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ESSA UPDATE: Are ESSA’s New Evidence Requirements a Hard Stop for You?

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It’s a big issue!  ESSA establishes a very high threshold defining what schools can now assert as “evidence” to support product purchases.  Anecdotal success stories are out. Soft research beefed up with marketing jargon won’t pass muster.  Strong alignment with rigorously performed theoretical work is now the minimum starting point and no longer the key to school funding.

So…how big of a problem is “Evidence” to you as ESSA takes full effect this fall?

Short of clear ESSA Rules & Regulations being available to soften the blow, the definition of “Evidence” as outlined in the Every Student Succeeds Act is the minimum standard that legislators, educators, and commercial partners must meet.

Here are a few obsolete “NCLB” data strategies that every vendor must rethink:

  • Fluff It Up: Packaging unreliable data in rigorous language with supportive graphs and charts. The right words and statistics will no longer make just any outcome desirable.
  • Key World Shuffle: The practice of using strategic jargon or case-studies to summarize and imply the presence of meticulous and supportive studies “available upon request” if anyone ever wants to dig deeper is no longer viable.
  • Get Forgiveness: The act of promising to provide “evidence”, but ignoring and delaying requests until the product is already implemented. Then, apologizing for research deficiencies if the topic ever comes up again will not be acceptable.
  • Not My Problem: Similar to “Get Forgiveness” except shuffling responsibility to responding to school requests to someone else buried deep within the marketing or product teams won’t work.
  • Behind the Scenes: Ignoring data requests completely with the assumption that internal politics will be enough to cover documentation deficiencies will be rejected.
  • Doesn’t Apply to Me: The belief that “evidence” of impact on student learning is reserved for curriculum products only and therefore isn’t a problem for all non-curriculum providers is not the case.

If your sales, marketing or product teams utilize any of these strategies in selling to educators…the jig is up.  It’s over. The quicker you acknowledge your impact deficiencies, the faster you can resolve the problems.  The way ESSA is worded, consequences to Vendors that ignore “Evidence” requirements can be very severe.

ESSA recognizes that success in the classroom requires a partnership between administrators, educators, and suppliers.  It acknowledges that children succeed best when the comprehensive learning environment is focused on student success.  ESSA holds schools accountable for the outcomes of all Federal funds used to create that environment.

While few State Accountability Plans have been approved, a review of all the plans submitted (and peer comments) will quickly reveal that states are connecting the same rigorous standards to State funds woven into educational initiatives. Said another way, 100% of discretionary school funds spent with vendors come with evidence strings attached.  Like it or not, vendors are officially part of the instructional ecosystem and schools will look to you to provide evidence before they will buy your products.  If you are lucky, your customers already have an experimental design that accommodates your products.   More likely, they will be looking to you for guidance on how to embed your product into their experimental design and how you will demonstrate your positive impact on learners.

Sales success under ESSA requires the ability to demonstrate repeatable positive impact on student learning.  Period. 

Here is how ESSA Evidence Requirements work.  All parties that hope to access discretionary funds must do so based on three general criteria:

  1. Present a well-designed plan. Plans at both the State and Local levels will be evaluated for rigor. They must demonstrate how the diverse needs and roles of all stakeholders have been addressed.  Evidence that key components of the initiative have worked under similar constraints is central to the funding design. Schools must be able to submit at least one high quality, controlled study for each key component of the implementation.
  2. Collect Data in A Controlled Manner. For the duration of the implementation, data must be collected as indicated in the approved plan. Partners/Vendors will want to be actively engaged in supporting implementations.  Vendors should take the steps necessary to ensure the right data is collected to best demonstrate the contribution and effectiveness of their products and services.
  3. Demonstrate Success Before Expansion Funds are Provided. The general implementation design embraced by ESSA is essentially the same as that promoted in I3 grants: Small pilots first; then progressively reward initiatives that work. Successful implementations will be actively communicated to the broader community across regions and states.

It’s time to Change your Product/Marketing/Sales Playbook.

Your sales team is likely to have a progressively frustrating Back-to-School experience this year.  Educators are being specifically trained by their SEAs and many professional organizations on how to assemble evidence, create evidence based instructional initiatives and separate vendor research documentation into five separate buckets (four acceptable buckets and a fifth and final garbage bucket). The further we get into the 2017/18 school year, the more difficult it will become to sneak questionable “evidence” past educators to secure funds.

The first practical step for all K12 vendors is to take a deep, candid look at every document you rely on to communicate your products research foundation and/or effectiveness.  Once that is completed, rank yourself in one of the following categories:

  • Group 1: “We are fairly new to the market, but already have a core group of educators who love our product. We have a loose framework connecting our product to educational research which we use to demonstrate that we are research-based. We have permission from a few leading educators to use their testimonials.  They are also willing to serve as a ‘lighthouse’ to schools/districts and meet with other potential users to sing praises of our product/services.”   Prioritized Actions: As promising as these accomplishments sound, you fall well-outside eligibility for any ESSA-era federal/state discretionary funding.  Your immediate priority is to invest in: 1) Identifying the school environments that are most likely to demonstrate great results with your product; 2) formalizing and expanding your supportive research framework; and 3) convincing at least one of your Lighthouse schools/districts to include your product in a much more rigorous, controlled study.
  • Group 2: You have been in the K12 marketplace for several years and have a significant install base. You have a solid framework connecting your product to multiple theoretical or practice based studies (i.e. you clearly follow best practices). Your customers love your product and are passionate about it.  Success stories and testimonials abound.   Prioritized Actions:  The good news is that your established connection to best-practice research qualifies at ESSA’s lowest definition of evidence (commonly referred to as “Tier 4—Grounded in Research”). The bad news is that you don’t qualify for broad multi-school purchases funded through discretionary federal or state sources.  Those require much more rigorous studies than you have.  You should immediately begin to work with several existing clients to partner on more meticulously defined, 3rd party, data driven, controlled studies.  Clearly explain that you want to be able to utilize these studies as you work with new schools.  This will help them design and report in a manner that supports your product’s contribution to the overall success of the initiative.
  • Group 3: You have a solid foundation in research and a few studies performed in schools that demonstrate positive student growth, but the studies were performed: using your own instrument to measure impact, OR using historic data assembled after the fact to demonstrate growth, OR studies were performed with either no control group or controls selected after the study period, etc.  Prioritized Action: Good news!  You may qualify as a “Tier 3—Promising Evidence (Study Eligible)” under ESSA evidence requirements.  Not a lot of bad news with this grouping, just a lot of work.  Tier 3 indicates that you deserve a spot at the table with schools that are similar to those in which you showed promise.  This qualifies you to take part in more rigorously controlled studies.  You still have to work closely with your partner schools and perform well with learners, but at least you are welcomed to the table.
  • Group 4: You have a solid foundation in research and have at least one quasi-experimental or well-controlled school study that demonstrates your product’s positive impact on student learning. Having at least one quasi-experimental or well-controlled study allows you to enter new districts—with similar demographics to those associated with your success—and immediately be eligible for adoption and expansion.   Prioritized Action: Depending on your resources, you should consider a two-pronged approach for 2017/18.  First, leverage the value of your one qualified study and target your marketing and sales efforts on similar districts.  This is where you are most competitive and have the highest potential for adoption. If resources allow, 2017/18 should also be used to acquire additional high-quality studies; first in similar schools and then in increasingly diverse demographic schools.  You have a competitive edge for this school year.  Use it as much as possible to cash in and then to extend your competitive edge for the 2018/19 school year.
  • Group 5: You are the rarest of vendors. You have a solid foundation in research and have multiple quasi-experimental or well-controlled school studies that demonstrate your product’s impact on student learning.  You have a competitive golden ticket to acquire market share in the early years of ESSA.   Prioritized Action: Protect your lighthouse districts and expand your sales and marketing efforts as broadly as your evidence allows.  While ESSA allows schools to expand and/or broadly deploy products that have at least one high-quality study as evidence from similar demographic environments, the law fails to carefully define what constitutes “similar demographics”.  The Rules & Regs (which were tossed out early in the Trump Administration) were supposed to close that loophole.  With multiple qualifying studies, you have the most flexibility in pushing the definition of similar demographics.  ESSA has given you a unique window of opportunity to gain market share.  Use it.

So, Did ESSA provide you with a Hard Stop or Free Pass for 2017/18?

 The key to success for your company in the ESSA market place is to quickly understand how schools are required to work with stakeholders and demonstrate actual evidence that funding is well invested for student improvement.  Educating your product, marketing and sales teams on your exact evidentiary footing now and strategically utilizing sales to improve your position for the next school year is a strategy every K12 vendor must implement immediately (if not sooner).

Steven RowleyESSA UPDATE: Are ESSA’s New Evidence Requirements a Hard Stop for You?

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