Can Educational Innovations Go To National Scale?


In conversations about evidence-based reform, I often hear the objection that “we don’t really know how to take proven innovations to scale” or that “in order for schools or districts to adopt innovations, they must have a central role in creating and disseminating them locally.”

These assumptions turn out to be false. There are in fact many instances in which programs not developed by the educators using them have been widely and enthusiastically adopted by schools all over the U.S.

National Diffusion Network (NDN)
First, there was the National Diffusion Network (NDN). In 1979-1996, NDN invited program developers of all kinds to be reviewed by a Joint Dissemination Review Panel, which certified the program’s effects, likelihood of going to scale, and practical utility.

The program made “developer-dissemination” grants (at about $25,000 per year) to developers of promising programs. State facilitators were established in each state to promote the use of the appropriate programs. By the end of the NDN funding, thousands of schools were using one of more than 500 programs.

Comprehensive School Reform (CSR)
Beginning in 1991, a coalition of large corporations established New American Schools (NAS) to help fund innovators to create comprehensive whole-school reform models. Out of 700 applications, 11 were initially selected, and 7 of these were maintained after initial testing. These models began to be used in hundreds of school collectively. NAS helped identify target districts in which they held “effective methods fairs.” Hundreds of principals, teachers, and school board members came to learn about the models. They could ask representatives of one or more models to present at their schools. They then had a chance to contract with the models they chose. Starting in 1998, the Obey-Porter Act in Congress established incentive funding of at least $50,000 per year for three years for schools to implement comprehensive school reforms of their choice. This caused an outpouring of interest both in the NAS models and in others that were assembled to resemble NAS models. Within a few years, there were more than 2500 Title I schools receiving CSR funding and another 3500 schools adopting these models without CSR funding, mostly using existing Title I funds.

Evaluations of the CSR models began in the 1990s and continued into the early 2000s. They found consistent positive effects for some of the programs, especially the Comer School Development Program, America’s Choice, Modern Red Schoolhouse, and our Success for All program. Obey-Porter funding ended in 2003, but many of the school programs continued without Obey-Porter for many years, up to the present.

Investing in Innovation (i3)
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 brought in an administration eager to expand the use of research-proven programs in education and other fields. In a program called Investing in Innovation (i3), $650 million was set aside to fund educational programs in one of three categories: scale-up, validation, or development. To qualify for scale-up grants, programs had to have strong, positive, replicated outcomes in rigorous evaluations. Validation required a single positive study, and development grants only required a strong theory of action. Scale-up grantees received $50 million over five years to evaluate and scale-up their reforms, while validation projects received $30 million and development projects $5 million. A total of 47 programs, including 4 scale-up projects (Success for All, Reading Recovery, KIPP, and Teach for America) received funding in the first round. In years after the first, annual i3 funding was dropped to $150 million, and grants in each category were cut in half. After four rounds of funding, 77 development, 35 validation, and 5 scale-up projects have been funded. It is too early to say how these grants will work, but scale-up and validation projects are working in hundreds of additional schools under i3 funding and are developing capacity to do more. All of the programs will be rigorously evaluated by third-party evaluators.

NDN, CSR, and i3 have established beyond any doubt that:

1. With encouragement and modest funding, thousands of schools will eagerly adopt research-based programs.
2. Organizations willing and able to support school adoptions nationally will come forward and operate effectively if government helps schools with initial funding barriers.
3. Many whole-school reform models have developed strong evidence of effectiveness, but a strong evidence base without government encouragement and incentives does not lead to robust adoptions.
4. The idea that whole-school reforms must be created by the schools that use them has clearly been disproved. Schools are willing and able to adopt proven programs developed elsewhere if they can afford them.

As reforms in federal education programs such as Title ISchool Improvement Grants, and Race to the Top go forward, it makes sense to continue to develop, evaluate, and disseminate whole-school reform models. This approach can expand rapidly while maintaining quality at scale and can improve outcomes for millions of disadvantaged children.


Love and Data


I was recently visiting one of our Success for All schools in the most disadvantaged neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas. The amazing principal, Kathleen St. Clair, was telling me about something she had done to build commitment to the program among her teachers. She asked them to bring in pictures of their own kids, or relatives’ kids. The teachers passed around their photos with all appropriate “oohs” and “ahs” and “awws.” Ms. St. Clair then asked her teachers what kind of a school they wanted for their kids. They described schools where the children would feel cherished, challenged, and respected every day, where they had every chance to succeed and opportunities to be creative, to write well, to read critically. They wanted schools that their kids would be eager to attend, in which they would be active, engaged learners because the work was interesting and worthwhile.

Ms. St. Clair acknowledged that what her teachers described was what all parents want for their children. “Why,” she asked, “why shouldn’t we want the same for the children we teach?”

If you follow this blog, you’ve heard me going on at length about the importance of using high-quality evidence to make consequential decisions for children. I hope nothing I’ve written leads anyone to think that I’m suggesting anything different from what Ms. St. Clair was so powerfully advocating. Love has to come first. A teacher without a passion for children and a belief in what they can accomplish is not likely to make much of a difference even using the most research-proven of programs.

A principal or a school staff should choose proven programs out of love for their children, out of belief in their potential. The evidence matters, but in the sense that choosing and then implementing a proven program should be an indicator of the love and care teachers have for their children. Just as a pediatrician, for example, makes certain to choose research-proven treatments because they have real consequences for the children they serve and care about, so should school leaders and school staffs learn about, choose, and effectively implement proven programs, not because the programs are “in,” not because they want to avoid sanctions in state accountability schemes, not because they are worried about a new teacher evaluation, but because there is strong evidence that they work for kids, and then create the kinds of schools all parents want their children to attend.

We need to pay attention to all the research designs, statistics, and technical details that indicate that programs have been rigorously and successfully evaluated. Because all of those statistics come from the head rather than the heart, some people assume that people who love numbers don’t love children. Yet we don’t show love for children by giving them ineffective or unproven instruction and watching them fail. Love and data must go hand in hand to help all of our children succeed in school and grow to be confident, capable, and caring people themselves.

The next time someone challenges the need for evidence to support educational practice, try showing them pictures of your own children. Try saying, “I want my children to receive the best instructional programs possible, as proven by high-quality evidence. I want this because I love my children and want them to have challenging, exciting, and successful experiences in school, so they can reach their full potential. Isn’t that what you want for your own children? Isn’t that what you want for all children?”

Shanghai Dreams


In the October 23 New York Times, Thomas Friedman once again extols the accomplishments of schools in Shanghai, which (as a city) performed better than any country on the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessments). He reports on a visit to an outstanding school there to find its secret. The secret, he says, is no secret: A relentless focus on teacher training, peer planning among teachers, and 30% of the school day to carry out this planning. The schools have high standards, parents are deeply involved, and the whole culture prizes education and values teachers. Friedman’s point, to his American audience, is of course that if we do not do what Shanghai is doing, China will soon overtake the West economically as it has educationally.

There is both sense and nonsense in Friedman’s argument. It is surely the case that American schools need to improve outcomes for all students, and that this will ultimately affect our economy and our future. I also agree that improving teacher professional development is the best way toward widespread gains in student outcomes.

The nonsense in Friedman’s article is, however, striking. First, glittering Shanghai is extremely unrepresentative of the rest of China. As one indicator, 80% of Shanghai children graduate from high school and go on to postsecondary education, according to my friend Alan Cheung of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The proportion in all of China is 25%. Shanghai has strict rules, designed to control its burgeoning population, that forbid poor families from rural areas from sending their children to school there. Migrant families routinely send their children to stay with their grandparents in their home villages so they can go to school.

The degree to which Shanghai and a few other big cities are not representative of China goes beyond the numbers. Dr. Cheung, in addition to studying education in China, also runs a foundation that delivers free books to schools in rural China. Volunteers deliver the books to the schools on bicycles.

Putting forward Shanghai, and only Shanghai, to represent China on the PISA tests is just a bit misleading. If the U. S. could just put forth Massachusetts, our wealthiest and highest-achieving state, we’d also have scores among the best in the world, as was illustrated in the recent TIMMS testing in math and science.

One reason for their outstanding performance is that students in relatively rich Shanghai routinely spend a lot of their out-of-school time prepping for tests in cram schools. It seems likely that students who spend a substantial time learning how to take tests might also do well on PISA. Further, I have to point out something blindingly obvious. Chinese-American students in the U.S. also do exceptionally well. I once saw statistics indicating that the international test scores of Japanese students in Japan were slightly lower than those of Asian students in the U.S. (this was at a time when the press was in a froth about Japan rather than China).

The idea that China’s educational excellence will soon lead it to overtake the West economically is, well, preposterous. The average gross domestic product per person in China, according to the World Bank, is $9,233 less than Albania, Tunisia, or Ecuador. Perhaps we should start getting concerned when they pass Botswana ($16,321) or Mexico ($16,731), but it will be a long time before they will rival the U.S. ($49,965) or its developed partners. China has been experiencing the rapid growth spurt seen by many countries when their low wages make them attractive for foreign companies, but this form of growth cannot last, as increasing wealth leads to increasing wages, and other poor countries become more attractive. China may someday follow the path from low-wage competitive advantage to higher-wage stability placed by countries such as Japan and Korea, but this would take a very, very long time.

It may well be that the practices typical in Shanghai, and elsewhere in Asia, could benefit American schools, and it’s always useful to look at what other countries do as a source of ideas for the U.S. But it is never wise to jump to the assumption that high-achieving countries, cities, or schools obtained their success due to any particular practices. What is necessary is to take promising ideas from any source and put them to the test in American schools, conduct evaluations (preferably using random assignment) to compare the schools utilizing the new practice to control schools that continue doing what they’ve done in the past, and then, if the new practices work, disseminate them for the benefit of all our schools and students. But we cannot simply assume that a practice that works in one country will automatically work elsewhere.

Because Friedman is a great writer, has a liberal travel budget, and has a regular column in the New York Times, he has the opportunity to tell Americans on a regular basis about all the educational wonders of far-away places. I wish someone had similar resources to tell the stories of home-grown programs of all kinds proven to work in the U.S., which New York Times readers never hear about. You don’t need to go to Shanghai to see outstanding schools obtaining terrific results; if you visit U.S. schools that use proven programs you’ll see that they are obtaining exceptional results with the children and under the circumstances we have in the U.S.