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Research Questions

  1. What is the evidence that school leadership matters for school improvement?
  2. What school leadership–improvement activities are supported under ESSA?
  3. How are the ESSA evidence tiers defined, how does current guidance clarify these tiers, and what further guidance might improve the use of these evidence tiers for education decisionmaking?
  4. What is the evidence of effects of school leadership–improvement activities, as judged against the ESSA evidence tiers?

This report was updated in January 2017 to include Appendix C and again in December 2017 to include Appendix D. The reauthorization of the U.S. Elementary and Secondary Education Act, referred to as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), emphasizes evidence-based initiatives while providing new flexibilities to states and districts with regard to the use of federal funds, including funds to promote effective school leadership. This report describes the opportunities for supporting school leadership under ESSA, discusses the standards of evidence under ESSA, and synthesizes the research base with respect to those standards. The information can guide federal, state, and district education policymakers on the use of research-based school leadership interventions; help them identify examples of improvement activities that should be allowable under ESSA; and support the rollout of such interventions. This report updates an earlier version and incorporates nonregulatory guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, analysis of tier IV evidence, and reviews of additional studies.

Key Findings

School Leadership Can Be a Powerful Driver of Improved Education Outcomes

  • Activities designed to improve school leadership demonstrate positive impact on student, teacher, and principal outcomes, based on research that is consistent with ESSA evidence tiers.
  • ESSA expands opportunities for states and districts to use federal funding for initiatives that strive to improve the quality of school leaders.

ESSA's Evidence Tiers Provide a Framework for Using Evidence in School Leadership Policy and Practice, as Well as Flexibility for States to Tailor to Context

  • ESSA's framework with tiers of evidence, coupled with the U.S. Department of Education's nonregulatory guidance, strongly emphasizes the use of evidence in setting direction for improving school leadership and prioritizes more-rigorous evidence.
  • Unlike prior legislation and policy, ESSA also provides avenues to consider and build the evidence base for new and underresearched interventions.
  • ESSA provides some flexibility for states to interpret and apply evidence requirements.


  • Administrators should take advantage of ESSA's increased opportunities for states and districts to use federal funding for initiatives that strive to improve the quality of school leaders.
  • Administrators now have the opportunity to receive funding for implementing new and innovative school leadership interventions while building the evidence base for the interventions.
  • Educators may wish to seek guidance in adapting evidence-based interventions to local context.
  • State and local decisionmakers should support initiatives that have a theory of action grounded solidly in research and that have the potential for more-rigorous validation.
  • Policymakers should exclude particularly weak evidence, such as anecdotes, from consideration regarding what qualifies as appropriate evidence.
  • Policymakers should share information about school leader behaviors that are associated with positive outcomes, which will better guide the selection or development of interventions that aim to improve these behaviors.
  • Policymakers should provide technical assistance to states to determine the evidence on activities under consideration.

This research has been conducted in RAND Education, a division of the RAND Corporation, with grant funding from The Wallace Foundation.

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