Publishers and Evidence

High above the Avenue of the Americas on prime real estate in midtown Manhattan towers the 51-story McGraw-Hill building. When in New York, I always find time to go look at that building and reflect on the quixotic quest I and my colleagues are on to get educational decision makers to choose rigorously evaluated, proven programs. These programs are often made by small non-profit organizations and universities, like the ones I work in. Looking up at that mighty building in New York, I always wonder, are we fooling ourselves? Who are we to take on some of the most powerful companies in the world?

Education publishing is dominated by three giant, multi-billion dollar publishers, plus another three or four even bigger technology companies. These behemoths are not worried about us, not one bit. Instead, they are worried about each other.

From my experience, there are very good people who work in publishing and technology companies, people who genuinely hope that their products will improve learning for students. They would love to create innovative programs, evaluate them rigorously, and disseminate those found to be effective. However, big as they are, the major publishers face severe constraints in offering proven programs. Because they are in ferocious competition with each other, publishers cannot easily invest in expensive development and evaluation, or insist on extensive professional development, a crucial element of virtually all programs that have been shown to improve student achievement. Doing so would raise their costs, making them vulnerable to lower-cost competitors.

In recent years, many big publishers and technology companies have begun to commission third-party evaluations of their major textbooks, software, and other products. If the evaluations show positive outcomes, they can use this information in their marketing, and having rigorous evidence showing positive impacts helps protect them from the possibility that government might begin to favor programs, software, or other products with proven outcomes in rigorous research. This is exactly what did happen with the enactment of the ESSA evidence standards, though the impact of these standards has not yet been strongly felt.

However, publishers and technology companies cannot get too far out ahead of their market. If superintendents, central office leaders, and others who select textbooks and technology get on board the evidence train, then publishers will greatly expand their efforts in research and development. If the market continues to place little value on evidence, so will the big publishers.

In contrast to commercial publishers and technology companies, non-profit organizations play a disproportionate role in the evidence movement. They are often funded by government or philanthropies to create and evaluate innovations, as big commercial companies almost never are. Non-profits have the freedom to experiment, and to disseminate what works. However, non-profits, universities, and tiny for-profit start-ups are small, under-capitalized, and have little capacity or experience in marketing. Their main, and perhaps only, competitive advantage is that they have evidence of effectiveness. If no one cares about evidence, our programs will not last long.

One problem publishers face is that evaluations of traditional textbooks usually do not show any achievement benefits compared to control groups. The reason is that one publisher’s textbook is just not that different from another’s, which is what the control group is using. Publishers rarely provide much professional development, which makes it difficult for them to introduce anything truly innovative. The half-day August in-service that comes with most textbooks is barely enough to get teachers familiar with the features in the most traditional book. The same is true of technology approaches, which also rarely make much difference in student outcomes, perhaps because they typically provide little professional development beyond what is necessary to run the software.

The strategy emphasized by government and philanthropy for many years has been to fund innovators to create and evaluate programs. Those that succeed are then encouraged or funded to “scale up” their proven programs. Some are able to grow to impressive scale, but never so much as to worry big companies. An occasional David can surprise an occasional Goliath, but in the long run, the big guys win, and they’ll keep winning until someone changes the rules. To oversimplify a bit, what we have are massive publishers and technology companies with few proven innovations, and small non-profits with proven programs but little money or marketing expertise. This is not a recipe for progress.

The solution lays with government. National, state, and/or local governments have to adopt policies that favor the use of programs and software that have been proven in rigorous experiments to be effective in improving student achievement. At the federal level, the ESSA evidence standards are showing the way, and if they truly catch hold, this may be enough. But imagine if a few large states or even big districts started announcing that they were henceforth going to require evidence of effectiveness when they adopt programs and software. The effect could be electric.

For non-profits, such policies could greatly expand access to schools, and perhaps to funding. But most non-profits are so small that it would take them years to scale up substantially while maintaining quality and effectiveness.

For publishers and technology companies, the effect could be even more dramatic. If effectiveness begins to matter, even if just in a few key places, then it becomes worthwhile for them to create, partner with, or acquire effective innovations that provide sufficient professional development. In states and districts with pro-evidence policies, publishers would not have to worry about being undercut by competitors, because all vendors would have to meet evidence standards.

Publishers have tried to acquire proven programs in the past, but this usually comes to smash, because they tend to strip out the professional development and other elements that made the program work in the first place. However, in a pro-evidence environment, publishers would be motivated to maintain the quality, effectiveness, and “brand” of any programs they acquire.

In medicine, most research on practical medications is funded by drug companies and carefully monitored and certified by government. Could such a thing happen in education?

Publishers and technology companies have the capital and expertise to take effective programs to scale. Partnering with creators of proven programs, or creating and evaluating their own, big companies can make a real difference, as long as government ensures that the programs they are disseminating are in fact of the same quality and effectiveness as the versions that were found to be effective.

Publishers and technology companies are a key part of the education landscape. They need to be welcomed into evidence-based reform, and incentivized to engage in innovation and evaluation. Otherwise, educational innovation will remain a marginal activity, benefitting thousands of students when millions are in need.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

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