Laura Head
A teacher helps students on a laptop

I’m a researcher with Teachers College at Columbia University, specializing in cost analysis in education. A few years ago, we got a call from a large urban public school district looking to identify evidence-based academic practices for its students, as required by ESSA to increase student achievement.

The problem, as the district’s administrators explained to us, was that it was hard to establish which practices have already been studied and, even if found effective elsewhere, whether they’ll be effective for their particular students. Well-known repositories of education research like What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) and Evidence for ESSA (E4E) profile some interventions, but there are far more programs and practices used in schools than these platforms have had a chance to review.

That doesn’t necessarily mean these unevaluated programs are ineffective. It just means they either haven’t been rigorously studied yet, or they have, but haven’t yet been reviewed by the WWC or E4E.

Meeting ESSA evidence requirements

Education decision-makers who are trying to meet ESSA evidence requirements have three options. They can choose from among the few already-evaluated options in readily accessible repositories, spend time searching the internet for high-quality studies of interventions that haven’t yet been included in these approved lists, or use unstudied but promising strategies and evaluate them as they are implemented.

This wasn’t the first time we had heard this frustration from school and district decision-makers. We regularly get questions like: What are reliable sources of evidence-based practices? Where can I find more programs than those reviewed by the What Works Clearinghouse or Evidence for ESSA? How do we assess the rigor of studies we find?  How can we judge whether a program will work in our context?

In this case, I have a personal stake in the matter. In addition to being on the research team, I work as an independent educator. As an educator, I share the decision-making responsibilities of other administrators to maximize student academic achievement.

A former New York City public school teacher, I’m now in a leadership role where I search for effective instructional programs and practices. While not bound by the ESSA requirements, I still use them to guide my work, and I often struggle with the same questions as our collaborators.

Teacher’s College has been actively building a tool to help me, my students and other decision-makers in their efforts to align with ESSA requirements.

Free resource of research-based practices

The Master Evidence Repository (MER) is a free, online resource in the form of a Google sheet that summarizes the research base for a variety of programs and practices used in the schools and districts we work with.

We started by searching for studies in the WWC and E4E, but we also review studies from the Education Endowment Foundation and ERIC. Two of the tabs, Evidence summary A-Z and Evidence summary by level of evidence, list educational practices and a single phrase summarizing whether we found positive, mostly positive, mixed, negative, no evidence of effectiveness, or no studies at all. Notice that ratings for a practice may differ at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

The next three tabs – Math Programs, Reading Programs, Behavior Programs –  are each split into two sections:

The Program Descriptors section offers details on program objectives, costs, targeted student population and other criteria that help decision-makers match their needs to the program's offering.
The Evidence of Effectiveness section includes research from the four repositories already mentioned, plus our university’s library, Google Scholar, vendor websites and the open internet.

We don't have as many of these completed because it takes a long time to find all the information. The repository also has sorting and filtering features, so users can find options that meet their specific needs and contexts.

An example of MER in action

I have used the MER to benefit my own teaching. For example, I use Reading A-Z  as a literacy program because it has leveled books, scaffolded text complexity and diverse topics for thematic support. The problem, as evidenced by the MER, is that there isn’t any rigorous research supporting the effectiveness of Reading A-Z.

But in teaching, materials are implemented via practices, which are also studied for evidence of effectiveness. Therefore, I have been able to search the MER for effective practices with which to implement the Reading A-Z materials.

Written text comprehension is key to students becoming independent readers. So I searched the MER for teaching practices meeting this objective and found that teaching academic vocabulary knowledge – or knowledge of words common to writing and activities across content areas is an effective way to bolster comprehension. Given the evidence base, using the Reading A-Z materials to implement academic vocabulary knowledge is a winning strategy for my students.

The MER is always growing. We are constantly adding programs and practices that are in current use by real schools and districts in an effort to help education decision-makers make wise choices for their students. If you have questions or suggestions for items to add, feel free to contact us.

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Laura Head is a researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she studies evidence-based practices and cost analysis in education. She is also the founder of Heads Up Learning, where she provides school support and enrichment for English and French learners. Previously, Laura spent four years teaching in a bilingual classroom in a New York City public school. Laura holds her M.A. in Education Policy and B.S. in Special and Inclusive Education. 

Fiona Hollands, a senior researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University, contributed to this article. Fiona studies decision-making in education and develops tools and resources, such as DecisionMaker and the Relevance and Credibility Indices to help educators evaluate and select effective strategies to suit their particular contexts. She taught high school math briefly before moving to academia. She holds a bachelor's degree in pure and applied biology; an M.A. in Sociology and Education and a Ph.D. in Politics and Education.