Getting the Best Mileage from Proven Programs

Race carWouldn’t you love to have a car that gets 200 miles to the gallon? Or one that can go hundreds of miles on a battery charge? Or one that can accelerate from zero to sixty twice as fast as any on the road?

Such cars exist, but you can’t have them. They are experimental vehicles or race cars that can only be used on a track or in a lab. They may be made of exotic materials, or may not carry passengers or groceries, or may be dangerous on real roads.

In working on our Evidence for ESSA website (, we see a lot of studies that are like these experimental cars. For example, there are studies of programs in which the researcher or her graduate students actually did the teaching, or in which students used innovative technology with one adult helper for every machine or every few machines. Such studies are fine for theory building or as pilots, but we do not accept them for Evidence for ESSA, because they could never be replicated in real schools.

However, there is a much more common situation to which we pay very close attention. These are studies in which, for example, teachers receive a great deal of training and coaching, but an amount that seems replicable, in principle. For example, we would reject a study in which the experimenters taught the program, but not one in which they taught ordinary teachers how to use the program.

In such studies, the problem comes in dissemination. If studies validating a program provided a lot of professional development, we would accept it only if the disseminator provides a similar level of professional development, and their estimates of cost and personnel take this level of professional development into account. We put on our website clear expectations that these services be provided at a level similar to what was provided in the research, if the positive outcomes seen in the research are to be obtained.

The problem is that disseminators often offer schools a form of the program that was never evaluated, to keep costs low. They know that schools don’t like to spend a lot on professional development, and they are concerned that if they require the needed levels of PD or other services or materials, schools won’t buy their program. At the extreme end of this, there are programs that were successfully evaluated using extensive professional development, and then put their teacher’s manual on the web for schools to use for free.

A recent study of a program called Mathalicious illustrated the situation. Mathalicious is an on-line math course for middle school. An evaluation found that teachers randomly assigned to just get a license, with minimal training, did not obtain significant positive impacts, compared to a control group. Those who received extensive on-line training, however, did see a significant improvement in math scores, compared to controls.

When we write our program descriptions, we compare program implementation details in the research to what is said or required on the program’s website. If these do not match, within reason, we try to make it clear what were the key elements necessary for success.

Going back to the car analogy, our procedures eliminate those amazing cars that can only operate on special tracks, but we accept cars that can run on streets, carry children and groceries, and generally do what cars are expected to do. But if outstanding cars require frequent recharging, or premium gasoline, or have other important requirements, we’ll say so, in consultation with the disseminator.

In our view, evidence in education is not for academics, it’s for kids. If there is no evidence that a program as disseminated benefits kids, we don’t want to mislead educators who are trying to use evidence to benefit their children.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.


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