Once upon a time, there was a football player named EDGAR. His team was in the state championship. It was the fourth quarter, and they were down by seven points. But just as time ran out, EDGAR ran around the opposing line and scored a touchdown.
EDGAR’s coach now had a dilemma. Should he try a safe kick for one point, putting the game into overtime, or go for a much more difficult two-point conversion, one chance to score from the five-yard line?
Evidence-based reform faces a similar dilemma. The U.S. Department of Education proposed several months ago some additions to EDGAR, not a football player but a stultifyingly boring doorstopper of a book of regulations for grants and contracts. These new regulations, as I noted in an earlier blog, are really exciting, at least to evidence wonks. They define four levels of evidence for educational programs: Strong evidence of effectiveness, moderate evidence of effectiveness, evidence of promise, and strong-theory. These definitions are similar to those used in Investing in Innovation (i3) to qualify proposals for scale-up (strong), validation (moderate), or development grants (evidence of promise or strong theory).
Here’s where the two-point conversion comes in. Readers of this blog may recall that I have long advocated the provision of, say, two competitive preference points in discretionary grants for proposals promising to use proven programs when such programs are available. The idea is that two points on a scale of 100 would greatly increase the interest of grant writers in proven programs without heavy handedly requiring their use. No grant writer ignores two points, but school leaders may have good reasons to prefer programs that have not yet been successfully evaluated. In those cases, the schools would be free to forego the competitive preference points. Still, the two points would telegraph the government’s support for the use of proven programs without undermining local control. Requests for proposals routinely include competitive preference points for criteria a lot less important than whether the program schools are proposing to use have been proven to work. Why not provide at least this much encouragement for potential innovators, at no additional cost to the government?
Offering two points for proposing to use proven programs would bring about a major conversion of education reform. It would focus attention on the evidence and make school and district leaders aware that effective options are available to them and are ok, even encouraged, by the powers that be.
As in my fictitious football game, it’s EDGAR who sets up the two-point conversion. The new definitions in EDGAR make it relatively easy for the Department of Education to put competitive preference points or other encouragements for use of proven programs into requests for proposals. EDGARS’s end run does not win the game, but it creates a condition in which the game can be won – by a two point conversion.