Evidence and Freedom

One of the strangest arguments I hear against evidence-based reform in education is that encouraging or incentivizing schools to use programs or practices proven to work in rigorous experiments will reduce the freedom of schools to do what they think is best for their students.

Freedom? Really?

To start with, consider how much freedom schools have now. Many districts and state departments of education have elaborate 100% evidence-free processes of restricting the freedom of schools. They establish lists of approved providers of textbooks, software, and professional development, based perhaps on state curriculum standards but also on current trends, fads, political factors, and preferences of panels of educators and other citizens. Many states have textbook adoption standards that consider paper weight, attractiveness, politically correct language, and other surface factors, but never evidence of effectiveness. Federal policies specify how teachers should be evaluated, how federal dollars should be utilized, and how students should be assessed. I could go on for more pages than anyone wants to read with examples of how teachers’ and principals’ choices are constrained by district, state, and federal policies, very few of which have ever been tested in comparison to control groups. Why do schools use this textbook or that software or the other technology? Because their district or state bought it for them, trained them in its use (perhaps), and gave them no alternative.

The evidence revolution offers the possibility of freedom, if the evidence now becoming widely available is used properly. The minimum principle of evidence-based reform should be this: “If it is proven to work, you are allowed to use it.”

At bare minimum, evidence of effectiveness should work as a “get out of jail free” card to counter whatever rules, restrictions, or lists of approved materials schools have been required to follow.

But permission is not enough, because mandated, evidence-free materials, software, and professional development may eat up the resources needed to implement proven programs. So here is a slightly more radical proposition: “Whenever possible, school staffs should have the right, by majority vote of the staff, to adopt proven programs to replace current programs mandated by the district or state.”

For example, when a district or state requires use of anything, it could make the equivalent in money available to schools to use to select and implement programs proven to be effective in producing the desired outcome. If the district adopts a new algebra text or elementary science curriculum, for instance, it could allow schools to select an alternative with good evidence of effectiveness for algebra or elementary science, as long as the school agrees to implement the program with fidelity and care, achieving levels of implementation like those in the research that validated the program.

The next level of freedom to choose what works would be to provide incentives and support for schools that select proven programs and promise to implement them with fidelity.

“Schools should be able to apply for federal, state, or local funds to implement proven programs of their choice. Alternatively, they may receive competitive preference points on grants if they promise to adopt and effectively implement proven programs.”

This principle exists today in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), where schools applying for school improvement funding must select programs that meet one of three levels of evidence: strong (at least one randomized experiment with positive outcomes), moderate (at least one quasi-experimental [matched] study with positive outcomes), or promising (at least one correlational study with positive outcomes). In seven other programs in ESSA, schools applying for federal funds receive extra competitive preference points on their applications if they commit to using programs that meet one of those three levels of evidence. The principle in ESSA – that use of proven programs should be encouraged – should be expanded to all parts of government where proven programs exist.

One problem with these principles is that they depend on having many proven programs in each area from which schools can choose. At least in reading and math, grades K-12, this has been accomplished; our Evidence for ESSA website describes approximately 100 programs that meet the top three ESSA evidence standards. More than half of these meet the “strong” standard.

However, we must have a constant flow of new approaches in all subjects and grade levels. Evidence-based policy requires continuing investments in development, evaluation, and dissemination of proven programs. The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, and now the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant program, help fulfill this function, and they need to continue to be supported in their crucial work.

So is this what freedom looks like in educational innovation? I would argue that it does. Note that what I did not say is that programs lacking evidence should be forbidden. Mandating use of programs, no matter how well evaluated, is a path to poor implementation and political opposition. Instead, schools should have the opportunity and the funding to adopt proven programs. If they prefer not to do so, that is their choice. But my hope and expectation is that in a political system that encourages and supports use of proven programs, educators will turn out in droves to use better programs, and the schools that might have been reluctant at first will see and emulate the success their neighbors are having.

Freedom to use proven programs should help districts, states, and the federal government have confidence that they can at long last stop trying to micromanage schools. If policymakers know that schools are making good choices and getting good results, why should they want to get in their way?

Freedom to use whatever is proven to enhance student learning. Doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? Like the Liberty Bell?

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

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