‘We Don’t Do Programs’

When speaking with educational leaders, I frequently hear them say, “We don’t do programs.” They lament that teachers and principals are often too driven by programs, and when outcomes are not what they would like, they drop their program and bring in another, learning little in the process.

I can sympathize with the sentiment. The sad secret known to quantitative researchers is that most programs don’t make any difference in achievement. In particular, commercial textbooks almost never make a difference. It’s not that textbooks are worthless, but they are usually so similar to each other that few textbooks produce better outcomes than any others. So the experience of school and district leaders is a cycle of adopting new textbooks, implementing them with enthusiasm, and then gradually being disappointed in the outcomes. The schools and districts are then stuck with the old texts until the books wear out, and then the whole cycle starts again.

A very similar cycle of adoption, enthusiasm, frustration, and abandonment, also happens with technology, though it may happen faster.

Another part of the negative experience with programs that many school leaders share is an observation that educators often believe that they are on the right track just because they have adopted a new program. This may be particularly true if the school or district has adopted a program that is seen as innovative or “in,” such as the technology of the moment.

What’s left out of the “we don’t do programs” conversation is, of course, evidence. Would people who say “We don’t do programs” also say “we don’t do effective programs?” I certainly hope not. Yet the categorical rejection of all programs makes no sense, so I’m going to assume that since most educators are sensible people, those who say “we don’t do programs” must just not be aware that there are in fact effective and ineffective programs.

Of course, simply adopting a program is not a guarantee of positive outcomes. Programs must be implemented with fidelity, thoughtfulness, and appropriate adaptations to local needs and resources. What evidence of effectiveness provides is not certainty, but rather a valid reason to believe that if teachers and principals put in the time, effort, and resources to implement a program well, outcomes will be positive.

If you follow my blogs, you are aware that there are many proven programs and many programs that lack evidence of effectiveness. I’ll consider my life goal to have been achieved when I start hearing educational leaders saying “we don’t do ineffective programs. We do effective ones.” Or more succinctly, “Show me the evidence!”

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