Strong Evidence Meets Local Control

At the political level, the burgeoning evidence movement in education is running smack dab into a growing focus on state and local control of education. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) emphasizes state and local control and it’s easy to see why. Educators, local and state policy makers, and the general public are tired of being micromanaged from Washington. But where does local control leave evidence? Does it make sense to have each state and locality select its own standards of evidence?

First, it is important to note that evidence-based reform and local control need not be in conflict. In fact, ESSA balances its emphasis on state and local control with an emphasis on evidence-based reform. It establishes criteria for strong, moderate, and promising evidence of effectiveness.

If there are established lists of proven programs as defined by ESSA standards, then state and local education leaders can choose to use the proven programs they think best for their schools and students, hopefully highlighting them when they make decisions. If this is how evidence is applied, then there is no conflict at all between evidence-based reform and local control.

While ultimate decisions are up to state and local leaders, it is entirely appropriate for the federal government to incentivize use of proven programs, as I’ve often urged in this space. For example, I’ve argued that in federal competitive grants, applicants could receive competitive preference points if they promise to adopt proven programs. This would involve a federal definition of “proven programs” for schools and districts that want the extra points. ESSA does exactly this with at least seven competitive programs. Locals need not seek the preference points, and they need not apply for discretionary grants at all.

Ideally, incentives should not be necessary to motivate state and local leaders to adopt proven programs. They care about their students and want them to learn, so why should they not actively seek the best approaches? Yet evidence has played so small a role in educational policy and practice up to the present that federal incentives may be necessary for a period of time to raise state and local awareness of approaches found to be effective in rigorous evaluations.

The Department of Agriculture has long sponsored research and development to identify productive farming methods, seeds, and so on, and proactively disseminates information about the findings, but has never, to my knowledge, required farmers to use these methods. However, farmers eagerly seek proven methods because they increase yields and efficiency. In the same way, the Department of Education can continue to sponsor research and development and proactively disseminate information on what works. Then it’s up to local educators to put that information to work in service of improving outcomes for children.

Rx for School Improvement

School Improvement Grants, or SIG, are supposed to be strong medicine for the most difficult ailments in the American school system: schools performing in the lowest 5% of their states. SIG provides proportional funding to states, which then hold competitions among low-achieving elementary and secondary schools. SIG funding is quite substantial, yet evaluations of SIG recipients find modest impacts on achievement. Most SIG schools gain about as much as non-SIG schools in the same state on state achievement measures.

Part of the problem with SIG is that until recently, schools had to choose among four models. All required draconian changes in governance (such as closure or charterization) or personnel (firing the principal and/or half of the staff). Worse, the grants were for only three years, so many schools spent most of that time recovering from SIG-inflicted disruptions. Not to mention that none of the solutions had any evidence of effectiveness.

Last year, SIG changed for the better. Schools could choose among three additional models, including a proven whole-school reform model, in which schools could implement an externally-developed model with at least one large, randomized study indicating positive achievement effects. This and one other model were continued into the current year, after which SIG will transition into a remodeled School Improvement program under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The proven whole-school option should have been a major advance, but it is not yet making much of a difference. Few SIG schools applied under this option for the 2015-2016 school year. One problem is that only four proven programs qualified: two elementary (our Success for All program and Positive Action), and two secondary (Institute for Student Achievement and New York City’s small high schools program). Things may pick up this year, but none of us see any indication yet that this will be the case. More likely, schools will once again chose among the four original models, because they are familiar and known to reliably bring in the grants.

As ESSA requires states and districts to transition to the new School Improvement program, perhaps things will be different. ESSA does not require any particular models, but does require that schools receiving School Improvement funding use programs that meet “strong,” “moderate,” or “promising” standards of evidence of effectiveness.

ESSA could have the same problem as the previous SIG proven whole-school reform option. Not many programs will meet the evidence standards at first. With the traditional four SIG models swept away and more federal emphasis on research, perhaps there will be more use of proven programs in low performing schools, but perhaps not.

Here is an additional idea that could greatly increase the use of proven programs in low performing schools. Consistent with ESSA regulations, School Improvement leaders at the federal and state levels might encourage qualifying schools to either adopt proven whole-school models, as in the current whole-school reform model, or to build their own model, using proven components. For example, a qualifying school might adopt a proven reading program, a proven math program, and a proven tutoring approach for struggling readers. Because there are several proven models of each kind, this would give schools much more flexibility and choice. Coordinating multiple programs takes some care, but the coordination itself would be part of the School Improvement plan. Imagine, for example, that the U.S. Department of Education created a recommended list of components that could be fulfilled by one partner organization (a proven whole-school program) or by several providers of proven approaches. Here is a simple checklist that might be suggested for an elementary school:
 Proven reading program
 Proven math program
 Proven tutoring program for struggling readers
 Proven social-emotional learning/behavior management approach

ESSA allows for a considerable range of evidence, from “strong” (at least one randomized study) to “promising” (one correlational study with statistical controls for pretests). The law is what it is, but I wonder if states and local districts, and perhaps even the U.S. Department of Education, might encourage schools to choose programs that meet the highest standards. The four programs approved by the U.S. Department of Education that meet the current SIG whole-school reform model in the current law had to meet what amounts to the “strong” evidence standard. For schools in major trouble, why would we encourage use of weaker evidence? Stronger evidence increases certainty of effectiveness, and certainty is the goal.

We have spent many years and billions of dollars failing to turn around thousands of schools that demonstrably need a lot of help. These are places where proven programs should make a substantial difference. Can anyone think of a reason we shouldn’t try?

Love and Evidence

Valentine’s Day is this Sunday. If you are spending it thinking about effect sizes or research designs or education policy, shame on you. Unless, of course, that sort of thing turns you on.

So what does love have to do with evidence? Everything, actually. Our field is education. Education is empty without love. Evidence helps teachers and principals give every child the best possible chance to achieve success in school and in life. An educator who loves children wants the best for them. The purpose of educational research, development, and evaluation is to provide educators with pragmatic means of showing their love for children. Love without effective teaching is not enough, of course, and technically proficient teaching means little without love. But the two together are the most powerful force in education.

Children, especially young ones, completely trust their teachers. They look up to them with hope and respect. They are easy to love, even if sometimes hard to teach. But how can we give them any less than what we know how to give? Evidence does not provide all the answers or solve all the problems, but how is it responsible and loving to ignore evidence that could help students succeed?

I recently heard a story that illustrates what I’m talking about. A mother in a poor, Appalachian school in Kentucky came to meet with her daughter’s middle school principal. The school was using our Success for All program, which was adopted to improve very low reading proficiency rates. Even though the staff voted to adopt the research proven approach, there was some grumbling about the instructional processes that were required by the program among some of the staff. After all, change is hard. The principal was considering letting some teachers opt out.

The mother told the principal that her daughter, now in eighth grade, had never been able to read. Because of the school’s new program, she was now learning, excitedly bringing home books to read aloud to her.

The mother burst into tears. She’d never heard her daughter read to her before. She urged the principal to hold her ground and keep the program. Ultimately she did so.

This incident, repeated thousands of times every year for many proven programs, is a direct product of decades of research, development, and dissemination. All that R&D might sound technical and boring. But the outcome is a concrete expression of our love for children.

Love comes in many forms. On Valentine’s Day, we celebrate one of them. But the rest of the year, let’s remember that as educators, our love for children has to drive everything we do, including our choice of programs and practices that work. How can we want anything less than the best for the children who depend on us?

Evidence-Based Resources Needed for Flint

I’m sure you are aware of the catastrophe in Flint, Michigan. 100,000 citizens of that city were exposed to water contaminated by lead and other toxic chemicals, and were then lied to about it by their state and local political leaders. Flint was the topic of the cover story in the February 1 Time magazine (“The Poisoning of an American City”). The story has been reported coast to coast, and in one of the presidential debates, Hillary Clinton noted the perfectly obvious, that this could never have happened in a middle-class suburb.

I won’t retell the whole story, but in essence, Flint, which is primarily under the political control of unelected state managers, made two disastrous decisions. First, in response to an increase in costs for clean Lake Huron water, Flint leaders decided to pump water from the nearby Flint River (“a sewer,” a resident noted). Second, the same leaders failed to add chemicals to keep the polluted water from dissolving lead in old pipes, also to save money. The result was drinking water with lead levels far higher than national standards. Early on, a courageous pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, noted elevated lead levels in young children and many other symptoms of poisoning, including anemia, rashes, hand tremors, and seizures. She persistently complained to anyone who would listen, but no action was taken until a September 2015 study found that children under five had twice the lead levels prevailing before the change in water sources.

Lead poisoning is devastating to the nervous systems of infants. It leads to diminished cognitive functioning, as measured by IQ tests and school performance, across a person’s entire life. Even low-level exposure has destructive effects. Dr. Hanna-Attisha noted, “If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead.” It so happens that Baltimore has also long struggled with lead poisoning due to peeling paint in poor sections of the city. Freddie Gray, the young man who died in a police van, had lead poisoning as a child, performed poorly in school, and as a result was supporting himself with petty crime and drug-dealing. That’s how he got into the van in the first place.

In a January 30 article in the New York Times, the heroine of the Flint story, Dr. Hanna-Attisha, was asked what should be done for the roughly 8,000 children under 6 who were exposed to lead-contaminated water for up to two years. She said, “We have to throw every single evidence-based resource at these kids, starting now.” Since the effects of lead poisoning itself cannot be reversed, what she was referring to was proven early childhood programs, visiting nurse programs, and nutrition improvements. She might have added tutoring for children who need it, eyeglasses, and proven comprehensive school reforms, among many other interventions.

The kids in Flint certainly deserve special attention and immediate effective intervention. But in what disadvantaged area in the U.S., or anywhere, would we not say the same? Flint is remarkable because it is acute, and because the political betrayals expose the system that disregards the needs of disadvantaged people. But the chronic problems of poverty in America need just the same solutions.

There are approximately 52,000 Title I schools in the U.S. I would suggest, for starters, that every principal of every one of these schools, and every mayor, governor, legislator, and national, state, and local education leader, frame and display Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s statement in their office:

“We have to throw every single evidence-based resource at these kids, starting now.”

And then they should do it. Starting now.