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Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): The Key to Successful Schools

Studies have shown that positive school climates narrow achievement gaps between marginalized and non-marginalized groups through awareness campaigns, improved programs and better funding.

Posted by Katie Yahnke on May 27th, 2019

The Washington Post found that more than 200,000 students have been impacted by gun violence in schools since the Columbine shooting in 1999. Many recent studies have confirmed that students who feel unsafe at school experience more symptoms of depression, attend school less, receive lower grades and have a harder time graduating.

So for the children who have been affected by violence, either directly or indirectly, the nation’s schools are failing to provide them with a quality education.

Since its signing in December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the main law overseeing the quality and efficacy of K-12 public schools. Unlike its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, ESSA looks past grades as proof of quality education. In addition to academics, ESSA improves health, safety and support in schools to improve overall success.

This article will explore the scientifically-proven link between positive school climates and improved student outcomes. Then, we’ll explore how to leverage ESSA’s funding streams and data-collection requirements to improve school quality and student success.

The other key to successful schools: case management software. We explain why in this eBook.

How Does ESSA Differ from NCLB?

The No Child Left Behind act focused primarily on testing scores and academic progress. Policy-makers and school officials discovered that the emphasis on testing and academic milestones caused health and physical education to suffer.

In response, ESSA has shifted the focus to overall student wellbeing. ESSA recognizes social and emotional progress as a sign of success and recognizes the idea of a “well-rounded education” instead of successes in core academic subjects.

Also, under ESSA, each state gets to decide on individual education plans for their schools and districts. The plan outlines how schools must classify and determine student achievement, particularly of disadvantaged students (those living in poverty, with special learning needs or with limited English).

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ESSA Education Plan Requirements
  1. Outline general academic standards for all students, including information about coursework.
  2. Include details about annual testing. These guidelines must outline the frequency of testing and information about student accommodations.
  3. Explain school accountability. In other words, the plan must decide and explain how schools should measure success. Four measurements (academic achievement, academic progress, English language proficiency and high school graduation rates) are mandatory. States can then choose a fifth measure from a list of options that are not tied to academic test scores.
  4. Create goals for academic achievement, including statewide goals to determine whether students are improving or not.
  5. Plans for supporting and improving low-performing schools. This includes a plan for how states will identify and support struggling schools.
  6. Develop state and local report cards. Each state and district must publish report cards with test score results, graduation rates, funding details, teacher qualifications and a few other measures associated with school climate.

What Changes Will Schools See?

Most schools would have begun seeing changes in the 2017-18 school year. According to the U.S. Department of Education website, ESSA claims that it will:

  • Advance equity by upholding critical protections for the disadvantaged
  • Require that all students be taught to high academic standards
  • Share data collected through annual assessments measuring progress
  • Help to support local innovations
  • Expand investments in increasing access to high-quality preschool
  • Maintain action to effect positive change in our lowest-performing schools

Increased federal funding is another big change that will improve school and student success. Districts will see sustained funding for academic programs but will see new funding streams for programs that support a well-rounded education, such as mental and physical health initiatives. Districts will also see new funding to implement key elements of comprehensive school safety. Most funding comes from Title I, II and IV.


Title I

Title I of ESSA focuses on providing a fair, equal, high-quality education that closes learning gaps between groups. These funds can go toward mentoring or counseling programs and initiatives to improve school climate.


Title II

Title II seeks to improve education by providing funding for the personal development of staff and teachers. This funding can go toward training about drug and alcohol abuse, persistent absenteeism, peer relationships and more.


Title IV

Title IV will have the biggest impact on improving school safety. Titled the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant, this section focuses on three areas: well-rounded educational activities, safe and healthy students and effective use of technology.

Not sure the best way to improve safety? Download our K-12 School Safety Cheat Sheet, it highlights the eight most effective strategies to improve school safety.

Funding can go toward a number of activities including creating crisis response teams, scaling up mental health services, violence prevention initiatives, mental health training for teachers, promoting a positive school climate, anti-bullying and anti-harassment programs, dropout prevention and more.

Case Studies

Many studies have proven that student mental and physical health is a major influence on academic success and an important component of a student’s overall wellbeing. With the creation of policies like ESSA, the government is acknowledging this link and creating opportunities and funding for school boards and districts to acknowledge it too.

Here are a few examples of school boards across the nation that have begun incorporating health and safety initiatives in their improvement plans.



Responses to an online survey conducted by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) showed a clear desire for more services that support safe school climates and students with mental health concerns.

The survey’s results are not surprising because they confirm what society already knows about student support and safety as factors of success. The online survey paired with more funding for these types of initiatives will help the TEA improve the academic outcomes of students by promoting a safer and more supportive school climate.



The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) began collecting relevant health and wellness data in 2013. With this data, school districts have been able to uncover challenges, identify student needs, secure grant funding and implement evidence-based programs.

For example, by adding questions about sexual orientation to student surveys, the CDE was able to determine that LGBTQ+ students were much more likely to abuse substances. With this information, the CDE can make districts aware of this link so they can respond appropriately.


Other Examples

Connecticut has also committed to collecting data relating to bullying and suspensions to have a better understanding of school safety and overall climate.

Kentucky, in response to ESSA’s provisions, has launched a tool that provides early warning data in real-time by predicting which students are most at risk of dropping out based on factors such as attendance and behavior.

ESSA is Scientifically Backed

ESSA was developed based on the scientifically proven link between positive school climates and a host of desirable student outcomes, including decreased absenteeism, suspension rates and substance abuse.

The act seeks to recreate former studies that have shown that positive school climates narrow achievement gaps between marginalized groups through awareness campaigns, improved programs and better funding. Other methods and their benefits include:

  • A combination of physical and psychological safety measures enhances school climate and fosters better relations
  • More access to better mental health services directly improves students’ physical and psychological safety
  • Employing positive discipline practices directly leads to positive behavior and supports an environment based on respect
  • Better trained and educated staff are able to provide superior support and care to their students, particularly those who are struggling

How to Make Serious Change with ESSA

There are many ways that states and their school districts can build on existing school safety efforts by leveraging opportunities in ESSA.


Leverage Funding

First, the accessibility of various funding streams makes it possible for schools to allocate additional resources toward services and programs

For example, more money means schools can implement more comprehensive mental and physical health services, raise awareness about health-related policies, develop crisis response teams, provide professional development opportunities for teachers and staff and more.

Or, raise awareness for free with this downloadable anti-bullying poster.


Collect Data, Turn it into Information

Second, school districts are now required to collect data regarding school safety for use in their education plans. This requirement (and incentive) to collect individual school data will be far more beneficial than using generalized, nation-wide data that might not share the same risks or characteristics of a particular school.

Upon analyzing collected data, schools will be able to implement evidence-based policies or hire specialized support personnel to support underprivileged groups of students. Evidence-based responses are far more effective and cost-friendly than the blanketed approach because they strategically target the problem areas.


Embrace the New View

Third, ESSA’s focus on a “well-rounded education” will influence the way that school officials, students, teachers, parents and the surrounding community understand success.

ESSA recognizes that outside-the-classroom challenges directly affect academic success inside the classroom. With this understanding, it will become easier for everyone in the student’s life to understand their roles and work together to create a safer, more stable support system for students.

Katie Yahnke
Katie Yahnke

Marketing Writer

Katie is a former marketing writer at i-Sight. She writes on topics that range from fraud, corporate security and workplace investigations to corporate culture, ethics and compliance.

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