Evidence junkies (like me) are reacting to the disappointing news on the evaluation of the Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience (ABLE), a program implemented at Rikers Island to reduce recidivism among adolescent prisoners. Bottom line: The rigorous independent evaluation of the program failed to find any benefits. What makes this experiment especially interesting is that it is the first U.S. application of social impact bonds. Goldman Sachs put up a $7.2 million loan, and Bloomberg Philanthropies committed to a $6 million loan guarantee. Since the program did not produce the expected outcomes, Goldman Sachs lost $1.2 million.
Ironically, New York City administrators are delighted about the outcome because they do not have to pay for the program. They think they learned a great deal from the experience, for free.
It’s unclear what this will do to the social impact bond movement, currently in its infancy. However, I wanted to extend from this fascinating case to a broader issue in evidence-based reform.
The developers and advocates for the ABLE program who expected positive outcomes turned out to be wrong, at least in this implementation. The investors were wrong in expecting to make a profit. But I’d argue that they are all better off because of this experience, just as the N.Y.C. administrators said.
The distinction I want to make is between wrong and wrong-headed. Wrong, as I’m defining it in this context, means that a given outcome was not achieved, but it was entirely reasonable to expect that it might have been achieved. In contrast, wrong-headed means that not only was the desired outcome not achieved, but it was extremely unlikely that it could have been achieved. In many cases, a key component of wrong-headed actions is that the actor does not even know whether the action was effective or ineffective, right or wrong, and therefore continues with the same or similar actions indefinitely.
Wrong, I’d argue, is an honorable and useful outcome. In a recent interview, former White House advisor Gene Sperling noted that when a few cancer drugs fail to cure cancer, you don’t close down NIH. Instead, you take that information and use it to continue the research and development process. “Wrong,” in this view, can be defined as “good failure,” because it is a step on the path to progress.
“Wrong-headed,” on the other hand, is “bad failure.” When you do something wrong-headed, you learn nothing, or you learn the wrong lessons. Wrong-headed decisions tend to lead to more wrong-headed decisions, as you have no systematic guide to what is working and what is not.
The issue of wrong vs. wrong-headed comes up in the current discussions in Congress about continuing the Investing in Innovation (i3) program. By now, committees in both the House and the Senate have recommended ending i3. But this would be the very essence of wrong-headed policy. Sure, it is probable that many i3 programs funded so far will fail to make a difference in achievement, or will fail to go to scale. This just means that these programs have not yet found success. Some of these may still have evidence of promise, and some will not. However, all i3 programs are rigorously evaluated, so we will know a lot about which worked, which did not, and which still seem promising even if they did not work this time. That’s huge progress. The programs that are already showing success can have immediate impact in hundreds or thousands of schools while others greatly enrich understanding of what needs to be done.
Abandoning i3, in contrast, would be wrong-headed, a sure path to bad failure. A tiny slice of education funding, i3 tells us what works and what does not, so we can continually move towards effective strategies and policies. Without i3 and other research and development investments, education policy is just guesswork, and it gets no smarter over time.
No one can honestly argue that American education is as successful as it should be. Our kids, our economy, and our society deserve much better. Policies that seek a mixture of proven success and “good failure” will get us to solid advances in educational practice and policy. Abandoning or cutting programs like i3 is not just wrong. It’s wrong-headed.