Mislabeled as Disabled

Kenny is a 10th grader in the Baltimore City Public Schools. He is an African American from a disadvantaged neighborhood, attending a high school that requires high grades and test scores. He has good attendance, and has never had any behavior problems. A good kid, by all accounts but one.

Kenny reads at the kindergarten level.

Kenny has spent most of his time in school in special education. He received extensive and expensive services, following an Individual Education Program (IEP) made and updated over time just for him, tailored to his needs.

Yet despite all of this, he is still reading at the kindergarten level in 10th grade.

Kenny’s story starts off a remarkable book, Mislabeled as Disabled, by my friend Kalman (Buzzy) Hettleman. A lawyer by training, Hettleman has spent many years volunteering in Baltimore City schools to help children being considered for special education obtain the targeted assistance they need to either avoid special education or succeed in it. What he has seen, and describes in detail in his book, is nothing short of heartbreaking. In fact, it makes you furious. Here is a system designed to improve the lives of vulnerable children, spending vast amounts of money to enable talented and hard-working teachers to work with children. Yet the outcomes are appalling. It’s not just Kenny. Thousands of students in Baltimore, and in every other city and state, are failing. These are mostly children with specific learning disabilities or other mild, “high-incidence” categories. Or they are struggling readers not in special education who are not doing much better. Many of the students who are categorized as having mild disabilities are not disabled, and would have done at least as well with appropriate services in the regular classroom. Instead, what they get is an IEP. Such children are “mislabeled as disabled,” and obtain little benefit from the experience.

blog_4-4-19_BuzzyHettleman_500x333Buzzy has worked at many levels of this system. He was on the Baltimore school board for many years. He taught social work at the University of Maryland. He has been an activist, fighting relentlessly for the rights of struggling students (and at 84 years of age still is). Most recently, he has served on the Kirwan Commission, appointed to advise the state legislature on reform policies and new funding formulas for the state’s schools. Buzzy has seen it all, from every angle. His book is deeply perceptive and informed, and makes many recommendations for policy and practice. But his message is infuriating. What he documents is a misguided system that is obsessed with rules and policies but pays little attention to what actually works for struggling learners.

What most struggling readers need is proven, well-implemented programs in a Response to Intervention (RTI) framework. Mostly, this boils down to tutoring. Most struggling students can benefit enormously from one-to-small group tutoring by well-qualified teaching assistants (paraprofessionals), so tutoring need not be terribly expensive. Others may need certified teachers or one-to-one. Some struggling readers can succeed with well-implemented proven, strategies in the regular classroom (Tier 1). Those who do not succeed in Tier 1 should receive proven one-to-small group tutoring approaches (Tier 2). If that is not sufficient, a small number of students may need one-to-one tutoring, although research tells us that one-to-small group is almost as effective as one-to-one, and is a lot less expensive.

Tutoring is the missing dynamic in the special education system for struggling readers, whether or not they have IEPs. Yes, some districts do provide tutoring to struggling readers, and if the tutoring model they implement is proven in rigorous research it is generally effective. The problem is that there are few schools or districts that provide enough tutoring to enough struggling readers to move the needle.

Buzzy described a policy he devised with Baltimore’s then-superintendent, Andres Alonso. They called it “one year plus.” It was designed to ensure that all students with high-incidence disabilities, such as those with specific learning disabilities, must receive instruction sufficient to enable them to make one year’s progress or more every 12 months.  If students could do this, they would, over time, close the gap between their reading level and their grade level. This was a radical idea, and its implementation it fell far short. But the concept is exactly right. Students with mild disabilities, who are the majority of those with IEPs, can surely make such gains. In recent years, research has identified a variety of tutoring approaches that can ensure one year or more of progress in a year for most students with IEPs, at a cost a state like Maryland could surely afford.

            Mislabeled as Disabled is written about Buzzy’s personal experience in Baltimore. However, what he describes is happening in districts and states throughout the U.S., rich as well as poor. This dismal cycle can stop anywhere we choose to stop it. Buzzy Hettleman describes in plain, powerful language how this could happen, and most importantly, why it must.


Hettleman, K. R. (2019). Mislabeled as disabled. New York: Radius.

 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.


Moneyball for Education

When I was a kid, growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, everyone I knew rooted for the hapless Washington Senators, one of the worst baseball teams ever. At that time, however, the Baltimore Orioles were one of the best teams in baseball, and every once in a while a classmate would snap. He (always “he”) would decide to become an Orioles fan. This would cause him to be shamed and ostracized for the rest of his life by all true Senators fans.

I’ve now lived in Baltimore for most of my life. I wonder if I came here in part because of my youthful impression of Baltimore as a winning franchise?


Skipping forward in time to now, I recently saw in the New York Times an article about the collapse of the Baltimore Orioles. In 2018, they had the worst record of any team in history. Worse than even the Washington Senators ever were. Why did this happen? According to the NYT, the Orioles are one of the last teams to embrace analytics, which means using evidence to decide which players to recruit or drop, to put on the field or on the bench. Some teams have analytics departments of 15. The Orioles? Zero, although they have just started one.

It’s not as though the benefits of analytics are a secret. A 2003 book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball, explained how the underfunded Oakland As used analytics to turn themselves around. A hugely popular 2011 movie told the same story.

In case anyone missed the obvious linkage of analytics in baseball to analytics in education, Results for America (RfA), a group that promotes the use of evidence in government social programs, issued a 2015 book called, you guessed it, Moneyball for Government (Nussle & Orszag, 2015). This Moneyball focused on success stories and ideas from key thinkers and practitioners in government and education. RfA was instrumental in encouraging the U.S. Congress to include in ESSA definitions of strong, moderate, and promising evidence of effectiveness, and to specify a few areas of federal funding that require or incentivize use of proven programs.

The ESSA evidence standards are a giant leap forward in supporting the use of evidence in education. Yet, like the Baltimore Orioles, the once-admired U.S. education system has been less than swept away by the idea that using proven programs and practices could improve outcomes for children. Yes, the situation is better than it was, but things are going very slowly. I’m worried that because of this, the whole evidence movement in education will someday be dismissed: “Evidence? Yeah, we tried that. Didn’t work.”

There are still good reasons for hope. The amount of high-quality evidence continues to grow at an unprecedented pace. The ESSA evidence standards have at least encouraged federal, state, and local leaders to pay some attention to evidence, though moving to action based on this evidence is a big lift.

Perhaps I’m just impatient. It took the Baltimore Orioles a book, a movie, and 16 years to arrive at the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, it was time to use evidence, as winning teams have been doing for a long time. Education is much bigger, and its survival does not depend on its success (as baseball teams do). Education will require visionary leadership to embrace the use of evidence. But I am confident that when it does, we will be overwhelmed by visits from educators from Finland, Singapore, China, and other countries that currently clobber us in international comparisons. They’ll want to know how the U.S. education system became the best in the world. Perhaps we’ll have to write a book and a movie to explain it all.  I’d suggest we call it . . . “Learnball.”


Nussle, J., & Orszag, P. (2015). Moneyball for Government (2nd Ed.). Washington, DC: Disruption Books.

Photo credit: Keith Allison [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

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.

On Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

When I finished college, I had an Oregon teaching certificate to teach secondary social studies. However, since the only sport I could coach was chess, I took a job teaching in a self-contained school for children with intellectual disabilities. I happened to know what I was doing, because I’d taught such children in summer jobs throughout college, but I had a strong feeling that my teaching certificate, plus the ability to fog a mirror, was all my school required.

In mid-year, however, my school moved all of its children into local elementary schools. I refused to go. I had the lowest-functioning kids, and I had to change diapers. The school I was slated to go to could only offer the boys’ bathroom, whose only source of water was a fountain in the middle that gave out an unenthusiastic mist.

My principal agreed, so I was left with the only class still operating in my original school. The school phone was put in my classroom.

Answering the school phone gave me an unexpected insight into one aspect of schooling I had not known about. Every day, people would call to offer to donate things to the school. Things like used shoes or clothing, or old toys. Once someone offered fresh flowers. I accepted these, thinking they might be nice. But when hundreds of lilies appeared (they turned out to be from a funeral), my kids immediately pounced on them and started eating them.

In addition to useless stuff, I had regular visits from people sent by our county, such as an occupational therapist and a physical therapist. These were all very nice people, but I just met with them an hour or two each month only to discover, each time, that there was nothing they could do for my kids.

Skip forward many years, and I’m still astounded by how much of the time of principals is taken up nurse-maiding well-meaning people who want to help disadvantaged children. Recently, I heard from some Maryland principals that the State Department of Education sent them dozens of coaches and experts of all sorts. They were not there enough to provide any useful services, but each visit required valuable time from the principal or other staff. Further, they said these coaches never had the remotest idea what the other coaches were doing, and rarely if ever coordinated with them, so redundant or contradictory services were offered.

I remember being in a school in Memphis where a local men’s service club had some of its members reading to kids. These men were very nice, and the kids and teachers were glad to see them. But their presence in the building tied up the principal and much other staff just helping the men find classrooms and materials. Our staff were in the building to discuss specific, proven strategies for helping students learn to read, but this activity was greatly disrupted by these well-meaning men.

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Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing.

The well-meaning chaos I’ve observed many times speaks volumes about one of the structural reasons that schools for disadvantaged students have so much trouble making progress. Such schools are in communities that care deeply about them and want to help. Some of this help is helpful, but much of it interferes with the school’s core mission, which is to ensure that all children are succeeding in all academic subjects, especially reading and math.

In schools serving disadvantaged students, the mission is not just a way to improve school test scores. Success in reading and math is a survival skill for students whose only way out of poverty may be success in school. Principals should have the right, indeed the mandate, to decide (with their staff) which external services support their core mission, and which are unlikely to do so in any meaningful way. External services that provide frequent, targeted, reliable assistance that is well-aligned with the school’s efforts to advance its core mission, such as volunteer tutors who commit to substantial time working with children using methods and materials closely aligned with the school’s curriculum, can be a godsend. Occasional tutors who are unlikely to show up on all scheduled days or are unable or unwilling to use proven methods aligned with the school’s needs? Not so much.

Knowing when to encourage and even solicit help and when not to do so is an important part of school leadership. Principals and their staffs need to have clear goals and plans for how to achieve them. That has to be job one for the whole staff. External assistance that helps schools achieve their goals is great. And assistance to help achieve other valued goals, such as after school art or music or theater programs, may be fine if it does not interfere with job one. But external assistance that takes time and adds complexity? Maybe later.

Every superintendent, principal, and school staff has to have a laser focus on the core mission of their school. They have only so many hours in the day to accomplish this core mission. The government and private entities who support schools have to learn that schools must focus their energies on the main thing, academic achievement, and then help school staff to accomplish this goal if they can, and help schools keep the main thing the main thing.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

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.

Succeeding Faster in Education

“If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” So said Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM. What he meant, of course, is that people and organizations thrive when they try many experiments, even though most experiments fail. Failing twice as often means trying twice as many experiments, leading to twice as many failures—but also, he was saying, many more successes.

Thomas Watson

In education research and innovation circles, many people know this quote, and use it to console colleagues who have done an experiment that did not produce significant positive outcomes. A lot of consolation is necessary, because most high-quality experiments in education do not produce significant positive outcomes. In studies funded by the Institute for Education Sciences (IES), Investing in Innovation (i3), and England’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), all of which require very high standards of evidence, fewer than 20% of experiments show significant positive outcomes.

The high rate of failure in educational experiments is often shocking to non-researchers, especially the government agencies, foundations, publishers, and software developers who commission the studies. I was at a conference recently in which a Peruvian researcher presented the devastating results of an experiment in which high-poverty, mostly rural schools in Peru were randomly assigned to receive computers for all of their students, or to continue with usual instruction. The Peruvian Ministry of Education was so confident that the computers would be effective that they had built a huge model of the specific computers used in the experiment and attached it to the Ministry headquarters. When the results showed no positive outcomes (except for the ability to operate computers), the Ministry quietly removed the computer statue from the top of their building.

Improving Success Rates

Much as I believe Watson’s admonition (“fail more”), there is another principle that he was implying, or so I expect: We have to learn from failure, so we can increase the rate of success. It is not realistic to expect government to continue to invest substantial funding in high-quality educational experiments if the success rate remains below 20%. We have to get smarter, so we can succeed more often. Fortunately, qualitative measures, such as observations, interviews, and questionnaires, are becoming required elements of funded research, facilitating finding out what happened so that researchers can find out what went wrong. Was the experimental program faithfully implemented? Were there unexpected responses toward the program by teachers or students?

In the course of my work reviewing positive and disappointing outcomes of educational innovations, I’ve noticed some patterns that often predict that a given program is likely or unlikely to be effective in a well-designed evaluation. Some of these are as follows.

  1. Small changes lead to small (or zero) impacts. In every subject and grade level, researchers have evaluated new textbooks, in comparison to existing texts. These almost never show positive effects. The reason is that textbooks are just not that different from each other. Approaches that do show positive effects are usually markedly different from ordinary practices or texts.
  2. Successful programs almost always provide a lot of professional development. The programs that have significant positive effects on learning are ones that markedly improve pedagogy. Changing teachers’ daily instructional practices usually requires initial training followed by on-site coaching by well-trained and capable coaches. Lots of PD does not guarantee success, but minimal PD virtually guarantees failure. Sufficient professional development can be expensive, but education itself is expensive, and adding a modest amount to per-pupil cost for professional development and other requirements of effective implementation is often the best way to substantially enhance outcomes.
  3. Effective programs are usually well-specified, with clear procedures and materials. Rarely do programs work if they are unclear about what teachers are expected to do, and helped to do it. In the Peruvian study of one-to-one computers, for example, students were given tablet computers at a per-pupil cost of $438. Teachers were expected to figure out how best to use them. In fact, a qualitative study found that the computers were considered so valuable that many teachers locked them up except for specific times when they were to be used. They lacked specific instructional software or professional development to create the needed software. No wonder “it” didn’t work. Other than the physical computers, there was no “it.”
  4. Technology is not magic. Technology can create opportunities for improvement, but there is little understanding of how to use technology to greatest effect. My colleagues and I have done reviews of research on effects of modern technology on learning. We found near-zero effects of a variety of elementary and secondary reading software (Inns et al., 2018; Baye et al., in press), with a mean effect size of +0.05 in elementary reading and +0.00 in secondary. In math, effects were slightly more positive (ES=+0.09), but still quite small, on average (Pellegrini et al., 2018). Some technology approaches had more promise than others, but it is time that we learned from disappointing as well as promising applications. The widespread belief that technology is the future must eventually be right, but at present we have little reason to believe that technology is transformative, and we don’t know which form of technology is most likely to be transformative.
  5. Tutoring is the most solid approach we have. Reviews of elementary reading for struggling readers (Inns et al., 2018) and secondary struggling readers (Baye et al., in press), as well as elementary math (Pellegrini et al., 2018), find outcomes for various forms of tutoring that are far beyond effects seen for any other type of treatment. Everyone knows this, but thinking about tutoring falls into two camps. One, typified by advocates of Reading Recovery, takes the view that tutoring is so effective for struggling first graders that it should be used no matter what the cost. The other, also perhaps thinking about Reading Recovery, rejects this approach because of its cost. Yet recent research on tutoring methods is finding strategies that are cost-effective and feasible. First, studies in both reading (Inns et al., 2018) and math (Pellegrini et al., 2018) find no difference in outcomes between certified teachers and paraprofessionals using structured one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring models. Second, although one-to-one tutoring is more effective than one-to-small group, one-to-small group is far more cost-effective, as one trained tutor can work with 4 to 6 students at a time. Also, recent studies have found that tutoring can be just as effective in the upper elementary and middle grades as in first grade, so this strategy may have broader applicability than it has in the past. The real challenge for research on tutoring is to develop and evaluate models that increase cost-effectiveness of this clearly effective family of approaches.

The extraordinary advances in the quality and quantity of research in education, led by investments from IES, i3, and the EEF, have raised expectations for research-based reform. However, the modest percentage of recent studies meeting current rigorous standards of evidence has caused disappointment in some quarters. Instead, all findings, whether immediately successful or not, should be seen as crucial information. Some studies identify programs ready for prime time right now, but the whole body of work can and must inform us about areas worthy of expanded investment, as well as areas in need of serious rethinking and redevelopment. The evidence movement, in the form it exists today, is completing its first decade. It’s still early days. There is much more we can learn and do to develop, evaluate, and disseminate effective strategies, especially for students in great need of proven approaches.


Baye, A., Lake, C., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (in press). Effective reading programs for secondary students. Reading Research Quarterly.

Inns, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2018). Effective programs for struggling readers: A best-evidence synthesis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington, DC.

Pellegrini, M., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (2018). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington, DC.

 Photo credit: IBM [CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.


Beyond the Spaghetti Bridge: Why Response to Intervention is Not Enough

I know an engineer at Johns Hopkins University who invented the Spaghetti Bridge Challenge. Teams of students are given dry, uncooked spaghetti and glue, and are challenged to build a bridge over a 500-millimeter gap. The bridge that can support the most weight wins.


Spaghetti Bridge tournaments are now held all over the world, and they are wonderful for building interest in engineering. But I don’t think any engineer would actually build a real bridge based on a winning spaghetti bridge prototype. Much as spaghetti bridges do resemble the designs of real bridges, there are many more factors a real engineer has to take into account: Weight of materials, tensile strength, flexibility (in case of high winds or earthquakes), durability, and so on.

In educational innovation and reform, we have lots of great ideas that resemble spaghetti bridges. That’s because they would probably work great if only their components were ideal. An example like this is Response to Intervention (RTI), or its latest version, Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS). Both RTI and MTSS start with a terrific idea: Instead of just testing struggling students to decide whether or not to assign them to special education, provide them with high-quality instruction (Tier 1), supplemented by modest assistance if that is not sufficient (Tier 2), supplemented by intensive instruction if Tier 2 is not sufficient (Tier 3). In law, or at least in theory, struggling readers must have had a chance to succeed in high-quality Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 instruction before they can be assigned to special education.

The problem is that there is no way to ensure that struggling students truly received high-quality instruction at each tier level. Teachers do their best, but it is difficult to make up effective approaches from scratch. MTSS or RTI is a great idea, but their success depends on the effectiveness of whatever struggling students receive as Tier 1, 2, and 3 instruction.

This is where spaghetti bridges come in. Many bridge designs can work in theory (or in spaghetti), but whether or not a bridge really works in the real world depends on how it is made, and with what materials in light of the demands that will be placed on it.

The best way to ensure that all components of RTI or MTSS policy are likely to be effective is to select approaches for each tier that have themselves been proven to work. Fortunately, there is now a great deal of research establishing the effectiveness of programs, proven effective for struggling students that use whole-school or whole-class methods (Tier 1), one-to-small group tutoring (Tier 2), or one-to-one tutoring (Tier 3). Many of these tutoring models are particularly cost-effective because they successfully provide struggling readers with tutoring from well-qualified paraprofessionals, usually ones with bachelor’s degrees but not teaching certificates. Research on both reading and math tutoring has clearly established that such paraprofessional tutors, using structured models, have tutees who gain at least as much as do tutors who are certified teachers. This is important not only because paraprofessionals cost about half as much as teachers, but also because there are chronic teacher shortages in high-poverty areas, such as inner-city and rural locations, so certified teacher tutors may not be available at any cost.

If schools choose proven components for their MTSS/RTI models, and implement them with thought and care, they are sure to see enhanced outcomes for their struggling students. The concept of MTSS/RTI is sound, and the components are proven. How could the outcomes be less than stellar? And in addition to improved achievement for vulnerable learners, hiring many paraprofessionals to serve as tutors in disadvantaged schools could enable schools to attract and identify capable, caring young people with bachelor’s degrees to offer accelerated certification, enriching the local teaching force.

With a spaghetti bridge, a good design is necessary but not sufficient. The components of that design, its ingredients, and its implementation, determine whether the bridge stands or falls in practice. So it is with MTSS and RTI. An approach based on strong evidence of effectiveness is essential to enable these good designs achieve their goals.

Photo credit: CSUF Photos (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via flickr

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.

What if a Sears Catalogue Married Consumer Reports?

blog_3-15-18_familyreading_500x454When I was in high school, I had a summer job delivering Sears catalogues. I borrowed my mother’s old Chevy station wagon and headed out fully laden into the wilds of the Maryland suburbs of Washington.

I immediately learned something surprising. I thought of a Sears catalogue as a big book of advertisements. But the people to whom I was delivering them often saw it as a book of dreams. They were excited to get their catalogues. When a neighborhood saw me coming, I became a minor celebrity.

Thinking back on those days, I was thinking about our Evidence for ESSA website (www.evidenceforessa.org). I realized that what I wanted it to be was a way to communicate to educators the wonderful array of programs they could use to improve outcomes for their children. Sort of like a Sears catalogue for education. However, it provides something that a Sears catalogue does not: Evidence about the effectiveness of each catalogue entry. Imagine a Sears catalogue that was married to Consumer Reports. Where a traditional Sears catalogue describes a kitchen gadget, “It slices and dices, with no muss, no fuss!”, the marriage with Consumer Reports would instead say, “Effective at slicing and dicing, but lots of muss. Also fuss.”

If this marriage took place, it might take some of the fun out of the Sears catalogue (making it a book of realities rather than a book of dreams), but it would give confidence to buyers, and help them make wise choices. And with proper wordsmithing, it could still communicate both enthusiasm, when warranted, and truth. But even more, it could have a huge impact on the producers of consumer goods, because they would know that their products would need to be rigorously tested and found to be able to back up their claims.

In enhancing the impact of research on the practice of education, we have two problems that have to be solved. Just like the “Book of Dreams,” we have to help educators know the wonderful array of programs available to them, programs they may never had heard of. And beyond the particular programs, we need to build excitement about the opportunity to select among proven programs.

In education, we make choices not for ourselves, but on behalf of our children. Responsible educators want to choose programs and practices that improve the achievement of their students. Something like a marriage of the Sears catalogue and Consumer Reports is necessary to address educators’ dreams and their need for information on program outcomes. Users should be both excited and informed. Information usually does not excite. Excitement usually does not inform. We need a way to do both.

In Evidence for ESSA, we have tried to give educators a sense that there are many solutions to enduring instructional problems (excitement), and descriptions of programs, outcomes, costs, staffing requirements, professional development, and effects for particular subgroups, for example (information).

In contrast to Sears catalogues, Evidence for ESSA is light (Sears catalogues were huge, and ultimately broke the springs on my mother’s station wagon). In contrast to Consumer Reports, Evidence for ESSA is free.  Every marriage has its problems, but our hope is that we can capture the excitement and the information from the marriage of these two approaches.

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.

Picture source: Nationaal Archief, the Netherlands


“We Don’t Do Lists”

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Watching the slow, uneven, uncertain rollout of the ESSA evidence standards gives me a mixture of hope and despair. The hope stems from the fact that from coast to coast, educational leaders are actually talking about proven programs and practices at all. That was certainly rare before ESSA. But despair in that I hear many educational leaders trying to find the absolute least their states and districts can do to just barely comply with the law. The ESSA evidence standards apply in particular to schools seeking school improvement funding, which are those in the lowest 5% of their states in academic performance. A previous program with a similar name but more capital letters, School Improvement, was used under NCLB, before ESSA. A large-scale evaluation by MDRC found that the earlier School Improvement made no difference in student achievement, despite billions of dollars in investments. So you’d imagine that this time around, educators responsible for school improvement would be eager to use the new law to introduce proven programs into their lowest-achieving schools. In fact, there are individual leaders, districts, and states who have exactly this intention, and may ultimately provide good examples to the rest. But they face substantial obstacles.

One of the obstacles I hear about often is an opposition among state departments of education to disseminating lists of proven programs. I very much understand and sympathize with their reluctance, as schools have been over-regulated for a long time. However, I do not see how the ESSA evidence standards can make much of a difference if everyone makes their own list of programs. Determining which studies meet ESSA evidence standards is difficult, and requires a great deal of knowledge about research (I know this, of course, because we do such reviews ourselves; see www.evidenceforessa.org).

Some say that they want programs that have been evaluated in their own states. But after taking into account demographics (e.g., urban/rural, ELL/not ELL, etc), are state-to-state differences so great as to require different research in each? We used to work with a school located on the Ohio-Indiana border, which ran right through the building. Were there really programs that were effective on one side of the building but not on the other?

Further, state department leaders frequently complain that they have too few staff to adequately manage school improvement across their states. Should that capacity be concentrated on reviewing research to determine which programs meet ESSA evidence standards and which do not?

The irony of opposing lists for ESSA evidence standards is that most states are chock full of lists that restrict the textbooks, software, and professional development schools can select using state funds. These lists may focus on paperweight, binding, and other minimum quality issues, but they almost never have anything to do with evidence of effectiveness. One state asked us to review their textbook adoption lists for reading and math, grades K-12. Collectively, there were hundreds of books, but just a handful had even a shred of evidence of effectiveness.

Educational leaders are constantly buffeted by opposing interest groups, from politicians to school board members to leaders of unions, from PTAs presidents to university presidents, to for-profit companies promoting their own materials and programs. Educational leaders need a consistent way to ensure that the decisions they make are in the best interests of children, not the often self-serving interests of adults. The ESSA evidence standards, if used wisely, give education leaders an opportunity to say to the whole cacophony of cries for special consideration, “I’d love to help you all, but we can only approve programs for our lowest-achieving schools that are known from rigorous research to benefit our children. We say this because it is the law, but also because we believe our children, and especially our lowest achievers, deserve the most effective programs, no matter what the law says.”

To back up such a radical statement, educational leaders need clarity about what their standards are and which specific programs meet those standards. Otherwise, they either have an “anything goes’ strategy that in effect means that evidence does not matter, or they have competing vendors claiming an evidence base for their favored program. Lists of proven programs can disappoint those whose programs aren’t on the list, but they are at least clear and unambiguous, and communicate to those who want to add to the list exactly what kind of evidence they will need.

States or large districts can create lists of proven programs by starting with existing national lists (such as the What Works Clearinghouse or Evidence for ESSA) and then modifying them, perhaps by adding additional programs that meet the same standards and/or eliminating programs not available in a given location. Over time, existing or new programs can be added as new evidence appears. We, at Evidence for ESSA, are willing to review programs being considered by state or local educators for addition to their own lists, and we will do it for free and in about two weeks. Then we’ll add them to our national list if they qualify.

It is important to say that while lists are necessary, they are not sufficient. Thoughtful needs assessments, information on proven programs (such as effective methods fairs and visits to local users of proven programs), and planning for high-quality implementation of proven programs are also necessary. However, students in struggling schools cannot wait for every school, district, and state to reinvent the wheel. They need the best we can give them right now, while the field is working on even better solutions for the future.

Whether a state or district uses a national list, or starts with such a list and modifies it for its own purposes, a list of proven programs provides an excellent starting point for struggling schools. It plants a flag for all to see, one that says “Because this (state/district/school) is committed to the success of every child, we select and carefully implement programs known to work. Please join us in this enterprise.”

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.