The Good, the Bad, and the (Un)Promising

The ESSA evidence standards are finally beginning to matter. States are starting the process that will lead them to make school improvement awards to their lowest-achieving schools. The ESSA law is clear that for schools to qualify for these awards, they must agree to implement programs that meet the strong, moderate, or promising levels of the ESSA evidence standards. This is very exciting for those who believe in the power of proven programs to transform schools and benefit children. It is good news for kids, for teachers, and for our profession.

But inevitably, there is bad news with the good. If evidence is to be a standard for government funding, there are bound to be people who disseminate programs lacking high-quality evidence who will seek to bend the definitions to declare themselves “proven.” And there are also bound to be schools and districts that want to keep using what they have always used, or to keep choosing programs based on factors other than evidence, while doing the minimum the law requires.

The battleground is the ESSA “promising” criterion. “Strong” programs are pretty well defined as having significant positive evidence from high-quality randomized studies. “Moderate” programs are pretty well defined as having significant positive evidence from high-quality matched studies. Both “strong” and “moderate” are clearly defined in Evidence for ESSA (www.evidenceforessa.org), and, with a bit of translation, by the What Works Clearinghouse, both of which list specific programs that meet or do not meet these standards.

“Promising,” on the other hand is kind  of . . . squishy. The ESSA evidence standards do define programs meeting “promising” as ones that have statistically significant effects in “well-designed and well-implemented” correlational studies, with controls for inputs (e.g., pretests).  This sounds good, but it is hard to nail down in practice. I’m seeing and hearing about a category of studies that perfectly illustrate the problem. Imagine that a developer commissions a study of a form of software. A set of schools and their 1000 students are assigned to use the software, while control schools and their 1000 students do not have access to the software but continue with business as usual.

Computers routinely produce “trace data” that automatically tells researchers all sorts of things about how much students used the software, what they did with it, how successful they were, and so on.

The problem is that typically, large numbers of students given software do not use it. They may never even hit a key, or they may use the software so little that the researchers rule the software use to be effectively zero. So in a not unusual situation, let’s assume that in the treatment group, the one that got the software, only 500 of the 1000 students actually used the software at an adequate level.

Now here’s the rub. Almost always, the 500 students will out-perform the 1000 controls, even after controlling for pretests. Yet this would be likely to happen even if the software were completely ineffective.

To understand this, think about the 500 students who did use the software and the 500 who did not. The users are probably more conscientious, hard-working, and well-organized. The 500 non-users are more likely to be absent a lot, to fool around in class, to use their technology to play computer games, or go on (non-school-related) social media, rather than to do math or science for example. Even if the pretest scores in the user and non-user groups were identical, they are not identical students, because their behavior with the software is not equal.

I once visited a secondary school in England that was a specially-funded model for universal use of technology. Along with colleagues, I went into several classes. The teachers were teaching their hearts out, making constant use of the technology that all students had on their desks. The students were well-behaved, but just a few dominated the discussion. Maybe the others were just a bit shy, we thought. From the front of each class, this looked like the classroom of the future.

But then, we filed to the back of each class, where we could see over students’ shoulders. And we immediately saw what was going on. Maybe 60 or 70 percent of the students were actually on social media unrelated to the content, paying no attention to the teacher or instructional software!

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Now imagine that a study compared the 30-40% of students who were actually using the computers to students with similar pretests in other schools who had no computers at all. Again, the users would look terrific, but this is not a fair comparison, because all the goof-offs and laggards in the computer school had selected themselves out of the study while goof-offs and laggards in the control group were still included.

Rigorous researchers use a method called intent-to-treat, which in this case would include every student, whether or not they used the software or played non-educational computer games. “Not fair!” responds the software developer, because intent-to-treat includes a lot of students who never touched a key except to use social media. No sophisticated researcher accepts such an argument, however, because including only users gives the experimental group a big advantage.

Here’s what is happening at the policy level. Software developers are using data from studies that only include the students who made adequate use of the software. They are then claiming that such studies are correlational and meet the “promising” standard of ESSA.

Those who make this argument are correct in saying that such studies are correlational. But these studies are very, very, very bad, because they are biased toward the treatment. The ESSA standards specify well-designed and well-implemented studies, and these studies may be correlational, but they are not well-designed or well-implemented. Software developers and other vendors are very concerned about the ESSA evidence standards, and some may use the “promising” category as a loophole. Evidence for ESSA does not accept such studies, even as promising, and the What Works Clearinghouse does not even have any category that corresponds to “promising.” Yet vendors are flooding state departments of education and districts with studies they claim to meet the ESSA standards, though in the lowest category.

Recently, I heard something that could be a solution to this problem. Apparently, some states are announcing that for school improvement grants, and any other purpose that has financial consequences, they will only accept programs with “strong” and “moderate” evidence. They have the right to do this; the federal law says school improvement grants must support programs that at least meet the “promising” standard, but it does not say states cannot set a higher minimum standard.

One might argue that ignoring “promising” studies is going too far. In Evidence for ESSA (www.evidenceforessa.org), we accept studies as “promising” if they have weaknesses that do not lead to bias, such as clustered studies that were significant at the student but not the cluster level. But the danger posed by studies claiming to fit “promising” using biased designs is too great. Until the feds fix the definition of “promising” to exclude bias, the states may have to solve it for themselves.

I hope there will be further development of the “promising” standard to focus it on lower-quality but unbiased evidence, but as things are now, perhaps it is best for states themselves to declare that “promising” is no longer promising.

Eventually, evidence will prevail in education, as it has in many other fields, but on the way to that glorious future, we are going to have to make some adjustments. Requiring that “promising” be truly promising would be a good place to begin.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

 

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The Mill and The School

 

On a recent trip to Scotland, I visited some very interesting oat mills. I always love to visit medieval mills, because I find it endlessly fascinating how people long ago used natural forces and materials – wind, water, and fire, stone, wood, and metal – to create advanced mechanisms that had a profound impact on society.

In Scotland, it’s all about oat mills (almost everywhere else, it’s wheat). These grain mills date back to the 10th century. In their time, they were a giant leap in technology. A mill is very complicated, but at its heart are two big innovations. In the center of the mill, a heavy millstone turns on top of another. The grain is poured through a hole in the top stone for grinding. The miller’s most difficult task is to maintain an exact distance between the stones. A few millimeters too far apart and no milling happens. A few millimeters too close and the heat of friction can ruin the machinery, possibly causing a fire.

The other key technology is the water wheel (except in windmills, of course). The water mill is part of a system that involves a carefully controlled flow of water from a millpond, which the miller uses to provide exactly the right amount of water to turn a giant wooden wheel, which powers the top millstone.

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The medieval grain mill is not a single innovation, but a closely integrated system of innovations. Millers learned to manage this complex technology in a system of apprenticeship over many years.

Mills enabled medieval millers to obtain far more nutrition from an acre of grain than was possible before. This made it possible for land to support many more people, and the population surged. The whole feudal system was built around the economics of mills, and mills thrived through the 19th century.

What does the mill have to with the school? Mills only grind well-behaved grain into well-behaved flour, while schools work with far more complex children, families, and all the systems that surround them. The products of schools must include joy and discovery, knowledge and skills.

Yet as different as they are, mills have something to teach us. They show the importance of integrating diverse systems that can then efficiently deliver desired outcomes. Neither a mill nor an effective school comes into existence because someone in power tells it to. Instead, complex systems, mills or schools, must be created, tested, adapted to local needs, and constantly improved. Once we know how to create, manage, and disseminate effective mills or schools, policies can be readily devised to support their expansion and improvement.

Important progress in societies and economies almost always comes about from development of complex, multi-component innovations that, once developed, can be disseminated and continuously improved. The same is true of schools. Changes in governance or large-scale policies can enhance (or inhibit) the possibility of change, but the reality of reform depends on creation of complex, integrated systems, from mills to ships to combines to hospitals to schools.

For education, what this means is that system transformation will come only when we have whole-school improvement approaches that are known to greatly increase student outcomes. Whole-school change is necessary because many individual improvements are needed to make big changes, and these must be carefully aligned with each other. Just as the huge water wheel and the tiny millstone adjustment mechanism and other components must work together in the mill, the key parts of a school must work together in synchrony to produce maximum impact, or the whole system fails to work as well as it should.

For example, if you look at research on proven programs, you’ll find effective strategies for school management, for teaching, and for tutoring struggling readers. These are all well and good, but they work so much better if they are linked to each other.

To understand this, first consider tutoring. Especially in the elementary grades, there is no more effective strategy. Our recent review of research on programs for struggling readers finds that well-qualified teaching assistants can be as effective as teachers in tutoring struggling readers, and that while one-to-four tutoring is less effective than one-to-one, it is still a lot more effective than no tutoring. So an evidence-oriented educator might logically choose to implement proven one-to-one and/or one-to-small group tutoring programs to improve school outcomes.

However, tutoring only helps the students who receive it, and it is expensive. A wise school administrator might reason that tutoring alone is not sufficient, but improving the quality of classroom instruction is also essential, both to improve outcomes for students who do not need tutoring and to reduce the number of students who do need tutoring. There is an array of proven classroom methods the principal or district might choose to improve student outcomes in all subjects and grade levels (see www.evidenceforessa.org).

But now consider students who are at risk because they are not attending regularly, or have behavior problems, or need eyeglasses but do not have them. Flexible school-level systems are necessary to ensure that students are in school, eager to learn, well-behaved, and physically prepared to succeed.

In addition, there is a need to have school principals and other leaders learn strategies for making effective use of proven programs. These would include managing professional development, coaching, monitoring implementation and outcomes of proven programs, distributed leadership, and much more. Leadership also requires jointly setting school goals with all school staff and monitoring progress toward these goals.

These are all components of the education “mill” that have to be designed, tested, and (if effective) disseminated to ever-increasing numbers of schools. Like the mill, an effective school design integrates individual parts, makes them work in synchrony, constantly assesses their functioning and output, and adjusts procedures when necessary.

Many educational theorists argue that education will only change when systems change. Ferocious battles rage about charters vs. ordinary public schools, about adopting policies of countries that do well on international tests, and so on. These policies can be important, but they are unlikely to create substantial and lasting improvement unless they lead to development and dissemination of proven whole-school approaches.

Effective school improvement is not likely to come about from let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom local innovation, nor from top-level changes in policy or governance. Sufficient change will not come about by throwing individual small innovations into schools and hoping they will collectively make a difference. Instead, effective improvement will take root when we learn how to reliably create effective programs for schools, implement them in a coordinated and planful way, find them effective, and then disseminate them. Once such schools are widespread, we can build larger policies and systems around their needs.

Coordinated, schoolwide improvement approaches offer schools proven strategies for increasing the achievement and success of their children. There should be many programs of this kind, among which schools and districts can choose. A school is not the same as mill, but the mill provides at least one image of how creating complex, integrated replicable systems can change whole societies and economies. We should learn from this and many other examples of how to focus our efforts to improve outcomes for all children.

Photo credit: By Johnson, Helen Kendrik [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Nevada Places Its Bets on Evidence

blog_3-29-18_HooverDam_500x375In Nevada, known as the land of big bets, taking risks is what they do. The Nevada State Department of Education (NDE) is showing this in its approach to ESSA evidence standards .  Of course, many states are planning policies to encourage use of programs that meet the ESSA evidence standards, but to my knowledge, no state department of education has taken as proactive a stance in this direction as Nevada.

 

Under the leadership of their state superintendent, Steve Canavero, Deputy Superintendent Brett Barley, and Director of the Office of Student and School Supports Seng-Dao Keo, Nevada has taken a strong stand: Evidence is essential for our schools, they maintain, because our kids deserve the best programs we can give them.

All states are asked by ESSA to require strong, moderate, or promising programs (defined in the law) for low-achieving schools seeking school improvement funding. Nevada has made it clear to its local districts that it will enforce the federal definitions rigorously, and only approve school improvement funding for schools proposing to implement proven programs appropriate to their needs. The federal ESSA law also provides bonus points on various other applications for federal funding, and Nevada will support these provisions as well.

However, Nevada will go beyond these policies, reasoning that if evidence from rigorous evaluations is good for federal funding, why shouldn’t it be good for state funding too? For example, Nevada will require ESSA-type evidence for its own funding program for very high-poverty schools, and for schools serving many English learners. The state has a reading-by-third-grade initiative that will also require use of programs proven to be effective under the ESSA regulations. For all of the discretionary programs offered by the state, NDE will create lists of ESSA-proven supplementary programs in each area in which evidence exists.

Nevada has even taken on the holy grail: Textbook adoption. It is not politically possible for the state to require that textbooks have rigorous evidence of effectiveness to be considered state approved. As in the past, texts will be state adopted if they align with state standards. However, on the state list of aligned programs, two key pieces of information will be added: the ESSA evidence level and the average effect size. Districts will not be required to take this information into account, but by listing it on the state adoption lists the state leaders hope to alert district leaders to pay attention to the evidence in making their selections of textbooks.

The Nevada focus on evidence takes courage. NDE has been deluged with concern from districts, from vendors, and from providers of professional development services. To each, NDE has made the same response: we need to move our state toward use of programs known to work. This is worth undergoing the difficult changes to new partnerships and new materials, if it provides Nevada’s children better programs, which will translate into better achievement and a chance at a better life. Seng-Dao Keo describes the evidence movement in Nevada as a moral imperative, delivering proven programs to Nevada’s children and then working to see that they are well implemented and actually produce the outcomes Nevada expects.

Perhaps other states are making similar plans. I certainly hope so, but it is heartening to see one state, at least, willing to use the ESSA standards as they were intended to be used, as a rationale for state and local educators not just to meet federal mandates, but to move toward use of proven programs. If other states also do this, it could drive publishers, software producers, and providers of professional development to invest in innovation and rigorous evaluation of promising approaches, as it increases use of approaches known to be effective now.

NDE is not just rolling the dice and hoping for the best. It is actively educating its district and school leaders on the benefits of evidence-based reform, and helping them make wise choices. With a proper focus on assessments of needs, facilitating access to information, and assistance with ensuring high quality implementation, really promoting use of proven programs should be more like Nevada’s Hoover Dam: A sure thing.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Photo by: Michael Karavanov [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“We Don’t Do Lists”

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Watching the slow, uneven, uncertain rollout of the ESSA evidence standards gives me a mixture of hope and despair. The hope stems from the fact that from coast to coast, educational leaders are actually talking about proven programs and practices at all. That was certainly rare before ESSA. But despair in that I hear many educational leaders trying to find the absolute least their states and districts can do to just barely comply with the law. The ESSA evidence standards apply in particular to schools seeking school improvement funding, which are those in the lowest 5% of their states in academic performance. A previous program with a similar name but more capital letters, School Improvement, was used under NCLB, before ESSA. A large-scale evaluation by MDRC found that the earlier School Improvement made no difference in student achievement, despite billions of dollars in investments. So you’d imagine that this time around, educators responsible for school improvement would be eager to use the new law to introduce proven programs into their lowest-achieving schools. In fact, there are individual leaders, districts, and states who have exactly this intention, and may ultimately provide good examples to the rest. But they face substantial obstacles.

One of the obstacles I hear about often is an opposition among state departments of education to disseminating lists of proven programs. I very much understand and sympathize with their reluctance, as schools have been over-regulated for a long time. However, I do not see how the ESSA evidence standards can make much of a difference if everyone makes their own list of programs. Determining which studies meet ESSA evidence standards is difficult, and requires a great deal of knowledge about research (I know this, of course, because we do such reviews ourselves; see www.evidenceforessa.org).

Some say that they want programs that have been evaluated in their own states. But after taking into account demographics (e.g., urban/rural, ELL/not ELL, etc), are state-to-state differences so great as to require different research in each? We used to work with a school located on the Ohio-Indiana border, which ran right through the building. Were there really programs that were effective on one side of the building but not on the other?

Further, state department leaders frequently complain that they have too few staff to adequately manage school improvement across their states. Should that capacity be concentrated on reviewing research to determine which programs meet ESSA evidence standards and which do not?

The irony of opposing lists for ESSA evidence standards is that most states are chock full of lists that restrict the textbooks, software, and professional development schools can select using state funds. These lists may focus on paperweight, binding, and other minimum quality issues, but they almost never have anything to do with evidence of effectiveness. One state asked us to review their textbook adoption lists for reading and math, grades K-12. Collectively, there were hundreds of books, but just a handful had even a shred of evidence of effectiveness.

Educational leaders are constantly buffeted by opposing interest groups, from politicians to school board members to leaders of unions, from PTAs presidents to university presidents, to for-profit companies promoting their own materials and programs. Educational leaders need a consistent way to ensure that the decisions they make are in the best interests of children, not the often self-serving interests of adults. The ESSA evidence standards, if used wisely, give education leaders an opportunity to say to the whole cacophony of cries for special consideration, “I’d love to help you all, but we can only approve programs for our lowest-achieving schools that are known from rigorous research to benefit our children. We say this because it is the law, but also because we believe our children, and especially our lowest achievers, deserve the most effective programs, no matter what the law says.”

To back up such a radical statement, educational leaders need clarity about what their standards are and which specific programs meet those standards. Otherwise, they either have an “anything goes’ strategy that in effect means that evidence does not matter, or they have competing vendors claiming an evidence base for their favored program. Lists of proven programs can disappoint those whose programs aren’t on the list, but they are at least clear and unambiguous, and communicate to those who want to add to the list exactly what kind of evidence they will need.

States or large districts can create lists of proven programs by starting with existing national lists (such as the What Works Clearinghouse or Evidence for ESSA) and then modifying them, perhaps by adding additional programs that meet the same standards and/or eliminating programs not available in a given location. Over time, existing or new programs can be added as new evidence appears. We, at Evidence for ESSA, are willing to review programs being considered by state or local educators for addition to their own lists, and we will do it for free and in about two weeks. Then we’ll add them to our national list if they qualify.

It is important to say that while lists are necessary, they are not sufficient. Thoughtful needs assessments, information on proven programs (such as effective methods fairs and visits to local users of proven programs), and planning for high-quality implementation of proven programs are also necessary. However, students in struggling schools cannot wait for every school, district, and state to reinvent the wheel. They need the best we can give them right now, while the field is working on even better solutions for the future.

Whether a state or district uses a national list, or starts with such a list and modifies it for its own purposes, a list of proven programs provides an excellent starting point for struggling schools. It plants a flag for all to see, one that says “Because this (state/district/school) is committed to the success of every child, we select and carefully implement programs known to work. Please join us in this enterprise.”

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Why the What Works Clearinghouse Matters

In 1962, the most important breakthrough in modern medicine took place. It was not a drug, not a device, not a procedure. It did not immediately save a single life, or cure a single person of disease. But it profoundly changed medicine worldwide, and led to the rapid progress in all of medicine that we have come to take for granted.

This medical miracle was a law, passed in the U.S. Congress, called the Kefauver-Harris Drug Act. It required that drugs sold in the U.S. be proven safe and effective, in high-quality randomized experiments. This law was introduced by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, largely in response to the thalidomide disaster, when a widely used drug was found to produce disastrous birth defects.

From the moment the Act was passed, medical research changed utterly. The number of randomized experiments shot up. There are still errors and debates and misplaced enthusiasm, but the progress that has made in every area of medicine is undeniable. Today, it is unthinkable in medicine that any drug would be widely sold if it has not been proven to work. Even though Kefauver-Harris itself only applies to the U.S., all advanced countries now have similar laws requiring rigorous evidence of safety and effectiveness of medicines.

One of the ways the Kefauver-Harris Act made its impact was through reviews and publications of research on the evidence supporting the safety and efficacy of medicines. It’s no good having a law requiring strong evidence if only experts know what the evidence is. Many federal programs have sprung up over the years to review the evidence of what works and communicate it to front-line practitioners.

In education, we are belatedly going through our own evidence revolution. Since 2002, the function of communicating the findings of rigorous research in education has mostly been fulfilled by the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), a website maintained by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES). The existence of the WWC has been enormously beneficial. In addition to reviewing the evidence base for educational programs, the WWC’s standards set norms for research. No funder and no researcher wants to invest resources in a study they know the WWC will not accept.

In 2015, education finally had what may be its own Kefauver-Harris moment. This was the passage by the U.S. Congress of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which contains specific definitions of strong, moderate, and promising levels of evidence. For certain purposes, especially for school improvement funding for very low-achieving schools, schools must use programs that meet ESSA evidence standards. For others, schools or districts can receive bonus points on grant applications if they use proven programs.

ESSA raises the stakes for evidence in education, and therefore should have raised the stakes for the WWC. If the government itself now requires or incentivizes the use of proven programs, then shouldn’t the government provide information on what individual programs meet those standards?

Yet several months after ESSA was passed, IES announced that the WWC would not be revised to align itself with ESSA evidence standards. This puts educators, and the government itself, in a bind. What if ESSA and WWC conflict? The ESSA standards are in law, so they must prevail over the WWC. Yet the WWC has a website, and ESSA does not. If WWC standards and ESSA standards were identical, or nearly so, this would not be a problem. But in fact they are very far apart.

Anticipating this situation, my colleagues and I at Johns Hopkins University created a new website, www.evidenceforessa.org. It launched in February, 2017, including elementary and secondary reading and math. We are now adding other subjects and grade levels.

In creating our website, we draw from the WWC every day, and in particular use a new Individual Study Database (ISD) that contains information on all of the evaluations the WWC has ever accepted.

The ISD is a useful tool for us, but it has made it relatively easy to ask and answer questions about the WWC itself, and the answers are troubling. We’ve found that almost half of the WWC outcomes rated “positive” or “potentially positive” are not even statistically significant. We have found that measures made by researchers or developers produce effect sizes more than three times those that are independent, yet they are fully accepted by the WWC.

As reported in a recent blog, we’ve discovered that the WWC is very, very slow to add new studies to its main “Find What Works” site. The WWC science topic is not seeking or accepting new studies (“This area is currently inactive and not conducting reviews”). Character education, dropout prevention, and English Language Learners are also inactive. How does this make any sense?

Over the next couple of months, starting in January, I will be releasing a series of blogs sharing what we have been finding out about the WWC. My hope in this is that we can help create a dialogue that will lead the WWC to reconsider many of its core policies and practices. I’m doing this not to compete or conflict with the WWC, but to improve it. If evidence is to have a major role in education policy, government has to help educators and policy makers make good choices. That is what the WWC should be doing, and I still believe it is possible.

The WWC matters, or should matter, because it expresses government’s commitment to evidence, and evidence-based reform. But it can only be a force for good if it is right, timely, accessible, comprehensible, and aligned with other government initiatives. I hope my upcoming blogs will be read in the spirit in which they were written, with hopes of helping the WWC do a better job of communicating evidence to educators eager to help young people succeed in our schools.

 

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Title I: A 20% Solution

Here’s an idea that would cost nothing and profoundly shift education funding and the interest of educators and policy makers toward evidence-proven programs. Simply put, the idea is to require that schools receiving Title I funds use 20% of the total on programs that meet at least a moderate standard of evidence. Two thin dimes on the dollar could make a huge difference in all of education.

In terms of federal education policy, Title I is the big kahuna. At $15 billion per year, it is the largest federal investment in elementary and secondary education, and it has been very politically popular on both sides of the aisle since the Johnson administration in 1965, when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was first passed. Title I has been so popular because it goes to every congressional district, and provides much-needed funding by formula to help schools serving children living in poverty. Since the reauthorization of ESEA as the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, Title I remains the largest expenditure.

In ESSA and other federal legislation, there are two kinds of funding. One is formula funding, like Title I, where money usually goes to states and is then distributed to districts and schools. The formula may adjust for levels of poverty and other factors, but every eligible school gets its share. The other kind of funding is called competitive, or discretionary funding. Schools, districts, and other entities have to apply for competitive funding, and no one is guaranteed a share. In many cases, federal funds are first given to states, and then schools or districts apply to their state departments of education to get a portion of it, but the state has to follow federal rules in awarding the funds.

Getting proven programs into widespread use can be relatively easy in competitive grants. Competitive grants are usually evaluated on a 100-point scale, with all sorts of “competitive preference points” for certain categories of applicants, such as for rural locations, inclusion of English language learners or children of military families, and so on. These preferences add perhaps one to five points to a proposal’s score, giving such applicants a leg up but not a sure thing. In the same way, I and others have proposed adding competitive preference points in competitive proposals for applicants who propose to adopt programs that meet established standards of evidence. For example, Title II SEED grants for professional development now require that applicants propose to use programs found to be effective in at least one rigorous study, and give five points if the programs have been proven effective in at least two rigorous studies. Schools qualifying for school improvement funding under ESSA are now required to select programs that meet ESSA evidence standards.

Adding competitive preference points for using proven programs in competitive grants is entirely sensible and pain-free. It costs nothing, and does not require applicants to use any particular program. In fact, applicants can forego the preference points entirely, and hope to win without them. Preference points for proven programs is an excellent way to nudge the field toward evidence-based reform without top-down mandates or micromanagement. The federal government states a preference for proven programs, which will at least raise their profile among grant writers, but no school or district has to do anything different.

The much more difficult problem is how to get proven programs into formula funding (such as Title I). The great majority of federal funds are awarded by formula, so restricting evidence-based reform to competitive grants is only nibbling at the edges of practice. One solution to this would be to allocate incentive grants to districts if they agree to use formula funds to adopt and implement proven programs.

However, incentives cost money. Instead, imagine that districts and schools get their Title I formula funds, as they have since 1965. However, Congress might require that districts use at least 20% of their Title I, Part A funding to adopt and implement programs that meet a modest standard of evidence, similar to the “moderate” level in ESSA (which requires one quasi-experimental study with positive effects). The adopted program could be anything that meets other Title I requirements—reading, math, tutoring, technology—except that the program has to have evidence of effectiveness. The funds could pay for necessary staffing, professional development, materials, software, hardware, and so on. Obviously, schools could devote more than 20% if they choose to do so.

There are several key advantages to this 20% solution. First, of course, children would immediately benefit from receiving programs with at least moderate evidence of effectiveness. Second, the process would instantly make leaders of the roughly 55,000 Title I schools intensely interested in evidence. Third, the process could gradually shift discussion about Title I away from its historical focus on “how much?” to an additional focus on “for what purpose?” Publishers, software developers, academics, philanthropy, and government itself would perceive the importance of evidence, and would commission or carry out far more high-quality studies to meet the new standards. Over time, the standards of evidence might increase.

All of this would happen at no additional cost, and with a minimum of micromanagement. There are now many programs that would meet the “moderate” standards of evidence in reading, math, tutoring, whole-school reform, and other approaches, so schools would have a wide choice. No Child Left Behind required that low-performing schools devote 20% of their Title I funding to after-school tutoring programs and student transfer policies that research later showed to make little or no difference in outcomes. Why not spend the same on programs that are proven to work in advance, instead of once again rolling the dice with the educational futures of at-risk children?

20% of Title I is a lot of money, but if it can make 100% of Title I more impactful, it is more than worthwhile.

Evidence and Freedom

In 1776, a small group of American patriots had a vision of a government of, by, and for the people, and they risked their lives to make it so. Their commitment to liberty was not just ideological, it was also pragmatic. They knew that people who were empowered to make their own decisions were more likely to be committed to the implementation of those decisions. The same should apply to education today.

One of the most important aspects of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is how it balances evidence with freedom. The Act defines proven programs and mentions evidence 60 times. It encourages use of proven programs throughout. It provides for additional preference points for proposals in seven areas that meet evidence requirements. Yet only in the area of school improvement for the lowest 5% of schools does it require use of proven programs. This is probably a good thing.

Americans, even more than other people, don’t like to be told what to do. If the evidence movement turns into a set of mandates, telling educators which programs they can or cannot implement, it will probably be doomed. Even when evidence for or against given programs is solid and widely replicated, many political forces opposing evidence-based reform would surely come into play if educators felt compelled to use certain programs and avoid others.

Years ago, I had an experience that reinforced my view that teachers respond better to proven practices if they are free to choose them. I was doing a cooperative learning workshop in a large urban district. A surly-looking teacher raised her hand. “Do we have to do this?” she asked. “Of course not” I answered. “These are ideas for you to use or not, as you wish”

“In this district,” said the teacher “if we’re not required to use something, we’re not allowed to do it.”

How can we avoid compulsion? The answer is easy. Federal, state, and local policies need to provide incentives for schools to use certain programs with strong evidence of effectiveness from rigorous experiments, but not mandates to do so. That’s what ESSA will do in several areas. Incentives may mean providing a few points on competitive grant proposals, or modest financial incentives, for schools that adopt proven programs. These incentives should be enough to get educators’ attention, but not enough to force them to pick a given program.

Incentives should cause educators to eagerly volunteer to use proven programs, to raise their hands, not their hackles. They could lead educators to learn more about the proven programs available to them and about the research process itself. This in turn could encourage political leaders to support education R & D, as educators and the public at large begin to clamor for more programs and better research.

Government cannot and should not try to get 3 million teachers in 100,000 schools in 14,000 districts to use any particular set of programs, no matter what their evidence of effectiveness. What it can and should do is set in motion policies that gradually expand the availability, adoption, and spread of proven programs, eventually pushing less effective approaches to improve or disappear. Development and evaluation of promising programs continues in ESSA, in the new Education Innovation Research (EIR), which along with R & D funded by other agencies will continuously add to the set of proven programs ready for adoption. As the number and quality of proven programs grow, educators will become more and more comfortable about using them.

From our nation’s founding, freedom to make informed choices has been an essential foundation stone of our system of governance. So it should be in education policy.

Evidence can inform key decisions for children, and government can encourage and incent adoption of proven programs. However, educators need the freedom to do what is right for their children, guided but not steered by valid and useful research.