Give a Man a Fish…

Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day.
Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.
Design, pilot, and evaluate fishing-education programs, and take effective
ones to sustainable scale and you might help an entire country thrive.


Everyone knows the saying about giving a man a fish vs. teaching a man to fish. They don’t know the part about designing, piloting, and evaluating fishing-education programs, because I just made it up. All three of these fish-related functions are necessary. Someone needs to establish soup kitchens, for example, to help people who need immediate help, even though it does not create a lasting solution to world hunger. Philanthropies throughout the world exist to help people fill their basic needs. Others focus on education and development to build the capacity of individuals and groups to solve their own problems more permanently.

At the top of the “teach a man to fish” pyramid, at least in my mind, are the very few philanthropies that use their resources to support rigorous research evaluating various solutions to societal needs and, even more rarely, to support the very idea that evidence should be the basis for decisions that affect people in need. In education, just a few foundations work in this space. Annie E. Casey, Edna McConnell Clark, Spencer, and W. T. Grant, among others, come to mind.

This space is small enough that when a major foundation greatly increases its commitment to supporting evidence in education, that is reason for celebration.

Well, get ready to celebrate. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) of Houston has announced that it is setting up a new Evidence-Based Policy and Innovation division in Washington. Its purpose will be to encourage policy makers to utilize evidence and data in their decision making. But not just encourage. According to the Arnold Foundation’s press release, it wants evidence and data to be “the primary factor” in policy makers’ decisions. That idea alone is revolutionary!

The Arnold Foundation was able to attract two very big fish to run their new division. Kathy Stack has spent a long career at the U. S. Department of Education and then at the White House Office of Management and Budget, where she most recently led the Office of Evidence and Innovation, infusing evidence and evaluation into the work of numerous agencies. Jon Baron has been the most effective advocate for the use of evidence in policy making outside government. His Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy has been a major force behind the evidence movement in all issue areas, including quietly building support for tiered evidence in education. Jon’s entire coalition is moving with him into the Arnold Foundation.

Philanthropy works best when it works just ahead of government, taking risks and demonstrating ways for government to do its work more effectively. The resources and clout of the Arnold Foundation combined with the experience and capability of Kathy and Jon represent a new force in Washington ready to promote sensible and much-needed policies that insist on evidence of effectiveness in government.

Watch out, fish. There’s a new fleet in town!


When Will We Reach Our 1962 Moment in Education?


When I was in college, I had an ancient 1957 Chevy. What a great car. Stylish, dependable, indestructible.

My 1957 Chevy was beautiful, but it had no seatbelts, no airbags, and no recourse if the brakes went out. It got about 13 miles to the gallon, polluted the atmosphere, and was not expected to last more than 100,000 miles. Due to development, evaluation, and public-spirited policy, all these problems have been solved. Automotive design has been revolutionized by embracing policies based on innovation and evidence.

Not that I remember 1957 very well, but I was thinking about it as a model for where we are today in evidence-based reform in education, as distinct from medicine. In 1957, drug companies could make any claims they liked about medications. There was research, but physicians routinely ignored it. However, change was on the way. In 1962, the Kefauver-Harris Amendment required that all drug applications to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA, established in 1927) demonstrate “substantial evidence” of safety and effectiveness. These standards continue to evolve, but today it is unthinkable that drug companies could make misleading claims about unproven medicines.

In 1957, the progress toward evidence-based reform in medicine would have been clear, but the policy world was not yet ready. For one thing, the American Medical Association fought tooth and nail against the evidence standards, as did most drug companies. Yet evidence prevailed because despite the power and money of the AMA and the drug companies, millions of ordinary citizens, not to mention the majority of physicians, knew that prescribing medications of unknown safety and effectiveness was just plain wrong. Everyone takes medicine, or we have relatives who do, and we want to know what works and what doesn’t. Specifically, a European drug called Thalidomide taken by pregnant mothers caused massive and widespread birth defects, and this swept away the opposition to drug testing standards.

In education, we have not reached our 1962 moment. Publishers and software developers are free to make any claims they like about the effectiveness of their products, and educators have difficulty sorting effective from ineffective products. Yet the handwriting is on the wall. Rigorous evaluations of educational programs are becoming more and more common. Many of these evaluations are being paid for by the companies themselves, who want to be on the right side of history when and if our 1962 moment arrives.

In education, our 1962 will probably not involve an equivalent of the FDA or a prohibition on the use of untested products. Unlike medicine, few educational products are likely to be harmful, so experimentation with new approaches is a lot safer. What is more likely, I believe, is that there will be incentives and encouragement from various levels of government for schools to adopt proven programs. In particular, I think it is very likely that Title I and other federal programs will begin insisting on a strong evidence base for investments of federal dollars.

To reach our 1962 moment will require sustained investment in development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven programs in all subjects and grade levels, and a change of policies to encourage the use of proven programs.

I hope our 1962 moment is coming soon. To bring it closer, we have a lot of work to do, in innovation, evaluation, policy, and practice. Government, foundations, innovators, researchers, and anyone who knows the transformative potential of education should be working toward the day when we no longer have to guess what works and what doesn’t. This is the time to build up our stock of proven, replicable programs of all kinds. It is also the time to try policy experiments such as Investing in Innovation (i3)SIG evidence-proven whole-school models, and Leveraging What Works, because when our 1962 comes, we will need to know how to build support for the whole evidence movement. Like my beloved 1957 Chevy, I hope we’re driving confidently toward our 1962 and beyond, confident that every new year will bring better outcomes for all.

One Small Step for Washington, One Giant Leap for Children


Photo courtesy of NASA

Recently I wrote about a new education innovation initiative being supported by some members of Congress. The initiative is based on the successful Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which has been running in 11 federal agencies for decades. Each agency running SBIR sets aside a tiny percentage of its budget to award grants to small companies working to develop and evaluate new technologies. SBIR has received positive reviews from both the Government Accountability Office and the National Academy of Sciences.

I also recently wrote about Congress’ efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The Senate bipartisan compromise bill released last week by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Patty Murray (D-Washington) was marked up in the Senate HELP Committee this week. On the second day of a three-day markup, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), with the support of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), offered the new education innovation initiative as an amendment to ESEA. The amendment was passed by the Committee (with a block of other amendments) by voice vote, which means that it was considered noncontroversial. (The final bill passed the Committee unanimously this afternoon.)

While the passage of this amendment is only a small step for Washington in the greater marathon that is ESEA, it represents a giant leap for students nationwide.

First, let’s look at what the amendment does. It adds a section on “Education Innovation and Research” to the bill. This would provide grants for “the development, implementation, replication, or scaling and rigorous testing of entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovation to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students.” It requires that at least 25 percent of the funds be used for students in rural areas. Grants may be provided to states and school districts as well as nonprofits, small businesses, charter management organizations, educational service agencies, or institutions of higher education working in partnership with a state or school district. Grantees can apply at any stage, and grant amounts will be based on the level of previous success and evidence of effectiveness in achieving desired educational outcomes. The amendment drew a broad coalition of support, and a letter with over 140 signatories was sent to the senators in advance of the markup to bolster support for the amendment at the markup.

Now let’s turn to what this amendment means politically and policy-wise, and what it will mean in the long run for communities and children across the country.

At one of the most divisive political moments in our nation’s history, in a piece of legislation that itself is controversial and has failed to be reauthorized despite numerous attempts over the past six years, a bipartisan amendment providing for education innovation and research sailed through a Senate committee. Politically, its inclusion in the chairman’s bill as it moves to the Senate floor means an extremely strong likelihood that it will withstand the floor process (should there be one) and make it into the final Senate bill. Even if ESEA fails to get reauthorized this Congress, the fact that this provision is now in the chairman’s bill sets an important precedent for inclusion in future attempts to reauthorize ESEA.

Policy-wise, this kind of bipartisan embrace of innovation and research in the realm of education represents a new era.

Congress and government in general is increasingly demanding evidence of effectiveness for education programs, a change that has enormous potential for improving programs for children.

The Bennet-Hatch amendment continues and advances the movement toward the use of evidence as a guide to policy and practice in education. There is still a lot to do even if this amendment becomes law, but the very fact that such a thing could happen is an indication that the ideas of evidence-based reform are no longer from the moon.

Is Now the Time to Reauthorize ESEA?


The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the giant centerpiece of educational policy, is up for reauthorization. Again. What that means is that it’s time to revisit the act in order to make changes and improvements to the law. Of course, it was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007, but what with partisan politics, outside influences and the lack of any general consensus around the various efforts, Congress has yet to successfully reauthorize the legislation. As a result, national educational policy has been a patchwork of waivers, dodges, and weaves unworthy of a great nation. ESEA is the Eeyore of legislation: “I’ll probably never be reauthorized.” Or the Rodney Dangerfield: “I get no respect.” Or the Godot, for which we’ll be forever waiting.

This year, Congress is taking up ESEA reauthorization again, but the road ahead remains long and fraught with obstacles. The House version, introduced by Reps. John Kline (R-Minnesota) and Todd Rokita (R-Indiana), made it through the Education and Workforce Committee along strict party lines, yet in February it was pulled right before a vote by the full House, with many surmising that it just wasn’t conservative enough to garner the votes it would need to pass. This week, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Patty Murray (D-Washington) released a bipartisan compromise bill that they hope will make it through the Senate. But the draft is still open to amendments by the members of the HELP Committee and then the full Senate, and whether a single bill can satisfy the demands and desires of the broad political spectrum entrenched in Washington right now is unclear. Even if ESEA does not get reauthorized this Congress, the process is a necessary step toward eventually creating a better bill. Each Congress, when ESEA is debated, progress is made, and sometimes that progress leads to positive changes even without a comprehensive agreement. But it would be nice to have a well-considered, widely supported law at the center of education policy.

On the other hand, there are several reasons that it may not be so awful to delay reauthorization until after the next presidential election. Beyond the hope that things might be less partisan by then, there are several positive developments underway that are not yet far enough along to be central to ESEA but could be given two more years.

The first, of course, is the evidence movement. Recent investments, such as Investing in Innovation and IES, have produced a broad set of proven and promising programs for schools. Schools are just starting to be encouraged to use proven programs with their federal funds, as in the evidence-proven, whole-school approach to school-improvement grants. Title II (professional development) has begun requiring grantees to have at least moderate evidence of effectiveness and gives a lot of competitive preference points for programs with strong evidence. President Obama’s budget proposal contained a provision called “Leveraging What Works,” providing schools with incentive funds if they use their formula funding to adopt proven programs. These changes are just happening now, too recently to affect ESEA. If they continue for two more years, they may have profound impacts on ESEA.

Another development is Common Core. This set of standards, and the computerized testing sometimes associated with them, are too new to be fully understood. In two years their potential role in ESEA will be better known.

Finally, technology is headed into our schools at an astonishing pace, yet we still are not clear about how to use it or what it will do. I’d be reluctant to build technology policies into ESEA before we really know more about what universal access to digital devices could accomplish.

Given how long No Child Left Behind has overstayed its welcome, it may be especially important to get the next reauthorization right. It could be with us for a very long time!

Helping Struggling Schools


Illustration by James Bravo

There are a lot of schools in the U.S. that need to be achieving much better outcomes. However, there is a much smaller group of schools in which achievement levels are appalling. The solutions for garden-variety low-achieving schools are arguably different from those for schools with the very worst levels of performance.

In recent years, a key resource for very low-achieving schools has been the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program. SIG provides substantial funding to schools in the lowest 5 percent of their states on achievement measures. Up until this year, schools receiving SIG funds had to choose among four models.

This year, three new models were added to SIG. These include an option to use an evidence-proven whole-school reform model; such a model has to have been successfully evaluated in a study meeting What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) standards. This is potentially a significant advance. Perhaps, if many schools choose proven models, this option will enhance the effectiveness and image of the much-maligned SIG program. (Full disclosure: Our Success for All program is one of four approaches approved thus far by the U.S. Department of Education for use under the evidence-proven whole-school option for SIG.)

However, stop for a moment and consider what’s going on here. The lowest-achieving schools in America are being offered substantial funding (currently, up to $2 million over five years) to turn themselves around. These schools need the very best programs provided by organizations with a proven track record. Of all schools, why should these very needy schools receive unproven approaches, perhaps invented from scratch for the SIG proposal and therefore never even piloted before? When your car breaks down, do you tow it to a mechanic who has never fixed a car before? When you have medical problems, do you want to be someone’s first patient?

There should always be a fund separate from ordinary Title I to provide intensive assistance to schools in the lowest 5 percent of their states on state assessments. However, instead of focusing SIG on governance, personnel, and untested prescriptions, as it has done up to now, SIG (or its successor) should focus on helping schools select and effectively implement proven programs. In addition to the four “evidence-proven whole-school reform” models identified recently, SIG schools might be funded to implement a mix of reading approaches, math approaches, tutoring models, and social-emotional approaches, for example, each of which has convincing evidence of effectiveness.

The recent changes in SIG, allowing proven whole-school reforms, are a big step in the right direction, but additional steps in the same direction are needed to make this crucial investment a model of wise use of federal funds to solve serious problems in education.