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!

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.