School Improvement in the ESSA Era: The Impact of Trump and DeVos

Examining 10 years of research to improve the most challenged and lowest-performing schools

District Administration welcomed education policy expert Robert Balfanz for this web seminar about what the last 10 years of research has found when it comes to improving the most challenged and lowest-performing schools, as well as the implications of the Trump administration and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on these efforts. Balfanz is research professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, where he is co-director of the Talent Development Secondary reform model and director of the Everyone Graduates Center.

Balfanz was joined by Charles Hiteshew, CEO of Talent Development Secondary at Johns Hopkins School of Education, where he runs a national school improvement organization that puts in practice Balfanz’s research findings and who described how TDS is tightly aligned with the requirements of ESSA in terms of improving the 5 percent poorest performing schools and closing gaps between sub-groups via evidence-based practices.

The panel for this web seminar also included grant funding expert Paula Love, who highlighted some available sources of funding for schools and districts to support these efforts.

Robert Balfanz

Research Professor

Co-director, Talent Development Secondary Center for Social Organization of Schools

Johns Hopkins School of Education

One of the first good things to know is that under ESSA, 7 percent of Title I funds are set aside at the state level for school improvement. They have to pass 95 percent of this through to LEAs. That’s about $1 billion per year. This money can be used to support both comprehensive and targeted supports in identified schools.

Another change is that there are no federal mandates on specific interventions required in these schools. The power to design those reforms is back with the people who can do it best, which are the local people who know their schools the best, with support from their states. The one difference, though—and it’s going to make a big difference—is that reforms must be evidence-based.

Two types of schools are targeted for reform under these efforts: those in the bottom 5 percent of performance and those with a graduation rate less than 67 percent. Once a school has been identified, the district must conduct a needs assessment with the school and identify the set of evidence-based practices that meet those needs, and then determine if the school has sufficient resources and operational freedom to implement them. The state will then approve and monitor the district’s plan. If sufficient improvement is not achieved in four years, then the state takes stronger action.

The primary reason we have low-performing schools is we have concentrated our neediest students in a subset of schools not designed for this level of challenge. If we just change the adults and don’t change the practices, we don’t get the impacts we need. We need to redesign how these schools are organized and supported so that they’re better equipped to adjust the educational challenges they face and are more able to implement evidence-based solutions tailored to their needs. It’s about the people and the design. You have to get both of those right.

Charles Hiteshew

Chief Executive Officer

Talent Development Secondary Center for Social Organization of Schools

Johns Hopkins School of Education

We’ve increasingly talked about “working the TDS (Talent Development Secondary) pyramid” of support within a district. We see districts in three levels on that pyramid. At the top and smallest portion of the pyramid are the relatively few schools in the district that are typically dealing with monumental challenges and tend to drive the largest portion of dropouts or potential dropouts. Because their challenges are greatest, they often require a structural response in terms of creating small learning communities with interdisciplinary teacher teams sharing a small and manageable cohort of students. Second, there must be some sort of instructional response supporting teachers who are often dealing with students who are often two to four years behind grade level. We do this by providing them with the embedded coaching, support and curricula to catch up those students within a year or two. Finally, these schools tend to require an integrated student service response based on which kids are off track in the ABCs—Attendance, Behavior referrals, and Course performance in math and ELA. When we help off-track students to get back on track by the end of ninth grade in terms of their ABCs, research shows that their graduation rate goes from 25 percent to 75 percent.

From the top of the pyramid, we work down to the middle section that includes the schools that typically require targeted improvement—schools that have sub-groups of students who are falling behind in any number of outcome indicators that require intervention. We focus on an early warning system that tracks the ABCs and provides the structure to deliver appropriate and tiered interventions to those students to get back on track. This can close key performance gaps between sub-groups, which is now required under ESSA.

And finally, in the bottom portion of the pyramid, we’ve developed a suite of tools, curricula, resources and strategies that can be provided to any school that’s dealing with a group or sub-group of students that is struggling and falling behind for any set of reasons. Whatever it might be, we’ll do our best to provide a support, a curriculum intervention or resource to that school.

Paula Love


We’re seeing so many changes that are happening, even in ESSA. We don’t know what lies ahead. How do you prepare for funding with all of the changes that are happening and the priority swings that are occurring? The future definitely is hazy.

But with all this ambiguity there is one thing we do know: The balance of power is clearly shifting from federal authority to state-level decision-making in ESSA. States will have greater say in how they choose to help struggling schools, as long as it is evidence-based. They’re going to have greater authority over how that money is spent.

How will this impact the federal funding that’s out there? Even with the haziness, let’s examine four major initiatives and what ESSA says about them:

1) Title I Part A. You’ve heard about the increase set aside—that 7 percent for school improvement. That’s an increase from 3 percent. There will be more equitable funding for high schools, and also waivers that allow states to offer more schoolwide designation of their programs.

2) The Carl D. Perkins Career Technical Education Grant, because career technical education is all over ESSA. It’s even being encouraged as an indicator for state report cards.

3) The Title IV Block Grant, which is referred to as the student support and academic enrichment grant, enables us to focus for the first time on that well-rounded education, along with safety and health for our students, and also some funding for the effective uses of technology and digital learning.

4) Title II Part A is setting aside an additional 3 percent for professional development opportunities for state and district leaders.

Despite the haziness of these regulations, governors are continuing to say that they are offering a balanced approach to education in their states. What does all this mean in terms of funding? Funding often follows policy, so you need to know what is happening in your state.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please visit:

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