Governing From the Outside In and Back Out Again


“If a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take it from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the highest return.” – Benjamin Franklin

“We have a saying in Congress, when decisions are being made: ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’” – Senator Tom Harkin

When it comes to innovation, federal government bureaucrats usually do not sit around in their offices coming up with lots of brilliant and not-so-brilliant ideas. The majority of innovative ideas seized upon by the government originate elsewhere: a small program run by a local community leader; a researcher at a state university; or an engineer in a private sector company. Yet few of these people or programs, if left to their own devices, have the knowledge to conduct a moderately sized RCT or quasi-experimental study to determine the effectiveness of the program, much less any incentive or funding to do so. If told to go big or go home, most would never make it out the front door. Most of these people would be content to remain in their backyards running a program based on anecdotal evidence of accomplishment in their local community. No collaboration, no learning from other people’s mistakes, and no benefiting from other communities’ successes. Their ideas may be terrific, but local educators are not likely to evaluate or disseminate their ideas nationally.

The Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Resolution released by the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives this week asserts that the federal government works to “smother” and “stifle” innovation. It claims instead that this budget “promotes innovation” and reduces “ineffective” and “duplicative” programs. One of the ways it does this is by putting policy decisions in the hands of states and localities, which it states will lead to more “choices and opportunities for Americans.” Unfortunately, this is contrary to the intended result. States and localities do not have the capability to expand innovative ideas and disseminate the results the way the federal government can. Moreover, this would lead to greater duplication of efforts. As I’ve stated before, states do not do their own cancer research or defense technology research because it would be inefficient and uneconomical. The same is true for other areas of research and development.

Also released this week was a bipartisan paper entitled Moneyball for Education written by Frederick Hess and Bethany Little. In this paper, Hess and Little find common ground to suggest ideas for improving federal education policies using evidence and evaluation to spend taxpayer dollars more effectively and improve student outcomes. They assert that growing the database of innovative programs with evidence of positive outcomes and disseminating this information is in the public interest. It will provide greater flexibility and choice to state and local decision makers with an increased return on their investment thanks to the evidence behind the programs.

State and local governments should play a key role in the education process in education. Promising ideas should be welcome from everywhere — state and local governments, charter schools, universities, non-profits, and for profits. Innovators should be encouraged and given development funding to make their ideas practical and ready for evaluation. If the evaluations show positive effects, the programs should be scaled up nationally and offered as alternatives (not mandated) for local and state educators to use.

What I’ve just described is very similar to what the Investing in Innovation (i3) program already does. i3 is an outstanding example of how the federal government can support innovation no matter what its source and then help evaluate and disseminate information that state and local educators can use to make wise decisions. No matter which party initiated it or what it is called, this process is the way federal, state, and local government can best work together to introduce innovation without imposing mandates or restricting choice. Yet the current majority funding proposals have taken i3 out of the budget.

A healthy system of evidence-driven innovation has to involve all levels of government and many actors outside of government. It is both outside-in and inside-out, with each part of the system playing the role to which it is best suited.

Let a thousand (local) flowers bloom, and then send sacks of proven flower seeds back to the locals to use as they see fit. But there is a key step in the middle of this process that only the federal government can play: evaluation, and communicating the results of the evaluations. So it should be in education.

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