When Will We Reach Our 1962 Moment in Education?

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When I was in college, I had an ancient 1957 Chevy. What a great car. Stylish, dependable, indestructible.

My 1957 Chevy was beautiful, but it had no seatbelts, no airbags, and no recourse if the brakes went out. It got about 13 miles to the gallon, polluted the atmosphere, and was not expected to last more than 100,000 miles. Due to development, evaluation, and public-spirited policy, all these problems have been solved. Automotive design has been revolutionized by embracing policies based on innovation and evidence.

Not that I remember 1957 very well, but I was thinking about it as a model for where we are today in evidence-based reform in education, as distinct from medicine. In 1957, drug companies could make any claims they liked about medications. There was research, but physicians routinely ignored it. However, change was on the way. In 1962, the Kefauver-Harris Amendment required that all drug applications to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA, established in 1927) demonstrate “substantial evidence” of safety and effectiveness. These standards continue to evolve, but today it is unthinkable that drug companies could make misleading claims about unproven medicines.

In 1957, the progress toward evidence-based reform in medicine would have been clear, but the policy world was not yet ready. For one thing, the American Medical Association fought tooth and nail against the evidence standards, as did most drug companies. Yet evidence prevailed because despite the power and money of the AMA and the drug companies, millions of ordinary citizens, not to mention the majority of physicians, knew that prescribing medications of unknown safety and effectiveness was just plain wrong. Everyone takes medicine, or we have relatives who do, and we want to know what works and what doesn’t. Specifically, a European drug called Thalidomide taken by pregnant mothers caused massive and widespread birth defects, and this swept away the opposition to drug testing standards.

In education, we have not reached our 1962 moment. Publishers and software developers are free to make any claims they like about the effectiveness of their products, and educators have difficulty sorting effective from ineffective products. Yet the handwriting is on the wall. Rigorous evaluations of educational programs are becoming more and more common. Many of these evaluations are being paid for by the companies themselves, who want to be on the right side of history when and if our 1962 moment arrives.

In education, our 1962 will probably not involve an equivalent of the FDA or a prohibition on the use of untested products. Unlike medicine, few educational products are likely to be harmful, so experimentation with new approaches is a lot safer. What is more likely, I believe, is that there will be incentives and encouragement from various levels of government for schools to adopt proven programs. In particular, I think it is very likely that Title I and other federal programs will begin insisting on a strong evidence base for investments of federal dollars.

To reach our 1962 moment will require sustained investment in development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven programs in all subjects and grade levels, and a change of policies to encourage the use of proven programs.

I hope our 1962 moment is coming soon. To bring it closer, we have a lot of work to do, in innovation, evaluation, policy, and practice. Government, foundations, innovators, researchers, and anyone who knows the transformative potential of education should be working toward the day when we no longer have to guess what works and what doesn’t. This is the time to build up our stock of proven, replicable programs of all kinds. It is also the time to try policy experiments such as Investing in Innovation (i3)SIG evidence-proven whole-school models, and Leveraging What Works, because when our 1962 comes, we will need to know how to build support for the whole evidence movement. Like my beloved 1957 Chevy, I hope we’re driving confidently toward our 1962 and beyond, confident that every new year will bring better outcomes for all.

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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!

Governing From the Outside In and Back Out Again

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“If a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take it from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the highest return.” – Benjamin Franklin

“We have a saying in Congress, when decisions are being made: ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’” – Senator Tom Harkin

When it comes to innovation, federal government bureaucrats usually do not sit around in their offices coming up with lots of brilliant and not-so-brilliant ideas. The majority of innovative ideas seized upon by the government originate elsewhere: a small program run by a local community leader; a researcher at a state university; or an engineer in a private sector company. Yet few of these people or programs, if left to their own devices, have the knowledge to conduct a moderately sized RCT or quasi-experimental study to determine the effectiveness of the program, much less any incentive or funding to do so. If told to go big or go home, most would never make it out the front door. Most of these people would be content to remain in their backyards running a program based on anecdotal evidence of accomplishment in their local community. No collaboration, no learning from other people’s mistakes, and no benefiting from other communities’ successes. Their ideas may be terrific, but local educators are not likely to evaluate or disseminate their ideas nationally.

The Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Resolution released by the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives this week asserts that the federal government works to “smother” and “stifle” innovation. It claims instead that this budget “promotes innovation” and reduces “ineffective” and “duplicative” programs. One of the ways it does this is by putting policy decisions in the hands of states and localities, which it states will lead to more “choices and opportunities for Americans.” Unfortunately, this is contrary to the intended result. States and localities do not have the capability to expand innovative ideas and disseminate the results the way the federal government can. Moreover, this would lead to greater duplication of efforts. As I’ve stated before, states do not do their own cancer research or defense technology research because it would be inefficient and uneconomical. The same is true for other areas of research and development.

Also released this week was a bipartisan paper entitled Moneyball for Education written by Frederick Hess and Bethany Little. In this paper, Hess and Little find common ground to suggest ideas for improving federal education policies using evidence and evaluation to spend taxpayer dollars more effectively and improve student outcomes. They assert that growing the database of innovative programs with evidence of positive outcomes and disseminating this information is in the public interest. It will provide greater flexibility and choice to state and local decision makers with an increased return on their investment thanks to the evidence behind the programs.

State and local governments should play a key role in the education process in education. Promising ideas should be welcome from everywhere — state and local governments, charter schools, universities, non-profits, and for profits. Innovators should be encouraged and given development funding to make their ideas practical and ready for evaluation. If the evaluations show positive effects, the programs should be scaled up nationally and offered as alternatives (not mandated) for local and state educators to use.

What I’ve just described is very similar to what the Investing in Innovation (i3) program already does. i3 is an outstanding example of how the federal government can support innovation no matter what its source and then help evaluate and disseminate information that state and local educators can use to make wise decisions. No matter which party initiated it or what it is called, this process is the way federal, state, and local government can best work together to introduce innovation without imposing mandates or restricting choice. Yet the current majority funding proposals have taken i3 out of the budget.

A healthy system of evidence-driven innovation has to involve all levels of government and many actors outside of government. It is both outside-in and inside-out, with each part of the system playing the role to which it is best suited.

Let a thousand (local) flowers bloom, and then send sacks of proven flower seeds back to the locals to use as they see fit. But there is a key step in the middle of this process that only the federal government can play: evaluation, and communicating the results of the evaluations. So it should be in education.

Leveraging What Works

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In my blog from two weeks ago, I discussed several exciting proposals in President Obama’s recent budget relating to increasing the role of evidence in education policy and practice. Today, I want to say more about one of these proposals, Leveraging What Works (LWW).

Leveraging What Works is deceptively simple. It offers grants totaling $100 million nationwide to school districts willing to use the grant, along with a portion of its formula funds — such as Title I and IDEA — to adopt proven programs that meet the “strong” or “moderate” level of evidence of effectiveness as defined in EDGAR.

Simple though it appears, Leveraging What Works would be revolutionary. Here’s why.

First, the program would generate a huge amount of interest. Winning LWW funding would be sought after avidly not only for the money itself but as a feather in the cap of innovative thought-leader districts. These districts will be eager to win the money and tell their stories. The whole process will create a positive “buzz” around the use of proven programs.

Because of the money and the positive buzz, many more districts will apply for LWW funding than can be funded. Yet having looked at the range of proven programs available to them, many of these districts will choose to adopt proven programs using their formula funding even without the LWW grant. This is exactly what happened with the Obey-Porter Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Act (CSR) of the late 1990’s. Thousands of schools applied for modest grants to help them adopt whole-school models, and each year, hundreds of schools that were turned down for grant funding adopted CSR models anyway, using other funding.

Leveraging What Works could revive the idea that formula funding can be the fuel for innovation rather than just a mainstay of the status quo. Let’s be honest: It’s been a long time since Title I has been considered sexy. LWW could energize Title I advocates and those who want schools to have the freedom to choose what works to improve outcomes for children. Title I needs to move from a compliance mindset to an innovation mindset, and LWW could help make this happen. It could help establish Title I schools as the places where up-and-coming teachers and administrators want to be, because those are the schools that get the first crack at the latest proven innovations.

Leveraging What Works would also energize the world of research and development, and the funders of R&D within and outside government. They would see programs proven in rigorous research being eagerly adopted by schools nationwide, and seeing the clear connection between research, development, and practice, they would redouble their efforts to create and evaluate promising, replicable programs of all kinds.

Until recently, it would have been difficult to justify an initiative like Leveraging What Works, but thanks to Investing in Innovation (i3), IES, NSF, and other funders, the number of proven programs is growing. For example, I recently counted 28 elementary reading approaches, from tutoring to whole-school reform, that should meet the EDGAR standards, and more are qualifying every year. Every one of these is actively disseminating its methods and is ready to grow.

One curious aspect of the Leveraging What Works proposal is that it provides incentives for the use of formula funding to adopt proven programs but does not provide similar incentives for adopting proven programs using competitive grants. When competitive grants are offered to schools, districts, or states, it would be easy to incentivize the use of proven programs by giving preference points to proposals that commit to using them. For example, proposals might get four extra points for choosing a program that meets the EDGAR “strong” definition, and two points for choosing a program meeting the EDGAR “moderate” definition, as I’ve argued before. It may be that this strategy was left out of the budget proposal because it does not really cost anything, so I hope it will be part of the administration’s plans whatever happens with LWW.

The Greek mathematician Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I’ll move the Earth.” Leveraging What Works could be such a lever, a modest investment with potential to make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of children.

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.

Fund What Works!

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President Obama’s recently released budget may or may not make its way into law, but it has already made its way into the hearts of those who believe that government programs must be held to account for producing the outcomes they are intended to produce. Red or blue, everyone should want government dollars to make a difference.

For PK-12 education, evidence appears in a starring role in the president’s proposal. To me, the most exciting innovation in the budget is something called Leveraging What Works. This is a proposal for a competitive grant program in which the U.S. Department of Education would reward school districts that use their existing federal formula funds for activities that have a strong or moderate evidence base as defined in the recent EDGAR changes, a proposal I have advocated on this blog. The total amount requested, $100 million per year, is tiny compared with current expenditures, but it would be a start on the idea that federal dollars should increasingly go to proven programs and practices. Hopefully, this idea would go along with policies encouraging adding preference points to competitive proposals that commit to using proven approaches.

The proposal would add $50 million for School Improvement Grants (SIG) for states to use to encourage school districts to implement proven strategies. If the standards for “proven” are rigorous, this would be another way to use modest funding to spur effective use of much larger existing funding.

The Investing in Innovation (i3) program is showing its value in moving along the pipeline of educational innovations from development to validation to scale-up. The budget would more than double annual funding for this crucial program. It would also double funding for early education research and evaluation and would invest $20 million a year to test strategies to improve transitions from preschool to third grade. It adds $70 million to the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) to test promising solutions to a broad array of problems relating to children and youth.

There is much more in the remarkable budget. I hope our Congress can put aside partisanship and agree on a compelling new direction for government: Fund What Works!

America’s Strength: An Innovation Economy

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In a 2012 article in The New York Times called “China’s Rise Isn’t Our Demise,” Vice President Joe Biden wrote a cogent summary of America’s advantage in the world economy that has enormous implications for innovation in education.

“The United States is hard-wired for innovation. Competition is in the very fabric of our society. It has enabled each generation of Americans to give life to world-changing ideas – from the cotton gin to the airplane, the microchip, the Internet.

We owe our strength to our political and economic system and to the way we educate our children – not merely to accept established orthodoxy but to challenge and improve it… Our universities remain the ultimate destination for the world’s students and scholars.”

Nothing in Biden’s article was new or surprising. Every American understands that our success in the world economy depends on education and innovation.

So why do we devote so little attention to innovation in education? The very orientations and investments Vice President Biden cited as the basis of our success in other fields are rarely applied to improving education itself. Instead of inventing our way to success, as we do in so many other fields, we keep trying to improve education through changes in governance, regulations, and rules, which never produce change in core classroom practices and outcomes. Every state’s textbook adoption requirements specify paperweight, but never mention the weight of evidence behind the use of the book. Special education regulations specify that children be placed in the “least restrictive environment” but never the “most effective environment.” Title I has reams of regulations about how funds can or can’t be spent, but hardly a word suggesting that they be spent on programs proven to work.

The shelf of proven programs is steadily growing, due to investments at the Institute for Education Sciences, Investing in Innovation (i3), the National Science Foundation, and other government funders, as well as private foundation funders. Yet evidence and innovation continue to play an extremely small role in Title I, Title II, special education, and other federal programs, much less in state and local programs. A movement toward giving schools and districts more freedom in choosing how to use federal funding is a positive development, but local educators will need reliable information about proven, replicable programs to translate their new freedom into solid benefits for their children. Innovation based on research and development is what America does best. Isn’t it time to dedicate ourselves to innovating our way to solutions of our longstanding educational problems?