Social Spending Innovation Research


Benjamin Franklin. Eli Whitney. Robert Fulton. Thomas Edison. Orville and Wilbur Wright. Alexander Graham Bell. George Washington Carver. Henry Ford. Jonas Salk. Charles Drew. Virginia Apgar. Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. Temple Grandin.

From its earliest days, innovation has been the lifeblood of the American economy. When Americans face problems, they innovate to find solutions.

In education, we face serious problems, of course, and innovation should be the answer. In recent years, the federal government has aided the development, evaluation, and dissemination of solutions to persistent education problems, and real progress is being made in identifying effective reading, math, science, and other programs for elementary and secondary schools. As argued in a recent paper by Martin West, this competitive funding has been essential in building up a diverse and rigorously evaluated set of programs ready to make a difference in U.S. education.

In order to further accelerate the momentum of innovation in education, some senators and congressmen are proposing a new approach, based on the successful Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which funds innovation and evaluation in 11 different government agencies. The new initiative is called Social Spending Innovation Research (SSIR). The idea of SSIR is to set aside a tiny proportion of funding in each major area of government education funding (except Title I) for the purpose of creating, evaluating, and disseminating proven approaches in that area of funding. For example, money from IDEA (special education) might support innovations in special education. The funding in SSIR would be spent on three categories of research and development:

  1. Development and piloting of promising innovations;
  2. Rigorous evaluation of existing programs; and
  3. Large-scale evaluation and replication of proven programs.

The three-tier structure of SSIR sounds a lot like Investing in Innovation (i3), but there are several important differences worth noting.

  1. Any organization can participate. i3 is limited to non-profits.
  2. Because the funding comes from programs that provide direct services to children, there might be a greater likelihood that proven programs will become part of practice in that area. SSIR, like SBIR, should be seen as innovation to benefit the public, not the researchers.
  3. Because the proportions of total funding are so small (0.5% for evaluation and 1.0% for innovation and research), the funding for SSIR might be supported for a long time, as part and parcel of key education funding rather than as a separate and therefore vulnerable program of its own.

Whatever happens with SSIR, it’s great to see so many promising proposals involving evidence on the table as Congress considers reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.Innovation is how America solves problems. We need to find every way we can to help innovators solve the serious problems we face in education.


Leveraging What Works


In my blog from two weeks ago, I discussed several exciting proposals in President Obama’s recent budget relating to increasing the role of evidence in education policy and practice. Today, I want to say more about one of these proposals, Leveraging What Works (LWW).

Leveraging What Works is deceptively simple. It offers grants totaling $100 million nationwide to school districts willing to use the grant, along with a portion of its formula funds — such as Title I and IDEA — to adopt proven programs that meet the “strong” or “moderate” level of evidence of effectiveness as defined in EDGAR.

Simple though it appears, Leveraging What Works would be revolutionary. Here’s why.

First, the program would generate a huge amount of interest. Winning LWW funding would be sought after avidly not only for the money itself but as a feather in the cap of innovative thought-leader districts. These districts will be eager to win the money and tell their stories. The whole process will create a positive “buzz” around the use of proven programs.

Because of the money and the positive buzz, many more districts will apply for LWW funding than can be funded. Yet having looked at the range of proven programs available to them, many of these districts will choose to adopt proven programs using their formula funding even without the LWW grant. This is exactly what happened with the Obey-Porter Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Act (CSR) of the late 1990’s. Thousands of schools applied for modest grants to help them adopt whole-school models, and each year, hundreds of schools that were turned down for grant funding adopted CSR models anyway, using other funding.

Leveraging What Works could revive the idea that formula funding can be the fuel for innovation rather than just a mainstay of the status quo. Let’s be honest: It’s been a long time since Title I has been considered sexy. LWW could energize Title I advocates and those who want schools to have the freedom to choose what works to improve outcomes for children. Title I needs to move from a compliance mindset to an innovation mindset, and LWW could help make this happen. It could help establish Title I schools as the places where up-and-coming teachers and administrators want to be, because those are the schools that get the first crack at the latest proven innovations.

Leveraging What Works would also energize the world of research and development, and the funders of R&D within and outside government. They would see programs proven in rigorous research being eagerly adopted by schools nationwide, and seeing the clear connection between research, development, and practice, they would redouble their efforts to create and evaluate promising, replicable programs of all kinds.

Until recently, it would have been difficult to justify an initiative like Leveraging What Works, but thanks to Investing in Innovation (i3), IES, NSF, and other funders, the number of proven programs is growing. For example, I recently counted 28 elementary reading approaches, from tutoring to whole-school reform, that should meet the EDGAR standards, and more are qualifying every year. Every one of these is actively disseminating its methods and is ready to grow.

One curious aspect of the Leveraging What Works proposal is that it provides incentives for the use of formula funding to adopt proven programs but does not provide similar incentives for adopting proven programs using competitive grants. When competitive grants are offered to schools, districts, or states, it would be easy to incentivize the use of proven programs by giving preference points to proposals that commit to using them. For example, proposals might get four extra points for choosing a program that meets the EDGAR “strong” definition, and two points for choosing a program meeting the EDGAR “moderate” definition, as I’ve argued before. It may be that this strategy was left out of the budget proposal because it does not really cost anything, so I hope it will be part of the administration’s plans whatever happens with LWW.

The Greek mathematician Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I’ll move the Earth.” Leveraging What Works could be such a lever, a modest investment with potential to make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of children.

Investing in Innovation: Informing Local Control


The new Congress is working on alternative versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, creating a successor to No Child Left Behind. Republican proposals have a strong emphasis on local control, getting the federal government out of what they believe should be local decisions. And in fact, Washington does often go too far in trying to micromanage local schools.

Unfortunately, the Republican bill in the House of Representatives takes out a critical support for local control: Investing in Innovation (i3). i3 funds development, evaluation, and scaling up of proven programs. Philosophically, i3 is a perfect match with local control. It does not prescribe anything but instead draws promising ideas from every source throughout the U.S. and puts them to a rigorous test, and those that are found to be effective in terms of learning outcomes for children are made available nationwide.

What i3 does is to give local educators well-evaluated, immediately usable solutions to the problems they face. No school has to use any particular program, but if they choose to do so, they have reliable information available.

The cost of i3 is minimal as a proportion of federal, state, and local education funding. Yet it already affects thousands of schools across the U.S., bringing forward a wide variety of proven and promising approaches. The innovation, evaluation, and dissemination provided by i3 needs to continue so that local educators can both contribute to and profit from the best programs available.

i3 is not an inside-the-Beltway scheme designed to control what local educators do. It is just the opposite. It gives local educators essential, actionable information and real solutions but no mandates, no requirements.

Research and development to identify effective approaches need to be funded and coordinated at the national level. States and localities are centrally involved in i3, but expecting each to have its own locally funded R & D process would be ineffective and inefficient, because it would duplicate efforts that are needed nationally. Every locality need not invent, evaluate, and disseminate its own approach to algebra or science, just as it would make no sense to have local hospitals use their own funds to do their own research on cures for cancer. i3 funds local innovations, helps hold them to high standards of evaluation, and then helps disseminate them so local districts can focus on using what works rather than on reinventing the wheel.

When President Reagan was first taking office, the Heritage Foundation prepared a brief suggesting all the programs they thought should be returned to state and local control. The main exceptions: research and development. All these years later, this same logic should apply.

Investing in Innovation is broadly supported by educators, researchers, and organizations. A letter signed by 117 organizations representing hundreds of thousands of educators urges continuation of i3. Few proposals for improvement of America’s schools have equal potential at such low cost, and few provide greater support for informed local control of education.


Fund What Works!


President Obama’s recently released budget may or may not make its way into law, but it has already made its way into the hearts of those who believe that government programs must be held to account for producing the outcomes they are intended to produce. Red or blue, everyone should want government dollars to make a difference.

For PK-12 education, evidence appears in a starring role in the president’s proposal. To me, the most exciting innovation in the budget is something called Leveraging What Works. This is a proposal for a competitive grant program in which the U.S. Department of Education would reward school districts that use their existing federal formula funds for activities that have a strong or moderate evidence base as defined in the recent EDGAR changes, a proposal I have advocated on this blog. The total amount requested, $100 million per year, is tiny compared with current expenditures, but it would be a start on the idea that federal dollars should increasingly go to proven programs and practices. Hopefully, this idea would go along with policies encouraging adding preference points to competitive proposals that commit to using proven approaches.

The proposal would add $50 million for School Improvement Grants (SIG) for states to use to encourage school districts to implement proven strategies. If the standards for “proven” are rigorous, this would be another way to use modest funding to spur effective use of much larger existing funding.

The Investing in Innovation (i3) program is showing its value in moving along the pipeline of educational innovations from development to validation to scale-up. The budget would more than double annual funding for this crucial program. It would also double funding for early education research and evaluation and would invest $20 million a year to test strategies to improve transitions from preschool to third grade. It adds $70 million to the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) to test promising solutions to a broad array of problems relating to children and youth.

There is much more in the remarkable budget. I hope our Congress can put aside partisanship and agree on a compelling new direction for government: Fund What Works!