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.


The Sailor and the Sailboat: Leadership and Evidence

My one extravagance is that I live on the Chesapeake Bay and have a small sailboat. I love to sail, even if I’m not especially good at it, but sailing small boats teaches you a lot of important life lessons.

One of these lessons is that leadership is crucial, but leadership can only make a difference if leaders have the tools to translate leadership into outcomes.

Here’s what I mean from a sailing perspective. A sailboat is just a hull, sails, lines, a mast, a rudder, and a centerboard. When these are all in good working order, it still takes a good sailor to manage a small sailboat in heavy weather. However, when any one component is lacking, all hell breaks loose. For example, on my 11-foot sailboat, sometimes the rudder falls off in rough water. Without a rudder, it doesn’t matter how good a sailor you are. You aren’t going anywhere. Similarly, we once lost a mast in a heavy wind. Yikes!

Principals and superintendents in Title I schools are a lot like small-boat sailors in heavy weather, every single day. If all the structures and supports are in place, and if they have a great crew, capable school or district leaders can do wonders for their children.

Proven programs do not manage schools on their own. What they do is help provide the sails, mast, rudder, and lines known to work effectively with a good captain and crew.

Sometimes I hear educational leaders dismiss the importance of proven programs, saying that the only thing that matters is good leadership. But this is only half right. Great leadership is essential to make proven programs work, but proven, replicable programs and other infrastructure are equally essential to enable great leaders to have great results with kids.

So yes, recruit the best captains you can, and mentor them as much as possible. But give them, or enable them to acquire, sailboats known to work. Too many potentially great captains are given sailboats lacking a rudder or mast. When this happens, they’re sunk from the beginning.

The Future of Title I – 2040

When you get to a certain age, you find increasing evidence that you’ve been yammering on the same topics for a very long time, usually to no great benefit. I just made one of those discoveries. Going through some old publications, I found a 1991 article I wrote on the future of Title I (back then it was called Chapter I). I was writing just after the 25th anniversary of Title I, painting a picture of how Title I should be on its 50th anniversary. That would be now.

When you’re writing about how things will be in 25 years, you naturally start thinking about flying cars, robots and so on. However, what I was proposing turned out to be even more fantastical and unlikely. I proposed that Title I be used for whole-school, comprehensive approaches with strong evidence of effectiveness. This would mean investing in development and evaluation of whole-school programs, and then encouraging schools to adopt proven approaches. What a wacky thought! With students at risk, use what has been proven to work! Of course, this was not to come to pass. In fact, until recently, even School Improvement Grants (SIG), special funding for the lowest performing schools in the country, the concept that at least in these schools proven approaches would be a good idea has been slow to catch on.

Actually, during the 1990s, there was a movement to do the very thing I was proposing. It was called comprehensive school reform (CSR). CSR programs provided innovative, integrated approaches to curriculum, instruction, provisions for struggling students, professional development, leadership, parent involvement and more. Many were supported by New American Schools, a private foundation with funding mostly from large corporations. In the late 1990s, the federal government provided up to $50,000 per year for three years for schools to use CSR models. More than 2000 schools did so, more often than not using their own Title I funds, not the special CSR funds. Research evaluating these programs found that some of them were effective in accelerating achievement in Title I schools. Examples were James Comer’s School Development Program, America’s Choice, Modern Red Schoolhouse and our Success for All approach. However, a new administration in 2002 had different priorities, and the CSR movement largely disappeared. Success for All is the only survivor at any scale.

Spacing forward to the present, very few developers are creating or evaluating new whole-school models, but research funded by Investing in Innovation (i3) program, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), and other funders are increasingly identifying effective approaches to particular subject areas and objectives, which could be assembled into new whole-school models. Developments in the capabilities and availability of technology add possibilities for making whole-school innovations more effective, less expensive and earlier to train and monitor.

So here is my hopeful prediction for Title I on its 75th birthday, in 2040 (!!!).

In 2040, Title I will serve primarily as special funding for high-poverty schools to help them adopt proven, whole-school approaches. There will be many such models, each of which has been proven in rigorous experiments to improve student learning in reading and math. School staffs will have opportunities to review existing models and select those they believe to be most appropriate to their needs, with confidence that whichever models they choose will be effective. Models will include elements personalized for the needs of struggling students and others who need unique accommodations, greatly reducing the need for traditional special education.
Title I funds will be used for materials, software, professional development, coaching, additional personnel and other requirements for implementation of a particular proven approach.

A substantial enterprise of development and evaluation will continuously produce new whole-school models and improvements in every aspect of existing models. Assuming that curriculum materials, assessments, lesson materials and other components will make extensive use of technology, it should be relatively easy for program developers to routinely collect trace data on student progress, which will enable teachers and program developers to constantly improve implementation in each participating school and to test innovations large and small.

Of course, all of this could be done in five years, not 25, if we decided to make the success of disadvantaged students a priority. However, given the pace of evidence-based reform in Title I so far, maybe 25 years is more realistic. I am enthusiastic and hopeful about changes in this direction over the past few years, but there is still a lot to be done to get Title I to be a fund for evidence-proven approaches.

Then again, maybe flying cars and robots are a better bet.

Leveraging What Works


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.

Seeds, Bricks, and Sand: Stages of School-Reform Readiness


Every school, no matter how effective at improving student outcomes, could probably be even more effective, and some schools have a particularly long way to go. Various proven reform models for whole schools, particular subjects, or specific purposes stand ready to help all of these schools improve. Yet schools vary a great deal in terms of readiness for particular approaches to reform.

A metaphor for three types of schools in terms of readiness for reform is seeds, bricks, sand. The “seeds” metaphor implies an environment so conducive to reform that anything can grow there. The staff and leadership of the school are capable, aware of research, participating in professional development, well-coordinated, cohesive, and unafraid of change. Such a school may be able to create and evaluate its own reform methods and sustain and improve them over time, perhaps with general advice from consultants. “Bricks” schools are also positively oriented toward change, but are unlikely to invent effective reforms themselves. Such schools have committed and hard-working teachers and leaders who have not had the time or resources to become reform experts themselves, but are welcoming to proven models. The “bricks” metaphor implies that if someone brings the bricks and a set of plans to the site, a durable edifice can be built and maintained.

A “sand” school, on the other hand, is one that is not ready for reform, and building on this site is like building a sand castle, which will wash away with the next tide. In such schools the staff and leadership may be at odds with each other, may not believe that children can learn any more than they do now, or may have experienced failure with previous reforms. These schools may need serious restructuring.

The usefulness of the “seeds-bricks-sand” categories is in understanding how to help schools adopt and sustain proven programs. The great majority of Title I schools, in my experience, are “bricks” schools, ready, willing, and able to implement well-defined, research-proven programs, but unlikely to have the inclination to invent their own school-wide approach. Others are clearly in the “sand” category. Yet Title I schools in trouble are frequently given “seeds” advice. Until now, schools receiving substantial funding under the current School Improvement Grants (SIG) have been routinely given consultants to help them work out their own school-wide reform designs, rather than being helped to adopt proven programs. There are schools that can benefit from such strategies, but they are rarely the ones that are persistently low achieving, as all SIG schools are. Recent proposed regulations would offer SIG schools the option of adopting proven, whole-school reform models, a welcome and long overdue change.

Use of proven, well-structured reforms needs to be expanded in all schools. For those in the greatest difficulty, this need is urgent. The new SIG regulations would allow schools capable of implementing (but not inventing) proven, effective reforms a chance to turn themselves around.

Whole-school reform is difficult and expensive, and when it fails, the consequences for children as well as educators can be dire and long-lasting. Failed initiatives not only waste money, but they undermine the belief that high-poverty schools can be saved. We need to get smarter about targeting interventions to specific types of schools to increase the likelihood that investments in reform truly pay off for kids and for our society.

Promoting Proven Programs in Title I: The Bully Pulpit


Title I, the 800-pound gorilla of federal education policy, spends $15 billion a year to help high-poverty schools enhance outcomes for their students. The greatest victory for evidence-based reform would be for the roughly 51,500 Title I schools to make far greater use of programs known to enhance student learning, benefitting millions of at-risk children throughout the U.S. Yet because Title I is a formula grant, it is difficult for federal policy to increase use of proven approaches. Competitive grants can provide preference points for using proven models, as I’ve argued before, but in formula grants, it is more difficult to nudge educational leaders toward use of proven programs, since they will receive their money as long as they follow the rules.

One solution to this problem might be to borrow President Theodore Roosevelt’s conception of the presidency as a “bully pulpit.” In other words, even during a time of congressional gridlock, it is possible for the administration to promote the use of proven approaches, even in formula grants, at little or no cost.

The first thing the U.S. Department of Education would have to do is to review all the programs in the What Works Clearinghouse according to the simpler, clearer standards in the EDGAR regulations. Someone would then have to prune the resulting lists of programs, identifying programs that meet the EDGAR standards for “strong” and “moderate” levels of evidence to remove programs that no longer exist or that do not have anyone providing training and materials similar to those provided in the successful studies. The remaining programs would represent a good starting list of programs that, if implemented well, would be likely to have positive impacts on student achievement.

Department officials could then publicize this list in many ways. Certainly, they could create a web site showing the programs and the evidence behind them and linking to the programs’ web sites. They might sponsor “effective methods fairs” around the U.S. to demonstrate programs available for schools and districts to choose. They might distribute certificates to schools that adopt proven programs and then implement them with fidelity, as certified by the developers.

These strategies and others could arouse widespread interest in proven programs, and help school leaders make a wide array of choices of programs appropriate to their needs.

If funds became available, the Department might provide modest incentive grants to help schools supplement the start-up costs of proven programs. But even without special incentive funding, schools should be able to make choices from among programs known to be likely to help them succeed with their children, using their existing Title I funds.

A creative “bully pulpit” policy might begin a process of expanding use of existing proven programs, encouraging creation and evaluation of new ones, and increasing sophistication in choosing how to spend federal resources. All of this could be accomplished for nearly nothing, while gradually moving the $15 billion in Title I toward more effective uses. Over time, such a policy would also encourage developers and researchers to create and evaluate programs likely to meet EDGAR standards, and it could help build political support for investments in R&D that ultimately result in better outcomes for children on a broad scale.

A “bully pulpit” strategy would still need to be accompanied by policies of providing incentives to adopt proven programs in competitive grants, and with continued support for the R&D pipeline, such as that provided by Investing in Innovation (i3), the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). However, development and research in education have to go beyond R&D; they need to be seen as a routine, growing part of the world of educational practice and innovation.

*Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Thank You, Jim Shelton


Everyone who works to advance evidence-based reform in education was saddened to learn that Jim Shelton will be leaving the U.S. Department of Education. Jim is currently the Department’s Deputy Secretary, and before that he was the Assistant Deputy Secretary for the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII), the home of the Investing in Innovation (i3) program. Under his leadership, i3 created a unique approach to speeding up innovation in education, supporting development of new programs, evaluation of promising programs, and scale-up of already proven programs. Jim has provided the intellectual leadership for i3, understanding better than anyone the process by which proven and replicable programs could gradually infuse government-funded programs in education, starting with competitive programs (such as School Improvement Grants) and then moving on to formula programs (such as Title I).

Jim has been a tireless advocate for evidence, but even more so for kids. He understands that the children who need the best schools need the best programs. Better teachers? Smaller classes? Better parent support? Sure, they need these too, but until core classroom practices are better in every class, millions of children will continue to fail each year.

Jim is a powerful speaker and a powerful advocate for his ideas. I don’t know where he’s going next, but I’m certain that wherever it is, he will carry on the fight for children and for evidence so that the programs we provide children actually work.