Understanding Evidence-Based Practice Requirements for Special Education Stimulus Funding

October 1, 2021

The American Rescue Plan (ARP) has made $123 billion available to schools under the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, and school districts are now eagerly applying for these funds. A significant portion of this funding must be spent on interventions that are evidence-based.

  • Districts must spend at least 20% of their money to address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions.
  • States must reserve a portion of the funding they receive for evidence-based interventions.
    • 5% for evidence-based interventions that address learning loss
    • 1% for evidence-based interventions for summer enrichment programs
    • 1% for evidence-based for comprehensive after-school programs

To take full advantage of stimulus education funding, it’s important to understand what the evidence-based requirement entails.

Defining Evidence-Based Practice for Special Education

In defining “evidence-based,” the ARP uses a four-tier system set forth under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The top three tiers require that an intervention, program, or activity demonstrate a statistically significant effect on outcomes, based on at least one study.

Differences in these top three tiers have to do with study design.

  • Tier 1, at the highest level, requires strong evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented experimental study.
  • Tier 2 requires moderate evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented quasi-experimental study.
  • Tier 3 requires promising evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented correlational study with statistical controls for selection bias.

Tier 4, at the lowest level of evidence, requires that an intervention, program, or activity must simply “demonstrate a rationale,” which means there doesn’t need to be a study to demonstrate effectiveness.

For resources on finding evidence-based programs and interventions, check out our article, “A Framework for Identifying Programs & Interventions for Special Education.

Evidence-Based Requirements for ARP ESSER III

For the first two ESSER funds, programs had to meet the evidence-based requirements of the first three tiers. However, policymakers recognize that the pandemic has presented educators with a unique situation in which greater flexibility is needed. Therefore, they are allowing, without prejudice, interventions that meet the lowest Tier 4 standard.

According to a guidance issued in May by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), “Given the novel context created by the COVID-19 pandemic, an activity need not have generated such evidence during the COVID-19 pandemic to be considered evidence-based.”

At the Tier 4 level, an activity or intervention must simply present a rationale based on high-quality research findings or positive evaluation that such activity, strategy, or intervention is likely to improve student outcomes or other relevant outcomes and includes ongoing efforts to examine the effects of such activity, strategy, or intervention.

Making a Strong Case for a Tier 4 Evidence-Based Practice

Based on the DOE guidance, it is important to present strong reasoning for how the intervention, if successful, would improve outcomes. This reasoning must be “based on high-quality research findings or positive evaluation.” Such research findings do not need to meet the study design requirements of Tiers 1-3, but can come from other types of research or reflect a consensus view. DOE’s What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) is a useful resource that reviews the existing research on different programs, products, practices, and policies in education to assist educators in making evidence-based decisions.

One effective way to present a rationale is with a logic model, a graphic depiction that shows the relationships among resources, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impact for your program’s activities and its intended effects. The Regional Educational Laboratory Program offers useful resources for creating a logic model.

As noted above, the rationale must also include a description of “ongoing efforts to examine the effects of such activity, strategy, or intervention.” Obviously, it’s important to evaluate any new program you decide to introduce. Doing so will help you determine whether the program or intervention is providing the expected benefit, or if you need to reassess it. Additionally, it will help build up an evidence base for that program.

Conclusion: Making the ESSER III Evidence-Based Practice Requirements Work for You

In applying for ESSER III funding, there is no reason for educators to be intimidated by the evidence-based requirement. The bar has been deliberately set at a reasonable level to allow for flexibility. You can propose a program or intervention even if there are no studies to support it, as long as you are able to present a convincing rationale. Policymakers have designed the law to allow and encourage state and local education agencies to be bold and creative in putting forth their own ideas about what will work best, based upon local needs.

Needless to say, you should also look closely at interventions that are supported by research. In cases backed by more than one study, if one study is positive and the rest are negative, perhaps that isn’t the best program to fit your needs, even though it would qualify as evidence-based. Also, keep in mind that the relevance of the evidence (specifically the setting and/or population) may predict how well an intervention will work. Local capacity (such as available funding, staff resources, staff skills, and support for interventions) can also help predict the success of an intervention.

The funding provided under ESSER III offers an excellent opportunity to boost your special education programs beyond the pre-pandemic status quo. For more information on ESSER and other funds, evidence-based requirements, and the state of special education, check out our free, on-demand webinar, “A Watershed Moment for Special Ed.” You can also read our articles, “Federal Funding Sources for K-12 Special Education Programs” and “ESSER and IDEA Stimulus Funding for Special Education.”