ESSA and Research Evidence: Opportunities and Challenges for States

ESSA and Research Evidence: Opportunities and Challenges for States
ESSA and Research Evidence: Opportunities and Challenges for States


The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) presents states with unprecedented flexibility over, and responsibility for, the use of research evidence in their policies and practices. The new law places a heightened importance on the use of research evidence as a critical tool for planning, collaborating, decision-making, and continuous improvement. As states begin to think about the implications of this new law, all relevant stakeholders will need to understand the requirements and opportunities under ESSA, as well as the barriers and challenges they may encounter in carrying out these new requirements. In this webinar, teams from three states presented their progress to date in establishing systemic use of research evidence, their ultimate goals, successful strategies, and the challenges and roadblocks they have faced.

Presenter Biographies

Carrie Conaway is the chief strategy and planning officer for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, with over 15 years of experience in improving systems through evidence. She leads the agency’s Office of Planning and Research, which helps the state and districts implement effective policy and programs and make effective resource use decisions to improve student outcomes. She has served as the agency’s principal investigator on numerous evaluations of state education programs and policy and has published two peer-reviewed articles on connecting research to practice. She led the development of the state’s top-scoring, $250 million Race to the Top proposal and managed its implementation, as well as winning several other grants to support state research, evaluation, and data use initiatives. Her team also manages the agency’s strategic planning and implementation process and builds tools that help districts benchmark their performance and deploy their resources more effectively.

Rita Fentress is the director of School Improvement at the Tennessee Department of Education. Her work in the department’s Division of Consolidated Planning and Monitoring (CPM) targets support for the state’s Priority schools, the bottom 5% of all schools academically and Focus schools, the 10% of schools with the largest achievement gaps between groups of students. Ms. Fentress has worked with the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) and Innovation Zones (iZones) in the state’s four large urban districts since their inception in 2012.


Venessa Keesler is the Deputy Superintendent of the Division of Educator, Student, and School Supports at the Michigan Department of Education (MDE).  The division includes offices and programs that oversee standards and assessments, teacher certification, business operations, systems integration, field services, education improvement and innovation, educator talent, and accountability.  Venessa previously served as Director of the Office of Evaluation, Strategic Research, and Accountability at the MDE and as a classroom teacher in Massachusetts, teaching seventh-grade social studies.  Venessa holds a Bachelor’s degree in sociology from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in measurement and quantitative methods from Michigan State University.

Karen Ruple is the manager of the MI Excel Statewide System of Support (SSoS) for Michigan Department of Education (MDE).  She was involved in the redesign of the SSoS in response to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) flexibility waiver and is currently on several action teams that are creating the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reauthorization of ESEA criteria for Michigan. Previously, she was a School Improvement Consultant at Kent ISD.    She has taught at all grades K through 8th.  Karen completed her undergraduate and graduate work at Western Michigan University and Michigan State University.

Nathaniel Schwartz is the Chief Research and Strategy Officer for the Tennessee Department of Education. In this role, he oversees the agency’s work around research and data analysis, partnerships, and strategic planning. He holds a Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of Michigan and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. He previously taught high school science in Illinois and Arkansas.



Martin West is associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and editor-in-chief of Education Next, a journal of opinion and research on education policy. He is also deputy director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard’s Kennedy School. West studies the politics of education and how education policies affect student learning and non-tested skills. In 2013-14, West worked as senior advisor to the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. He previously taught at Brown University and was a research fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, and he is a founding board member of Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, an organization helping educators open socioeconomically diverse public charter schools in partnership with mayors.




The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.