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How implementing a "Continuous Improvement ROI" model can help districts maximize ESSER outcomes

With only two years left of ESSER funding, it’s critical that districts evaluate the success of their investments so far and adjust their strategy to make the most of the remaining time.

Key highlights:

  • “Continuous Improvement ROI” is a way to assess and improve the use of ESSER funds even now—when the implementation is in an early stage.
  • Traditional ROI approaches in education evaluate longer-term programs through the outcomes they achieve—a gold-standard that doesn’t mesh well with ESSER’s shorter timeline.
  • To make the most of ESSER dollars, districts should focus on Continuous Improvement ROI.
  • There are four critical ways to make Continuous Improvement ROI successful:
    • Get clear on the theory of action for the investment upfront, including projecting the cost per unit of expected impact
    • Focus on tracking research-based leading indicators alongside overall costs
    • Ensure clear and transparent communication between central office and school leadership when it comes to data and decision-making 
    • Build in time for ongoing engagement and collaborative problem-solving throughout the process.
Continuous Improvement ROI
uses research-based leading
indicators and implementation
metrics to scale (or change)
early-stage investments in order
to maximize student outcomes
per dollar invested. 

How can districts ensure their ESSER investments maximize equitable and productive outcomes, especially when the spending timeline and system capacity is limited? 

It’s a big question, and one that we’re working alongside districts across the country to answer.  Luckily, effective ESSER stewardship isn’t about having nailed it right off the bat. (After all, what district perfectly allocated all of its ESSER funds into precisely the right areas to maximize outcomes on its first try?) Rather, districts can drive the most value through their ESSER investments by deliberately creating opportunities for reflection, analysis, and strategic pivots to continuously improve along the way.

"Districts that will make the most of their ESSER opportunity are not the ones with the best
initial plans, but the ones that improve their ESSER investments most over time"
 Jonathan Travers, ERS Managing Partner


In a perfect world, we'd be able to use student outcomes to measure the return on investment (ROI) of ESSER spending to help decide where and how to adjust our approach. But unfortunately, we don't have that kind of time. It can take years for formal program evaluation to trace and measure the impact of programs on student achievement, and as we all know, ESSER funds must be obligated by September 2024. Furthermore, if education leaders want to be able to make a compelling case for the continued public investment in education beyond ESSER, we need to be able to demonstrate measurable progress soon.

That's why we incorporated lessons and research from across the field for this "Continuous Improvement ROI" approach: to help districts more quickly assess and iterate on their ESSER initiatives to maximize the potential for long-term student success with the fewest dollars. (And, of course, while continuous improvement is particularly valuable when it comes to ESSER, it's a great approach to districts to use for investments in general. Learn about how Dallas ISD used a continuous improvement approach, including measuring a series of Continuous Improvement metrics, to help launch and iterate on its extended learning strategy this year.)

Evolving beyond traditional ROI to Continuous Improvement ROI 

Most educational systems use a traditional approach to ROI, which evaluates existing programs through the outcomes they achieve—for instance, tying changes in proficiency rates in standardized testing to specific investments. There are a few limitations to this approach, which become exacerbated by ESSER’s shortened timeline. 

  • Traditional ROI requires a longer time frame. Because this ROI looks at outcomes, programs often run for years before their performance can be analyzed and evaluated—losing valuable time for improvement and impact. 
  • It’s difficult to pinpoint specific drivers of impact. When analysis focuses solely on outcomes, it’s nearly impossible to isolate these in a way that ties impact to a specific intervention, activity, or support. (And where you can pinpoint drivers of impact, it’s typically a very small and targeted investment.) 

Making the most of ESSER requires districts to move quickly and invest in smart, specific ways. We cannot wait for “traditional” outcomes data to evaluate whether we should scale or change early-stage investments to maximize future outcomes. 

That’s why Continuous Improvement ROI is the right approach. By looking at the quality of implementation and the leading indicators associated with the specific investment—alongside the budgeted and actual costs to date—districts can scale or change early-stage investments in real-time in order to maximize the student impact for each dollar invested.

Iterating through a Continuous Improvement ROI approach 

In order for Continuous Improvement ROI to be successful, district leaders need to first align on and clearly define their theory of action: what they’re investing in and why, and what pieces of the puzzle need to go together to bring that to life. Then, leaders can define how to best measure the implementation of the investment. 

For example, a district implementing a tutoring program could measure student attendance across demographic groups to see how actual participation differs from planned. District leaders can ask themselves: Are we seeing the kind of uptake in the program that we expected? Are we reaching the students, teachers, and schools we intended from an equity perspective? What’s our actual cost per unit served? This process gives leaders a valuable opportunity to quickly identify potential gaps between the early performance and the expected results, and pivot investment areas as needed. 

Another key measurement to consider is leading indicators of longer-term impact, an alternative to full outcomes. These should be grounded in what research shows are strong indicators of future success, benchmarks that are correlated with positive student outcomes.  

“Continuous Improvement ROI is a core piece of our strategic plan;
it’s a really core piece of our instructional vision; and I think
it's going to be a big bet for
us well beyond ESSER.”
Hartford Public Schools 

For example, a district implementing intersession during vacation weeks will be unable to calculate traditional ROI metrics in real time—but it can test what percent of participating students can correctly explain what they are learning. This is important because research shows a correlation between this “leading indicator” and changes in student outcomes. Similar to implementation, if the chosen leading indicators are not promising, districts can pause and evaluate how to adjust their strategy to improve outcomes—saving precious time and money that would have been lost waiting for a traditional ROI approach. 

Four Steps to a Successful Continuous Improvement ROI Approach

There are four ways that district leaders can enable a successful Continuous Improvement ROI approach.

  1. Get clear on the district’s theory of action for "big bet” investments. Think about and quantify the largest or most important ESSER investments. What are all the steps that must happen for the investment to result in its desired impact? How much are we projecting to spend per unit of expected impact? Laying this out explicitly helps drive implementation decisions and identify leading indicators of early success that can be measured in the short term. 
  2. Focus on tracking research-based leading indicators of key ESSER investments alongside overall costs. Not all leading indicators are created equal, so districts should focus on those that are directly connected to their theory of action and grounded in what research shows improved student outcomes. It’s important to find the bright spots: Even if an investment isn’t happening across the system, find where it is happening as designed to see what you can learn from it. Then, you can apply those learnings to inform the overall system approach. 
  3. Ensure clear and transparent conversations between central office and school leadership when it comes to data and decision-making. Focus on including the right people, engaged with the right data, in a collaborative process to answer the right questions around implementation decisions and progress. For example, leaders can foreshadow ROI early on by giving collaborators visibility into cost per unit of actual service delivery. Discussing the variance between planned and actual cost per unit, as well as any variance across school sites, can lead to great insight about improvement opportunities.
  4. Build in time for ongoing engagement and collaborative problem-solving throughout the process. Engaging school leaders and other critical stakeholders in the process and purpose of this Continuous Improvement ROI work is just as important as the data collected. 

For districts struggling to analyze the impact of their ESSER investments, a Continuous Improvement ROI approach might be the best path forward. Evaluating implementation and research-based leading indicators, rather than waiting for complete outcomes, can enable leaders to make strategic, real-time decisions around investments—making the most of every ESSER dollar and laying the foundation for better student outcomes.


Want to learn more about Continuous Improvement ROI? See our Concept Explainer video:

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