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ESSER has put extra money on the table for districts to spend on evidence-based solutions and programs in the next two school years--here’s how to make sure your classroom tools qualify

Why evidence-based solutions are critical for edtech buying


ESSER has put extra money on the table for districts to spend on “evidence-based” programs in the next two school years--here’s how to make sure your classroom tools qualify

As districts budget for the 2022-2023 school year, they’ll have some additional funds to spend thanks to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

To ensure that these funds are well spent and will benefit students, Congress has mandated that 20% of district funds and 5% of state funds must be spent on evidence-based programs to recover from learning loss; plus additional funds for evidence-based enrichment, summer and afterschool programs.

When it comes to early childhood STEM resources, evidence of efficacy is more than just a stamp of approval. Evidence gives confidence that those products will lead to the buzzing environments we want for our youngest students, full of playful learning, collaboration, and the kinds of concrete engagement that come with hands-on manipulatives.

Here, I’ll explain what “evidence-based” means according to ESSER, how to find products that fit the definition, and a couple key benefits common to evidence-based early education solutions.

What Qualifies as Evidence-Based?

ESSER takes its definitions for evidence of impact from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and includes four tiers:

  • Products in Tier 1 have shown strong evidence of effect in randomized, controlled studies with large, relevant populations;
  • Tier 2 products demonstrate moderate evidence of effect from quasi-experimental studies with a control group;
  • Products that have shown promising evidence of effect in correlational studies fall into Tier 3; and
  • Products with an underlying rationale for effect informed by research, but that do not meet the criteria of Tiers 1-3 make up Tier 4.

One important distinction between ESSA and ESSER is that all four tiers qualify as evidence-based according to ESSER, while only Tiers 1-3 qualify under ESSA.

How Can I Find Qualified Products?

The United States Department of Education maintains the What Works Clearinghouse, a helpful resource for judging evidence levels for some products. The site features a searchable database of some published studies and assessed levels, though it does not include all studies that provide evidence for tiers 1-3, and many qualifying products are not included.

If you’re not sure about the efficacy of a product you are interested in, don’t hesitate to ask the vendor. Some offer a comprehensive directory of all published studies showing evidence of impact. If a provider has evidence of impact, they should be eager to share it with you. Make sure you look for studies conducted at research universities and published in peer-reviewed journals.

Benefits of Evidence-Based Solutions

One of the great benefits of evidence-based tools is that they tend to come with well thought-out curricula. Often that curriculum is the same one used in the studies demonstrating evidence of impact or is designed based on the findings of those studies.

Similarly, evidence-based products tend to have good professional development resources for teachers, or very clear explanations for classroom practices related to them. It’s the teachers who do the teaching, not the tools, so it’s vitally important that the teachers know how to make the best of them. Fortunately, a big factor in efficacy studies is how teachers use the products being evaluated, so there’s already information about best practices available in most cases.

In early education, evidence-based tools also tend to be founded on developmentally appropriate teaching practices. Very young children simply learn best with physical objects that they can move around in space. Physical objects also tend to be much better at encouraging small=group work and collaboration than tablets or laptops, which are not designed for multiple users. Developmentally appropriate tools to introduce coding and computational thinking need to take the cognition and social development of young children into account, and evidence of effect will demonstrate this.

To create the kinds of early education classrooms we want to see, classrooms bubbling with engaged students asking questions, learning from one another and excitedly helping each other find answers, evidence of effect is critical. In a new and growing field like hands-on STEAM teaching in early childhood, focusing on the research allows you to use CARES Act funding—but more importantly it’s a practical way to make sure that the technology you’re spending your money on actually does what you want it to.

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