Teachers as Professionals in Evidence-Based Reform


In a February 2012 op-ed in Education Week, Don Peurach wrote about a 14-year investigation he carried out as part of a large University of Michigan study of comprehensive school reform. In the overall study, our Success for All program and the America’s Choice program did very well in terms of both implementation and outcomes, while an approach in which teachers largely made up their own instructional approaches did not bring about much change in teachers’ behaviors or student learning. Because both Success for All and America’s Choice have well-specified training, teacher’s manuals, and student materials, the findings support the idea that it is important for school-wide reform models to have a well-structured approach.

Peurach’s focus was on Success for All as an organization. He wanted to know how our network of hundreds of schools in 40 states contributes to the development of the approach and to each other’s success. His key finding was that Success for All is not a top-down approach, but is constantly learning from its teachers and principals and then spreading good practices throughout the network.

In our way of thinking, this is the very essence of professionalism. A teacher who does wonderful, innovative things in one class is perhaps benefiting 25 children each year, but one whose ideas scale up to inform the practices of hundreds of thousands of schools is making a real difference. Yet in order for teachers’ ideas and impact to be broadly impactful, it helps a great deal for the teachers to be part of a national or regional network that speaks a common language and has common standards of practice.

Teachers need not be researchers to contribute to their profession. By participating in networks of like-minded educators – implementing, continuously improving and communicating about practical approaches intended to improve outcomes of proven approaches – they play an essential role in the improvement of their profession.


Accountability for the Top 95 Percent


Perhaps the most controversial issue in education policy is test-based accountability. Since the 1980s, most states have had tests in reading and math (at least), and have used average school test scores for purposes ranging from praising or embarrassing school staffs to providing financial incentives or closing down low-scoring schools. Test-based accountability became national with NCLB, which required annual testing from grades 3-8, and prescribed sanctions for low-achieving schools. The Obama administration added to this an emphasis on using student test scores as part of teacher evaluations.

The entire test-based accountability movement has paid little attention to evidence. In fact, in 2011, the National Research Council reviewed research on high-stakes accountability and found few benefits.

There’s nothing wrong with testing students and identifying schools in which students appear to be making good or poor progress in comparison to other schools serving students with similar backgrounds, as long as this is just used as information to identify areas of need. What is damaging about accountability is the use of test scores for draconian consequences, such as firing principals and closing schools. The problem is that terror is just not a very good strategy for professional development. Teachers and principals afraid of punishment are more likely to use questionable strategies to raise their scores—teaching the test, reducing time on non-tested subjects, trying to attract higher-achieving kids or get rid of lower performers, not to mention out-and-out cheating. Neither terror nor the hope of rewards does much to fundamentally improve day to day teaching because the vast majority of teachers are already doing their best. There are bad apples, and they need to be rooted out. But you can’t improve the overall learning of America’s children unless you improve daily teaching practices for the top 95% of teachers, the ones who come to work every day, do their best, care about their kids, and go home dead tired.

Improving outcomes for the students of the top 95% requires top-quality, attractive, engaging professional development to help teachers use proven programs and practices. Because people are more likely to take seriously professional development they’ve chosen, teachers should have choices (as a school or department, primarily) of which proven programs they want to adopt and implement.

The toughest accountability should be reserved for the programs themselves, and the organizations that provide them. Teachers and principals should have confidence that if they do adopt a given program and implement it with fidelity and intelligence, it will work. This is best demonstrated in large experiments in which teachers in many schools use innovative programs, and outcomes are compared with similar schools without the programs. They should know that they’ll get enough training and coaching to see that the program will work.

Offering a broad range of proven programs would give local schools and districts
expanded opportunities to make wise choices for their children. Just as evidence in agriculture informs but does not force choices by farmers, evidence in education should enable school leaders to advance children’s learning in a system of choice, not compulsion.

If schools had choices among many proven programs, in all different subjects (tested as well as untested), the landscape of accountability would change. Instead of threatening teachers and principals, government could provide help for schools to adopt programs they want and need. Offering proven programs provides a means of improving outcomes even in untested areas, such as science, social studies, and foreign language. As time goes on, more and better programs with convincing evaluation evidence would appear, because developers and funders would perceive the need for them.

Moving to a focus on evidence-based reform will not solve all of the contentious issues about accountability, but it could help us focus the reform conversation on how to move forward the top 95% of teachers and schools—the ones who teach 95% of our kids—and how to put accountability in proper proportion.

A Bipartisan Proposal for Evidence-Based Policymaking


Just when you thought bipartisanship was a thing of the past, here comes a proposal so sensible, so much in everyone’s interest, and mirabile dictu, it comes from key Republican and Democratic leaders.

Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash), outgoing Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), Chairman of the House Budget Committee, jointly proposed a call for an evidence-based policy commission to be established to propose strategies to help policymakers make informed decisions. The commission would prepare a report on how the federal government could use data more effectively to evaluate outcomes of federal programs and to improve those outcomes.

Among other things, the commission would provide guidance on a “clearinghouse” for program and survey data, and figure out how to get maximum information from existing and new data while maintaining individuals’ privacy rights.

This proposal is hugely important in its own right, but it is also a hopeful sign for the future in two ways. First, it suggests that evidence-based government is not going away, but is likely to grow, whichever party is in control. Second, it demonstrates that on issues not on the front page, Republicans and Democrats committed to good government and wise uses of tax dollars can still work together. And that’s good news!