Restoring Opportunity

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I just read a fascinating book, Restoring Opportunity, by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane.. It describes the now-familiar problems of growing inequality in America between the educational haves and have-nots, but then goes on to describe some outstanding preschool, elementary, and high school programs that may offer models of how to help disadvantaged children close the gap. Refreshingly, Duncan and Murnane do not stop with heartwarming tales of successful schools, but also present data from randomized experiments showing the impacts on children, especially for the small high school initiative in New York City and the University of Chicago Charter Network.

From these and other examples, Duncan and Murnane derive some factors common to outstanding schools: Accountability for outcomes within schools, extensive professional development and support for teachers, and experimentation and evaluation to identify effective models.

Readers of this blog won’t be surprised to learn that I support each of these recommendations. So let’s start there. How do we get more than 100,000 schools to become markedly more effective? Or to make the problem a little easier, how about just the 55,000 Title I schools?

Duncan and Murnane are forthright about many of the solutions that aren’t likely to make a widescale difference. They note that while there are a few promising charter management organizations, charters overall are not generally being found to improve learning outcomes, and some of the most celebrated charters achieve good results by burning out young, talented teachers, a strategy that is hard to sustain and harder to scale. Popular solutions such as ratcheting up accountability, providing vouchers, and changing governance have also been disappointing in evaluations.

There is a strategy that puts all of Duncan and Murnane’s principles into practice on a very large scale: Comprehensive school reform. They note the strong evaluation results and widespread impact of two CSR models, one of which is our Success for All programfor elementary and middle schools. CSR models exemplify the principles Duncan and Murnane arrive at, but they can do so at a substantial scale. That is, they invariably provide a great deal of professional development and support to teachers, accountability for outcomes within schools, links to parents, provisions for struggling students, and so on. Unlike charters, CSR models do not require radical changes in governance, which explains why they have been able to go to substantial scale far more rapidly.

The only problem with comprehensive school reform models is that at present, there are too few to choose from. Yet with support from government and foundations, this could rapidly change.

Imagine a situation in which Title I school staffs could choose among proven, whole-school reform models the one they thought best for their needs. The schools themselves and the leaders of their CSR reform networks would be responsible for the progress of children on state standards, but otherwise these schools would be free to implement their proven models with fidelity, without having to juggle district and CSR requirements.

Such a strategy could accomplish the goals Duncan and Murnane outline in thousands of schools, enough to make real inroads in the problems of inequity they so articulately identify.

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Can Educational Innovations Go To National Scale?

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In conversations about evidence-based reform, I often hear the objection that “we don’t really know how to take proven innovations to scale” or that “in order for schools or districts to adopt innovations, they must have a central role in creating and disseminating them locally.”

These assumptions turn out to be false. There are in fact many instances in which programs not developed by the educators using them have been widely and enthusiastically adopted by schools all over the U.S.

National Diffusion Network (NDN)
First, there was the National Diffusion Network (NDN). In 1979-1996, NDN invited program developers of all kinds to be reviewed by a Joint Dissemination Review Panel, which certified the program’s effects, likelihood of going to scale, and practical utility.

The program made “developer-dissemination” grants (at about $25,000 per year) to developers of promising programs. State facilitators were established in each state to promote the use of the appropriate programs. By the end of the NDN funding, thousands of schools were using one of more than 500 programs.

Comprehensive School Reform (CSR)
Beginning in 1991, a coalition of large corporations established New American Schools (NAS) to help fund innovators to create comprehensive whole-school reform models. Out of 700 applications, 11 were initially selected, and 7 of these were maintained after initial testing. These models began to be used in hundreds of school collectively. NAS helped identify target districts in which they held “effective methods fairs.” Hundreds of principals, teachers, and school board members came to learn about the models. They could ask representatives of one or more models to present at their schools. They then had a chance to contract with the models they chose. Starting in 1998, the Obey-Porter Act in Congress established incentive funding of at least $50,000 per year for three years for schools to implement comprehensive school reforms of their choice. This caused an outpouring of interest both in the NAS models and in others that were assembled to resemble NAS models. Within a few years, there were more than 2500 Title I schools receiving CSR funding and another 3500 schools adopting these models without CSR funding, mostly using existing Title I funds.

Evaluations of the CSR models began in the 1990s and continued into the early 2000s. They found consistent positive effects for some of the programs, especially the Comer School Development Program, America’s Choice, Modern Red Schoolhouse, and our Success for All program. Obey-Porter funding ended in 2003, but many of the school programs continued without Obey-Porter for many years, up to the present.

Investing in Innovation (i3)
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 brought in an administration eager to expand the use of research-proven programs in education and other fields. In a program called Investing in Innovation (i3), $650 million was set aside to fund educational programs in one of three categories: scale-up, validation, or development. To qualify for scale-up grants, programs had to have strong, positive, replicated outcomes in rigorous evaluations. Validation required a single positive study, and development grants only required a strong theory of action. Scale-up grantees received $50 million over five years to evaluate and scale-up their reforms, while validation projects received $30 million and development projects $5 million. A total of 47 programs, including 4 scale-up projects (Success for All, Reading Recovery, KIPP, and Teach for America) received funding in the first round. In years after the first, annual i3 funding was dropped to $150 million, and grants in each category were cut in half. After four rounds of funding, 77 development, 35 validation, and 5 scale-up projects have been funded. It is too early to say how these grants will work, but scale-up and validation projects are working in hundreds of additional schools under i3 funding and are developing capacity to do more. All of the programs will be rigorously evaluated by third-party evaluators.

NDN, CSR, and i3 have established beyond any doubt that:

1. With encouragement and modest funding, thousands of schools will eagerly adopt research-based programs.
2. Organizations willing and able to support school adoptions nationally will come forward and operate effectively if government helps schools with initial funding barriers.
3. Many whole-school reform models have developed strong evidence of effectiveness, but a strong evidence base without government encouragement and incentives does not lead to robust adoptions.
4. The idea that whole-school reforms must be created by the schools that use them has clearly been disproved. Schools are willing and able to adopt proven programs developed elsewhere if they can afford them.

As reforms in federal education programs such as Title ISchool Improvement Grants, and Race to the Top go forward, it makes sense to continue to develop, evaluate, and disseminate whole-school reform models. This approach can expand rapidly while maintaining quality at scale and can improve outcomes for millions of disadvantaged children.