The Sweet Land of Carrots: Promoting Evidence with Incentives

Results for America (RFA) released a report in July analyzing the first 17 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plans submitted by states. RFA was particularly interested in the degree to which evidence of effectiveness was represented in the plans, and the news is generally good. All states discussed evidence (it’s in the law), but many went much further, proposing to award competitive funding to districts to the degree that they propose to adopt programs proven to be effective according to the ESSA evidence standards. This was particularly true of school improvement grants, where the ESSA law requires evidence, but many state plans extended this principle beyond school improvement into other areas.

As an incurable optimist, this all looks very good to me. If state leaders are clear about what qualifies as “proven” under ESSA, and clear about how proper supports are also needed (e.g. needs assessments, high-quality implementation), then this creates an environment in which evidence will, at long last, play an important role in education policy. This was always the intent of the ESSA evidence standards, which were designed to make it easy for states and districts to identify proven programs so that they could incentivize and assist schools in using such programs.

The focus on encouragement, incentives, and high-quality implementation is a hallmark of the evidence elements of ESSA. To greatly oversimplify, ESSA moves education policy from the frightening land of sticks to the sweet land of carrots. Even though ESSA specifies that schools performing in the lowest 5% of their states must select proven programs, schools still have a wide range of choices that meet ESSA evidence standards. Beyond school improvement, Title II, Striving Readers, and other federal programs already provide funds to schools promising to adopt proven programs, or at least provide competitive preference to applicants promising to implement qualifying programs. Instead of the top-down, over-specific mandates of NCLB, ESSA provides incentives to use proven programs, but leaves it up to schools to pick the ones that are most appropriate to their needs.

There’s an old (and surely apocryphal) story about two approaches to introduce innovations. After the potato was introduced to Europe from the New World, the aristocracy realized that potatoes were great peasant food, rich in calories, easy to grow, and capable of thriving in otherwise non-arable land. The problem was, the peasants didn’t want to have anything to do with potatoes.

Catherine the Great of Russia approached the problem by capturing a few peasants, tying them up, and force-feeding them potatoes. “See?” said her minsters. “They ate potatoes and didn’t die.”

Louis XIV of France had a better idea. His minsters planted a large garden with potatoes, just outside of Paris, and posted a very sleepy guard over it. The wily peasants watched the whole process, and when the guard was asleep, they dug up the potatoes, ate them with great pleasure, and told all their friends how great they were. The word spread like wildfire, and soon peasants all over France were planting and eating potatoes.

The potato story is not precisely carrots and sticks, but it contains the core message. No matter how beneficial an innovation may be, there is always a risk and/or a cost in being the first on your block to adopt it. That risk/cost can be overcome if the innovation is super cool, or if early innovators gain status (as in Louis XIV’s potato strategy). Alternatively, or in addition, providing incentives to prime the pump, to get early adopters out promoting innovations to their friends, is a key part of a strategy to spread proven innovations.

What isn’t part of any effective dissemination plan is sticks. If people feel they must adopt particular policies from above, they are likely to be resentful, and to reason that if the government has to force you to do something, there must be something wrong with it. The moment the government stops monitoring compliance or policies change, the old innovations are dropped like, well, hot potatoes. That was the Catherine the Great strategy. The ESSA rules for school improvement do require that schools use proven programs but this is very different from being told which specific programs they must use, since they have a lot of proven programs to choose from. If schools still can choose which program to implement, then those who do make the choice will put all their energy into high-quality implementation. This is why, in our Success for All program, we require a vote of 80% of school staff in favor of program adoption.

My more cynical friends tell me that once again, I’m being overly optimistic. States, districts, and schools will pretend to adopt proven programs to get their money, they say, but won’t actually implement anything, or will do so leaving out key components, such as adequate professional development. I’m realistic enough to know that this will in fact happen in some places. Enthusiastic and informed federal, state, and district leadership will help avoid this problem, but it cannot be avoided entirely.

However, America is a very big country. If just a few states, for example, wholeheartedly adopted pro-evidence policies and provided technical assistance in selecting, implementing, evaluating, and continuously improving proven programs, they would surely have a substantial impact on their students. And other states would start to notice. Pretty soon, proven programs would be spreading like French fries.

I hope the age of the stick is over, and the age of the sweet carrot has arrived. ESSA has contributed to this possibility, but visionary state and district leaders will have to embrace the idea that helping and incentivizing schools to use proven programs is the best way to rapidly expand their use. And expanding well-implemented proven programs is the way to improve student achievement on a state or national scale. The innovations will be adopted, thoughtfully implemented, and sustained for the right reason – because they work for kids.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

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