How to Make Evidence in Education Make a Difference

By Robert Slavin

I have a vision of how education in the U.S. and the world will begin to make solid, irreversible progress in student achievement. In this vision, school leaders will constantly be looking for the most effective programs, proven in rigorous research to accelerate student achievement. This process of informed selection will be aided by government, which will provide special incentive funds to help schools implement proven programs.

In this imagined future, the fact that schools are selecting programs based on good evidence means that publishers, software companies, professional development companies, researchers, and program developers, as well as government, will be engaged in a constant process of creating, evaluating, and disseminating new approaches to every subject and grade level. As in medicine, developers and researchers will be held to strict standards of evidence, but if they develop programs that meet these high standards, they can be confident that their programs will be widely adopted, and will truly make a difference in student learning.

Discovering and disseminating effective classroom programs is not all we have to get right in education. For example, we also need great teachers, principals, and other staff who are well prepared and effectively deployed. A focus on evidence could help at every step of that process, of course, but improving programs and improving staff are not an either-or proposition. We can and must do both. If medicine, for example, focused only on getting the best doctors, nurses, technicians, other staff, but medical research and dissemination of proven therapies were underfunded and little heeded, then we’d have great staff prescribing ineffective or possibly harmful medicines and procedures. In agriculture, we could try to attract farmers who are outstanding in their fields, but that would not have created the agricultural revolution that has largely solved the problem of hunger in most parts of the world. Instead, decades of research created or identified improvements in seeds, stock, fertilizers, veterinary practices, farming methods, and so on, for all of those outstanding farmers to put into practice.

Back to education, my vision of evidence-based reform depends on many actions. Because of the central role government plays in public education, government must take the lead. Some of this will cost money, but it would be a tiny proportion of the roughly $600 billion we spend on K-12 education annually, at all levels (federal, state, and local). Other actions would cost little or nothing, focusing only on standards for how existing funds are used. Key actions to establish evidence of impact as central to educational decisions are as follows:

  1. Invest substantially in practical, replicable approaches to improving outcomes for students, especially achievement outcomes.

Rigorous, high-quality evidence of effectiveness for educational programs has been appearing since about 2006 at a faster rate than ever before, due in particular to investments by the Institute for Education Sciences (IES), Investing in Innovation/Education Innovation Research (i3/EIR), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the U.S., and the Education Endowment Foundation in England, but also other parts of government and private foundations. All have embraced rigorous evaluations involving random assignment to conditions, appropriate measures independent of developers or researchers, and at the higher funding levels, third-party evaluators. These are very important developments, and they have given the research field, educators, and policy makers excellent reasons for confidence that the findings of such research have direct meaning for practice. One problem is that, as is true in every applied field that embraces rigorous research, most experiments do not find positive impacts. Only about 20% of such experiments do find positive outcomes. The solution to this is to learn from successes and failures, so that our success rate improves over time. We also need to support a much larger enterprise of development of new solutions to enduring problems of education, in all subjects and grade levels, and to continue to support rigorous evaluations of the most promising of these innovations. In other words, we should not be daunted by the fact that most evaluations do not find positive impacts, but instead we need to increase the success rate by learning from our own evidence, and to carry out many more experiments. Even 20% of a very big number is a big number.

2. Improve communications of research findings to researchers, educators, policy makers, and the general public.

Evidence will not make a substantial difference in education until key stakeholders see it as a key to improving students’ success. Improving communications certainly includes making it easy for various audiences to find out which programs and practices are truly effective. But we also need to build excitement about evidence. To do this, government might establish large-scale, widely publicized, certain-to-work demonstrations of the use and outcomes of proven approaches, so that all will see how evidence can lead to meaningful change.

I will be writing more on in depth on this topic in future blogs.

3. Set specific standards of evidence, and provide incentive funding for schools to adopt and implement proven practices.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) boldly defined “strong,” “moderate,” “promising,” and lower levels of evidence of effectiveness for educational programs, and required use of programs meeting one of these top categories for certain federal funding, especially school improvement funding for low-achieving schools. This certainly increased educators’ interest in evidence, but in practice, it is unclear how much this changed practice or outcomes. These standards need to be made more specific. In addition, the standards need to be applied to funding that is clearly discretionary, to help schools adopt new programs, not to add new evidence requirements to traditional funding sources. The ESSA evidence standards have had less impact than hoped for because they mainly apply to school improvement, a longstanding source of federal funding. As a result, many districts and states have fought hard to have the programs they already have declared “effective,” regardless of their actual evidence base. To make evidence popular, it is important to make proven programs available as something extra, a gift to schools and children rather than a hurdle to continuing existing programs. In coming blogs I’ll write further about how government could greatly accelerate and intensify the process of development, evaluation, communication, and dissemination, so that the entire process can begin to make undeniable improvements in particular areas of critical importance demonstrating how evidence can make a difference for students.

Photo credit: Deeper Learning 4 All/(CC BY-NC 4.0)

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

3 thoughts on “How to Make Evidence in Education Make a Difference

  1. I remember meeting with R&D Center and Lab (I directed the McREL R&D Exchange and we were in meetings together) leaders who used this language, worked on such initatives, and had some programs supporting this work. It would be great to have that $ and a national network focusing on the effort once again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just how different is your outline from the federal Comprehensive School Reform program that offered several proven models from which school districts could choose to be funded? And why did that program not achieve much?

    Like

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