Over a 37-year career in educational research and reform, I’ve always been an advocate for using proven programs and practices to improve schools. In that time, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone opposed to the idea in principle. In the academy, there are those who argue about which research designs and measures should count as evidence of effectiveness, but in the world of education practice and policy, this is not the problem. Instead, educational leaders always have a good reason why, even though they strongly support the idea of evidence-based reform, they can’t do it right now. They complain that the evidence is never clear, and they don’t have the time or expertise to figure out what really works. But mostly, they say it’s just not the right time.
Why is it not the right time? The number one objection, of course, is a lack of money. Another is that there are too few proven programs to choose from right now. Another is that there is an election coming, or one has just taken place, or that some other issue is more important. At the moment, for example, evidence-based reform is on hold because of the upcoming election, because Common Core is coming, because school districts are figuring out what to do with Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind waivers, and value-added assessments of teachers, not to mention the long-delayed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The current continuing resolution prevents progress in Congress, and then there’s the possibility of sequestration. Plus lack of money.
Each of these concerns is legitimate in its own way, but if we really wanted to base educational policy and practice on evidence, we could do it.
In terms of knowing what works, there are now several good guides: The What Works Clearinghouse and our Best Evidence Encyclopedia are good places to begin. Programs that were funded by i3 at the Validation or Scale-Up levels had to show moderate or high levels of evidence, respectively.
In terms of resources to implement proven programs, a bit of zero-based budgeting could readily solve the problem. The average per-pupil cost in the U.S. is more than $10,000 per year. I’m not aware of any whole-school reform model that costs as much as 1.5% of that ($150 per student). Deciding not to replace retiring paraprofessionals, or repurposing Supplemental Education Services (SES) funding no longer required in states with waivers, these costs can be covered without any increases in funding.
Fundamentally, it is only tradition, inertia, and politics that hold back evidence-based reform. Every Title I school in America could be using proven models of their choice within five years, without any doubt. All we need is leadership that recognizes that there is only one time to do the right thing: Right now.