
vi. establish or improve school drop-out and re-entry programs
vii. establish learning environments and enhance students’ effective learning skills that are essential for school readiness and academic success, such as by providing integrated systems of student and family supports
viii. school-based violence prevention strategies
ix. drug abuse prevention, including educating children facing substance abuse at home

Positive Action has achieved results in each of these domains and is well-suited for Title IV applications. The curriculum addresses both the health and safety of students with discrete lessons that address the students’ physical well-being, and violence and drug-use prevention. With a robust parent involvement component, these activities are reinforced in multiple settings with family participation.

The results are long-lasting as Positive Action instills an intrinsic desire to become better students, academically, physically and emotionally. This philosophy is delivered through a logical six-unit sequence that forms the basis of the Positive Action program. As students progress through the sequence, teachers and parents will notice a substantial change in the students’ behavior and academic performance. As ESSA requires the use of evidence-based curriculum to achieve these goals, educators can teach with confidence as Positive Action has achieved results in these domains in the two RCT’s:

  • 47%  reduction in tobacco use
  • 69%  reduction in alcohol use
  • 50%  reduction in marijuana use
  • 52%  reduction in unhealthy body mass index

Positive Action has a demonstrated record of success for improving the safety and well-being of students. These outcomes are well-aligned with the new provision of Title IV. As the legislation takes effect, educators can achieve their goals with a single program that is based on a comprehensive approach to human development and has achieved results in multiple studies.

ESSA has provided states, schools and districts a new approach to federal assistance and Positive Action is committed to helping educators make the best use of their federal resources.

Click here to download the ESSA alignment brochure. (PDF, 5.0 MB)