One Small Step for Washington, One Giant Leap for Children

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Photo courtesy of NASA

Recently I wrote about a new education innovation initiative being supported by some members of Congress. The initiative is based on the successful Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which has been running in 11 federal agencies for decades. Each agency running SBIR sets aside a tiny percentage of its budget to award grants to small companies working to develop and evaluate new technologies. SBIR has received positive reviews from both the Government Accountability Office and the National Academy of Sciences.

I also recently wrote about Congress’ efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The Senate bipartisan compromise bill released last week by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Patty Murray (D-Washington) was marked up in the Senate HELP Committee this week. On the second day of a three-day markup, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), with the support of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), offered the new education innovation initiative as an amendment to ESEA. The amendment was passed by the Committee (with a block of other amendments) by voice vote, which means that it was considered noncontroversial. (The final bill passed the Committee unanimously this afternoon.)

While the passage of this amendment is only a small step for Washington in the greater marathon that is ESEA, it represents a giant leap for students nationwide.

First, let’s look at what the amendment does. It adds a section on “Education Innovation and Research” to the bill. This would provide grants for “the development, implementation, replication, or scaling and rigorous testing of entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovation to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students.” It requires that at least 25 percent of the funds be used for students in rural areas. Grants may be provided to states and school districts as well as nonprofits, small businesses, charter management organizations, educational service agencies, or institutions of higher education working in partnership with a state or school district. Grantees can apply at any stage, and grant amounts will be based on the level of previous success and evidence of effectiveness in achieving desired educational outcomes. The amendment drew a broad coalition of support, and a letter with over 140 signatories was sent to the senators in advance of the markup to bolster support for the amendment at the markup.

Now let’s turn to what this amendment means politically and policy-wise, and what it will mean in the long run for communities and children across the country.

At one of the most divisive political moments in our nation’s history, in a piece of legislation that itself is controversial and has failed to be reauthorized despite numerous attempts over the past six years, a bipartisan amendment providing for education innovation and research sailed through a Senate committee. Politically, its inclusion in the chairman’s bill as it moves to the Senate floor means an extremely strong likelihood that it will withstand the floor process (should there be one) and make it into the final Senate bill. Even if ESEA fails to get reauthorized this Congress, the fact that this provision is now in the chairman’s bill sets an important precedent for inclusion in future attempts to reauthorize ESEA.

Policy-wise, this kind of bipartisan embrace of innovation and research in the realm of education represents a new era.

Congress and government in general is increasingly demanding evidence of effectiveness for education programs, a change that has enormous potential for improving programs for children.

The Bennet-Hatch amendment continues and advances the movement toward the use of evidence as a guide to policy and practice in education. There is still a lot to do even if this amendment becomes law, but the very fact that such a thing could happen is an indication that the ideas of evidence-based reform are no longer from the moon.

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Is Now the Time to Reauthorize ESEA?

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The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the giant centerpiece of educational policy, is up for reauthorization. Again. What that means is that it’s time to revisit the act in order to make changes and improvements to the law. Of course, it was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007, but what with partisan politics, outside influences and the lack of any general consensus around the various efforts, Congress has yet to successfully reauthorize the legislation. As a result, national educational policy has been a patchwork of waivers, dodges, and weaves unworthy of a great nation. ESEA is the Eeyore of legislation: “I’ll probably never be reauthorized.” Or the Rodney Dangerfield: “I get no respect.” Or the Godot, for which we’ll be forever waiting.

This year, Congress is taking up ESEA reauthorization again, but the road ahead remains long and fraught with obstacles. The House version, introduced by Reps. John Kline (R-Minnesota) and Todd Rokita (R-Indiana), made it through the Education and Workforce Committee along strict party lines, yet in February it was pulled right before a vote by the full House, with many surmising that it just wasn’t conservative enough to garner the votes it would need to pass. This week, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Patty Murray (D-Washington) released a bipartisan compromise bill that they hope will make it through the Senate. But the draft is still open to amendments by the members of the HELP Committee and then the full Senate, and whether a single bill can satisfy the demands and desires of the broad political spectrum entrenched in Washington right now is unclear. Even if ESEA does not get reauthorized this Congress, the process is a necessary step toward eventually creating a better bill. Each Congress, when ESEA is debated, progress is made, and sometimes that progress leads to positive changes even without a comprehensive agreement. But it would be nice to have a well-considered, widely supported law at the center of education policy.

On the other hand, there are several reasons that it may not be so awful to delay reauthorization until after the next presidential election. Beyond the hope that things might be less partisan by then, there are several positive developments underway that are not yet far enough along to be central to ESEA but could be given two more years.

The first, of course, is the evidence movement. Recent investments, such as Investing in Innovation and IES, have produced a broad set of proven and promising programs for schools. Schools are just starting to be encouraged to use proven programs with their federal funds, as in the evidence-proven, whole-school approach to school-improvement grants. Title II (professional development) has begun requiring grantees to have at least moderate evidence of effectiveness and gives a lot of competitive preference points for programs with strong evidence. President Obama’s budget proposal contained a provision called “Leveraging What Works,” providing schools with incentive funds if they use their formula funding to adopt proven programs. These changes are just happening now, too recently to affect ESEA. If they continue for two more years, they may have profound impacts on ESEA.

Another development is Common Core. This set of standards, and the computerized testing sometimes associated with them, are too new to be fully understood. In two years their potential role in ESEA will be better known.

Finally, technology is headed into our schools at an astonishing pace, yet we still are not clear about how to use it or what it will do. I’d be reluctant to build technology policies into ESEA before we really know more about what universal access to digital devices could accomplish.

Given how long No Child Left Behind has overstayed its welcome, it may be especially important to get the next reauthorization right. It could be with us for a very long time!

The Role of Research in Limited Government

Long ago Henry Kissinger said, “We can all have our own opinions, but we can’t all have our own facts.” I thought of this when I read a recent article on education reform by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. In it Bush argued that most education decisions should be made at the state and local levels. The same is also argued by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-Minnesota), who are leading the attempt to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

What is important in Bush’s article is that while he states his belief that the federal role in education should be limited, he also discusses what it should continue to do:

[The federal government] should work to create transparency so that parents can see how their local schools measure up; it should support policies that have a proven record; and it should make sure states can’t ignore students who need extra help. That’s it.

I’m glad to see Gov. Bush say that if there are only three federal functions in education, “[supporting] polices that have a proven record” is one of them. However, if government at any level is to “support polices that have a proven record,” then it makes sense that someone has to find out what those proven policies are. Research, development, and evaluation of potential policies and practices in education are a national responsibility, not a local one. It would be inefficient to have each state developing and evaluating its own education programs. How often do states do their own cancer research, for example? States and localities depend primarily on federally funded research to help them make wise decisions at their levels.

Yet just as Bush and others in his party seem to be recognizing that research and development are among the few education-related activities that should remain at the federal level, the Republican-controlled Congress is proposing to eliminate the Investing in Innovation (i3) program and cut back other federal investments in research and development.

As I’ve said before in this space, I support the idea that the federal government should stop trying to micromanage schools. Yet states and localities still need to know which policies have a proven record. We can and should all have our own local opinions, to paraphrase Kissinger, but I hope we will first have the facts we need to make good local decisions. For these we need reliable, rigorous research. Innovations in education should be welcomed from every source — local, state, federal, or non-governmental — but evaluating these innovations and communicating their findings is fundamentally a federal responsibility.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Investing in Innovation: Informing Local Control

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The new Congress is working on alternative versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, creating a successor to No Child Left Behind. Republican proposals have a strong emphasis on local control, getting the federal government out of what they believe should be local decisions. And in fact, Washington does often go too far in trying to micromanage local schools.

Unfortunately, the Republican bill in the House of Representatives takes out a critical support for local control: Investing in Innovation (i3). i3 funds development, evaluation, and scaling up of proven programs. Philosophically, i3 is a perfect match with local control. It does not prescribe anything but instead draws promising ideas from every source throughout the U.S. and puts them to a rigorous test, and those that are found to be effective in terms of learning outcomes for children are made available nationwide.

What i3 does is to give local educators well-evaluated, immediately usable solutions to the problems they face. No school has to use any particular program, but if they choose to do so, they have reliable information available.

The cost of i3 is minimal as a proportion of federal, state, and local education funding. Yet it already affects thousands of schools across the U.S., bringing forward a wide variety of proven and promising approaches. The innovation, evaluation, and dissemination provided by i3 needs to continue so that local educators can both contribute to and profit from the best programs available.

i3 is not an inside-the-Beltway scheme designed to control what local educators do. It is just the opposite. It gives local educators essential, actionable information and real solutions but no mandates, no requirements.

Research and development to identify effective approaches need to be funded and coordinated at the national level. States and localities are centrally involved in i3, but expecting each to have its own locally funded R & D process would be ineffective and inefficient, because it would duplicate efforts that are needed nationally. Every locality need not invent, evaluate, and disseminate its own approach to algebra or science, just as it would make no sense to have local hospitals use their own funds to do their own research on cures for cancer. i3 funds local innovations, helps hold them to high standards of evaluation, and then helps disseminate them so local districts can focus on using what works rather than on reinventing the wheel.

When President Reagan was first taking office, the Heritage Foundation prepared a brief suggesting all the programs they thought should be returned to state and local control. The main exceptions: research and development. All these years later, this same logic should apply.

Investing in Innovation is broadly supported by educators, researchers, and organizations. A letter signed by 117 organizations representing hundreds of thousands of educators urges continuation of i3. Few proposals for improvement of America’s schools have equal potential at such low cost, and few provide greater support for informed local control of education.

Baby Steps Toward Better Formula Grants in Education

2013-06-27-HPPicture.jpgWhen I speak with policy folks about evidence-based reform, I often hear something like this: “Sure, you can give preference points for using proven programs in competitive grants, but that doesn’t work in formula grants, like Title I and Title II, and that’s where the real money is.”

This is indeed a serious problem. Formula funding is universally popular, and educators and most policymakers argue these days for greater flexibility and local authority in the use of formula funding. After NCLB’s ham-handed efforts to force schools to use significant Title I funds on unproven (and ultimately ineffective) after-school tutoring programs and transfer provisions, there is little appetite for limitations on uses of Title I funds. Further, in a time when increases in education funding are unlikely, politically popular formula funding streams will surely remain, but less understood competitive grants are not likely to be added.

What’s the formula for increasing the use of proven programs in formula grants? Baby steps. After all, who knows formula better than babies?

The idea I’m suggesting is to gradually increase the role of evidence-proven approaches in Title I and other formula grants in a step-by-step fashion. First, find any money not firmly tied down and use it to support development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven approaches specific to a particular formula funding stream. Right now, Investing in Innovation (i3), which is funding development, validation, and scale-up of proven approaches, is playing this role for Title I; most of the i3-funded programs, if proven effective, will be immediately useful to Title I schools in addressing their most important objectives. Similar research/development/evaluation/scale-up approaches might create whole-school reforms to inform school turnaround programs, technology applications, RTI or special education approaches to support IDEA programs, and so on.

As the evidence base grows, national, state, and local leaders can exert influence to encourage use of proven models, including disseminating clear and usable information on them. This means not only websites, but also effective-methods fairs, where local educators can see new visions of what their schools could become.

The costs of robust research, development, evaluation, and dissemination are consequential, but so small compared to the formula funding streams themselves that they may be tucked into legislation or policy with little pain or notice. For example, Title I already has a 0.5% set-aside for evaluation. In a $15 billion grant program, that’s $75 million a year. Imagine if this money were added to i3 (currently $150 million a year) specifically to develop, evaluate, and scale-up turnaround models for failing schools. As more proven programs developed and flourished, Title I schools could be encouraged to use them.

The most direct application of proven approaches will always be to competitive federal funding streams, not to formula grants, but these can and should be strategically designed to serve as a step toward reforming the bigger formula funding streams. For example, imagine that NCLB had allocated a tiny proportion of its funding to development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven after-school tutoring models, and had established a competitive grant program in which applicants received preference if they used proven approaches. Had this been put into the NCLB law, by now we’d have dozens of proven, replicable after-school tutoring models operating all over the U.S., with districts clamoring to use them.

Someday, ESEA will be reauthorized. If the past is a guide, most of it will focus on accountability and formula funds, which will be endlessly debated. But alongside the big headline-catching issues, I hope there will be strong support for the baby steps that will lead to genuine transformation of America’s schools.

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It’s the Right Time to Do the Right Thing

Over a 37-year career in educational research and reform, I’ve always been an advocate for using proven programs and practices to improve schools. In that time, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone opposed to the idea in principle. In the academy, there are those who argue about which research designs and measures should count as evidence of effectiveness, but in the world of education practice and policy, this is not the problem. Instead, educational leaders always have a good reason why, even though they strongly support the idea of evidence-based reform, they can’t do it right now. They complain that the evidence is never clear, and they don’t have the time or expertise to figure out what really works. But mostly, they say it’s just not the right time.

Why is it not the right time? The number one objection, of course, is a lack of money. Another is that there are too few proven programs to choose from right now. Another is that there is an election coming, or one has just taken place, or that some other issue is more important. At the moment, for example, evidence-based reform is on hold because of the upcoming election, because Common Core is coming, because school districts are figuring out what to do with Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind waivers, and value-added assessments of teachers, not to mention the long-delayed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The current continuing resolution prevents progress in Congress, and then there’s the possibility of sequestration. Plus lack of money.

Each of these concerns is legitimate in its own way, but if we really wanted to base educational policy and practice on evidence, we could do it.

In terms of knowing what works, there are now several good guides: The What Works Clearinghouse and our Best Evidence Encyclopedia are good places to begin. Programs that were funded by i3 at the Validation or Scale-Up levels had to show moderate or high levels of evidence, respectively.

In terms of resources to implement proven programs, a bit of zero-based budgeting could readily solve the problem. The average per-pupil cost in the U.S. is more than $10,000 per year. I’m not aware of any whole-school reform model that costs as much as 1.5% of that ($150 per student). Deciding not to replace retiring paraprofessionals, or repurposing Supplemental Education Services (SES) funding no longer required in states with waivers, these costs can be covered without any increases in funding.

Fundamentally, it is only tradition, inertia, and politics that hold back evidence-based reform. Every Title I school in America could be using proven models of their choice within five years, without any doubt. All we need is leadership that recognizes that there is only one time to do the right thing: Right now.

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Is Whole School Reform Poised for a Comeback in ESEA?

Whole school (or comprehensive) reform models are making a remarkable comeback in policy and practice. Popular in the 1990’s, with as many as 6,000 schools using whole-school models by 2001, the Bush administration tried to eliminate the approach in the 2000s, despite strong positive effects in evaluations of several of the most popular models.

Recently, whole-school reform has re-appeared in the Senate’s proposals for reauthorization of ESEA. Here’s the proposed language:

(iv) WHOLE SCHOOL REFORM STRATEGY- A local educational agency implementing a whole school reform strategy for a school shall implement an evidence-based strategy that ensures whole school reform. The strategy shall be undertaken in partnership with a strategy developer offering a school reform program that is based on at least a moderate level of evidence that the program will have a statistically significant effect on student outcomes, including more than 1 well-designed or well-implemented experimental or quasi-experimental study.

This whole-school reform language is much better than the language in the 1997 Obey-Porter bill that greatly accelerated investments in whole-school approaches. Obey-Porter was clear about the nine (later 11) elements that should be included in whole-school plans (instruction, curriculum, professional development, parent involvement, etc.), but it was vague about the evidence requirement. Last week’s Senate bill, however, is clear that to qualify, whole school programs seeking to turn around the nation’s worst-performing schools will have to meet a specific set of evidence standards. That’s a big improvement in itself.

This whole-school reform provision was one of the few aspects of the turnaround portions of the bill to receive broad support. During an often-heated debate, Republicans and Democrats seemed to agree that the evidence was supportive of this approach to turning around low-achieving schools. Senator Burr (R-NC), in seeking to strike the whole turnaround section, acknowledged whole school reform as the model most likely to produce results. Senator Franken (D-MN) cited the addition of whole school reform as an improvement over the four models rolled out by the administration.

Whatever happens with the overall Senate proposal, I very much hope this provision survives. There are far too many persistently low-achieving schools in the U.S. to expect that each of them is going to invent its own successful approach. While the Senate bill does not (and should not) mandate use of whole-school reforms, its mention of the approach and of rigorous standards of evidence are sure to encourage many schools to consider it. And that would lead many organizations to create, rigorously evaluate, and disseminate a wide variety of models that would empower struggling schools to turn themselves around.