Education Innovation and Research: Innovating Our Way to the Top

How did America get to be the wealthiest and most powerful country on Earth?

To explain, let me tell you about visiting a remote mountain village in Slovakia. I arrived in the evening, as the ancient central square filled up with people. Every man, woman, and child had a cell phone. Invented in America.

In the local hospital, I’m sure that most medicines were invented in America, which does more medical research than all other nations combined. Local farmers probably planted seeds and used methods developed in the U.S. Everywhere in the world, everyone watches American movies, listens to American music, and on and on.

America’s brand, the source of our wealth, is innovation.

America has long led the world in creating wealth by creating new ideas and putting them in practice. Technology? Medicine? Agriculture? America dominates the world in each of these fields, and many more. The reason is that America innovates, constantly finding new ways to solve problems, cure diseases, grow better crops, and generally do things less expensively. I am often at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where the halls are full of patients from every part of the globe. They come to Johns Hopkins because of its reputation for innovation.

In education, we face daunting problems, especially in educating disadvantaged students. So to solve these problems, you’d naturally expect that we’d turn to the principle that has led to our success in so many fields – innovation.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed by Congress and signed into law in December, 2015, has taken just this view. In it, for the first time ever, is a definition of the evidence required for a program or practice to be considered “strong,” “moderate,” or “promising.” These definitions encourage educators to adopt proven programs, but for this to work, we have to have a steady stream of proven innovations appearing each year. This function is fulfilled by another part of ESSA, the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant program. The EIR provision, which was included in ESSA with bipartisan support, provides a tiered evidence approach to research that will constantly add to the body of programs that meet the ESSA evidence requirements. Proposals are invited for “early phase,” “mid-phase,” and “expansion” grants to support the development, validation, and scale-up of successful innovations that originate at the state and local levels. Based on the U.S. Department of Education’s recent EIR grant application process, it appears (as is expected from a tiered evidence design) that lots of early stage grants of up to $3 million will be made, fewer mid-stage grants of up to $8 million, and very few expansion grants of up to $15 million, all over 5 years. Anyone can apply for an early-stage grant, but applicants must already have some evidence to support their program to get a mid-stage grant, and a lot of very rigorous evidence to apply for an expansion grant. All three types of grants require third-party evaluations – which will serve to improve programs all along the spectrum of effectiveness – but mid-stage and expansion grants require large, randomized evaluations, and expansion grants additionally require national dissemination.

The structure of EIR grants is intended to make the innovation process wide open to educators at all levels of state and local governments, non-profits, businesses, and universities. It is also designed to give applicants the freedom to suggest the nature of the program they want to create, thus allowing for a broad range of field-driven ideas that arise to meet recognized needs. EIR does encourage innovation in rural schools, which must receive at least 25% of the funding, but otherwise there is considerable freedom, drawing diverse innovators to the process.

EIR is an excellent investment. If only a few of the programs it supports end up showing positive outcomes and scaling up to serve many students across the U.S., then EIR funding will make a crucial difference to the educational success of hundreds of thousands or millions of students, improving outcomes on a scale that matters at modest cost.

EIR provides an opportunity for America to solve its education problems just as it has solved problems in many other fields: through innovation. That is what America does when it needs rapid and widespread success, as it so clearly does in education. In every subject and grade level, we can innovate our way to the top. EIR is providing the resources and structure to do it.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

One Small Step for Washington, One Giant Leap for Children


Photo courtesy of NASA

Recently I wrote about a new education innovation initiative being supported by some members of Congress. The initiative is based on the successful Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which has been running in 11 federal agencies for decades. Each agency running SBIR sets aside a tiny percentage of its budget to award grants to small companies working to develop and evaluate new technologies. SBIR has received positive reviews from both the Government Accountability Office and the National Academy of Sciences.

I also recently wrote about Congress’ efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The Senate bipartisan compromise bill released last week by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Patty Murray (D-Washington) was marked up in the Senate HELP Committee this week. On the second day of a three-day markup, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), with the support of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), offered the new education innovation initiative as an amendment to ESEA. The amendment was passed by the Committee (with a block of other amendments) by voice vote, which means that it was considered noncontroversial. (The final bill passed the Committee unanimously this afternoon.)

While the passage of this amendment is only a small step for Washington in the greater marathon that is ESEA, it represents a giant leap for students nationwide.

First, let’s look at what the amendment does. It adds a section on “Education Innovation and Research” to the bill. This would provide grants for “the development, implementation, replication, or scaling and rigorous testing of entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovation to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students.” It requires that at least 25 percent of the funds be used for students in rural areas. Grants may be provided to states and school districts as well as nonprofits, small businesses, charter management organizations, educational service agencies, or institutions of higher education working in partnership with a state or school district. Grantees can apply at any stage, and grant amounts will be based on the level of previous success and evidence of effectiveness in achieving desired educational outcomes. The amendment drew a broad coalition of support, and a letter with over 140 signatories was sent to the senators in advance of the markup to bolster support for the amendment at the markup.

Now let’s turn to what this amendment means politically and policy-wise, and what it will mean in the long run for communities and children across the country.

At one of the most divisive political moments in our nation’s history, in a piece of legislation that itself is controversial and has failed to be reauthorized despite numerous attempts over the past six years, a bipartisan amendment providing for education innovation and research sailed through a Senate committee. Politically, its inclusion in the chairman’s bill as it moves to the Senate floor means an extremely strong likelihood that it will withstand the floor process (should there be one) and make it into the final Senate bill. Even if ESEA fails to get reauthorized this Congress, the fact that this provision is now in the chairman’s bill sets an important precedent for inclusion in future attempts to reauthorize ESEA.

Policy-wise, this kind of bipartisan embrace of innovation and research in the realm of education represents a new era.

Congress and government in general is increasingly demanding evidence of effectiveness for education programs, a change that has enormous potential for improving programs for children.

The Bennet-Hatch amendment continues and advances the movement toward the use of evidence as a guide to policy and practice in education. There is still a lot to do even if this amendment becomes law, but the very fact that such a thing could happen is an indication that the ideas of evidence-based reform are no longer from the moon.

Lessons from Innovators: Collaborative Strategic Reading


The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The William T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment, highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.

This blog is based on an interview that the Forum for Youth Investment conducted with Janette Klingner and Alison Boardman from the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU). They are working closely with Denver Public Schools on an i3 validation project focused on scaling the Collaborative Strategic Reading (CSR) instructional model across middle schools. As lead partners in a district-led initiative, the two reflect on the dynamics of collaborating across research and practice, as well as the critical importance of embedding new practices within existing district infrastructure. Some of their lessons learned are summarized below.

Project “home” matters
Unlike many i3 projects, the CSR grant was submitted by and awarded to Denver Public Schools, with the university as a subcontractor. The project “home” has influenced dynamics in important ways and at multiple levels, beginning with a basic level of buy-in and ownership that is not always present in school improvement projects and studies that the CU team has been involved in. In university-led projects, as Klingner pointed out, a district can simply decide to back out for any number of reasons. Though there are obvious downsides to “outsiders” coming in with an intervention for people to adopt, being district-led as opposed to university-led hasn’t necessarily meant smooth sailing. Some teachers, Klingner noted, expressed resistance because they were being told by the district to implement yet another program. Despite occasional resistance, CSR is making good progress on ambitious expansion goals laid out by the district, and in fact the project is ahead of schedule in terms of middle school expansion. “We are moving faster than we envisioned. We have teachers and schools really wanting to learn CSR, and we are adding them sooner than planned,” said Klingner.

Rethink traditional research-practice relationships
The CU team brings a “design-based implementation research” perspective to this work, which is based on the idea of collaborative, iterative design and implementation, focused on a district-identified problem of practice. “We know that handing schools an innovation in a box and seeing how it works is not effective,” said Klingner. “We are trying to be intentional about scaffolding from the validation stage, where there is more support available for an intervention, to scale-up, where the new practices become integrated and can be scaled and sustained. Working closely with the district seems like the only way to do that successfully.” While there are clear advantages to this approach, there are instances where despite the close partnership, conflicting priorities of the partners emerge. For example, in an effort to implement consistently and in a coordinated fashion across a large group of schools, the district sometimes imposes strict guidelines, such as requiring all science teachers to implement CSR on a given day. While this helps with knowing where and when to deploy coaches, it doesn’t necessarily make sense if your goal is to better understand and support teachers’ authentic integration of a new instructional model into their classroom practice in the context of their curriculum. Despite occasional bumps in the road, the project is built upon a strong partnership, and that partnership is critical to how the team thinks about scale and sustainability.

Embed within existing structures
The CSR team has been intentional from the beginning about embedding the intervention within existing district and school infrastructure. “We are very aware that this needs to become part of the daily practice of what the district does,” said Klingner. From working to maximize teacher-leader roles, to housing a principal liaison within the district as opposed to at the University, the team is constantly re-evaluating to what extent practices are being embedded. “Sometimes it feels like this is becoming part of the ongoing infrastructure, and then there will be some change and we’re not so sure. There’s a tipping point and even though we have a lot of great buy-in, I’d say we’re not there yet.” Boardman noted that making sure that everyone working in support roles with teachers is trained in CSR would be ideal. “Ideally all of the different coaches in the district would be able to coach for CSR. So the literacy coaches that are in schools, the teacher effectiveness coaches that visit schools, those supporting classroom management or use of the curriculum – all these different existing mechanisms would be able to support CSR. We are trying to do this and have done a lot of training for people in different roles, but we are not there yet and the plan for how to get there is still evolving.”

Align with existing initiatives, tools, and processes
In addition to extensive training, linking and aligning CSR with other district initiatives has also been a priority. For example, it was clear early on that for teachers to engage in a meaningful way, any new instructional model needed to align with LEAP, Denver’s teacher effectiveness framework. This makes sense and has been a priority, though LEAP itself, in addition to its uses, is still evolving. As Boardman put it, “Maintaining a consistent research design when everything around you is changing is a challenge. That said, we are working hard to understand how our model aligns with LEAP and working with teachers to help them understand the connections and to ensure they feel what they’re doing is supported and will pay off for them.” Implementation of the Common Core standards has been another new effort with which the project has had to align. The team’s commitment to link CSR to existing or emerging work is consistent and laudable, though they are aware of potential trade-offs. “We are rolling with the new things as they come in,” said Boardman, “but there are pros and cons. Sometimes we become overly consumed by trying to connect with district initiatives. We have to be careful about where things fit and where they simply might not.”

Find the right communications channels and messengers
Just as important as trying to figure out where CSR fits is making sure it doesn’t become “just another add-on.” One thing the project team feels is important for sustainability is figuring out at what point information needs to be communicated and by whom. As Boardman said, “Things have to be communicated by the right players. We and our district colleagues are constantly trying to figure out where and by whom key information should be communicated in order for teachers and others to feel this is the real deal. Is it the district’s monthly principal meetings? Is the key that we need area superintendents to say this is a priority?” The team is thinking about communications and messaging at both the district and the school levels. “At the school level, there is also a great deal of integration that needs to happen, and CSR people can’t be at every meeting. So which meetings are critical to attend? Which planning sessions should we prioritize?” Keenly aware that change happens in the context of relationships, the CSR team is being as intentional about communications and messaging as they are about things like tools and trainings.

Guesses and Hype Give Way to Data in Study of Education: New York Times


If you live long enough, eventually you’ll see everything, even a positive article about evidence-based reform in a major newspaper. In the September 2 New York Times, science reporter Gina Kolata writes about how educational research is starting to use scientific methods to evaluate the effectiveness of educational interventions. The articleis great, and much appreciated. But I found my own conversation with the reporter even more interesting.

As is my wont, I was waxing poetic about how Investing in Innovation (i3) was the most important thing ever to happen in building an evidence base for replicable programs in education. “How much did they invest?” she asked. “$650 million in the first year, and $150 million a year after that,” I enthused. But then there was silence on the other end of the line. Finally, Ms. Kolata said, “I mostly work on medical issues. $650 million is, well…”

“Coffee money?” I suggested.

“Something like that,” she said.

Just for perspective, NIH spends $31 billion a year on medical research, and this is just a portion of government, foundation, and private funding of medial R&D. In its best year, i3 was only 2% of the NIH medical research budget, and at $150 million a year it’s now one half of one percent of the NIH budget. The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), referred to in the article as “a little-known office in the Education Department” has an annual budget of about $220 million for research and development, roughly two days at NIH.

The (relatively) tiny investment in education research, development, and dissemination is old news, of course. It is a classic no-win conundrum. Due to minimal funding, educational research makes slow progress, which diminishes the enthusiasm for it among politicians, who then continue to allocate minimal funding. Educational researchers and government have embraced higher standards for program evaluation research, but such research is expensive, so not much top-quality research can be funded.

A visible, undeniable breakthrough, where one or more research-proven programs become used on a large scale and then show positive impacts at scale, could build a stronger case for investments in the whole pipeline of research to evaluation to scale-up. That is one purpose of i3, or at least could be a positive outcome. Much as the moon landing spurred aerospace R&D for decades and the Human Genome Project motivates much biology R&D, a big breakthrough in education R&D could send ripples of enthusiasm far beyond itself.

Because education is dominated by government, such a breakthrough can only happen if government wants it to. But perhaps experience with i3 will cause government to promote the use of proven programs in Title I and other government funding streams, demonstrating that research really can affect widespread practice and improve student outcomes. If that happened, hopefully respect for research in education would grow and funding would grow in proportion.

Well, at least a person can dream.

Do Clinical Trials Work in Education?


recent article in The New York Times asked a provocative question: Do clinical trials work? The article was written about clinical trials in medicine, especially cancer research, where it often happens that promising medications and procedures found to be effective in small studies turn out to be ineffective in large ones.

As an advocate of clinical trials (randomized experiments) in education, I found the article distressing. In education, as in medicine, larger and better-controlled experiments frequently fail to find positive effects of programs found to be effective in smaller and less-well-controlled studies. In fact, there is a clear relationship between study sample sizes and outcomes: The larger the study, the lower the reported impact of the treatment.

Some in both medicine and education are wondering if different research methods are needed that are more likely to show positive effects. In my view, this is foolish. The problem is not in the research methods. What we need to do is to identify why so many experiments show no impacts, and solve those problems.

One common problem in randomized experiments in education, for example, is that before the experiments, both experimental and control teachers must not have been using the experimental method. If the treatment is difficult to learn to use, this may mean that in a study of one year or less, teachers using the new method did not get good at it until near the end of the experiment. There are numerous experiments in education in which there were no impacts in the first year but significant impacts in the second. Yet a one-year study would not find out about the second-year impacts, shortchanging the treatments’ reported effect.

As someone who does a lot of meta-analyses of educational treatments, another problem I routinely see is that many large, randomized evaluations assess weak treatments. For example, there are dozens of studies comparing a publisher’s new textbook in comparison to existing textbooks. Such studies invariably produce effect sizes near zero. This does not mean that the new texts are ineffective, but that they are no more effective than other texts. Technology studies also often evaluate ho-hum commercial software unlikely to make much difference. All too often, researchers carry out large and expensive evaluations of programs that are too poorly defined or too much like ordinary practice to show much impact. Wishful thinking runs up against harsh reality in large, well-controlled experiments.

The funding structure for research in education often leads experimenters to carry out large scale, randomized evaluations of programs that are not fully ready for large-scale evaluation. New and truly innovative methods often need to be piloted, evaluated on a modest scale, and only then subjected to large-scale evaluation, but funding for small-scale formative evaluation is hard to obtain.

In education, as in medicine, there is a problem of too many disappointing findings in clinical trials. Yet the solution is not to abandon clinical trials. It is to create more powerful and effective treatments.

Lessons from Innovators: Reading Recovery


The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The William T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment, highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.

This blog is based on an interview between the Forum for Youth Investment and Jerry D’Agostino, Professor of Education at the Ohio State University and Director of Reading Recovery’s i3 project. A persistent challenge for programs that have scaled up is how to sustain for the long term. In this interview, D’Agostino shares how this long-standing literacy intervention has dealt with the challenge and how it has reinvented itself over the years in order to stay current.

Stay Fresh
Reading Recovery is a research-based, short-term intervention that involves one-to-one teaching for the lowest-achieving first graders. It began in New Zealand in the 1970’s but has been in operation in the United States for 30 years and has spread across the country. Over the years, Reading Recovery has expanded and contracted depending on funding, interest from school districts, and our capacity. Today there are training centers at 19 universities that equip teachers to deliver the intervention and the program has a presence in some 8,000 schools across 49 states. With that kind of scale and longevity, it can be easy to become complacent and assume the intervention speaks for itself. D’Agostino says just the opposite is true. “We know that being the old brand that has been around for a long time can be hard,” he notes. “You have to think about how to keep the brand fresh. Superintendents want the newest hot thing. Teachers have to know it will work with their kids in their classrooms. We have spent time focused on how to adjust the model to offer new features and respond to current education trends such as the Common Core. You always have to show teachers and administrators how the intervention addresses the issue of the day. For example, it isn’t enough that the intervention produces strong effect sizes. For teachers, that is a meaningless number. They want to know that the program will help their third graders achieve the literacy level now required in nearly 40 states to be promoted to 4th grade.”

Be Flexible but Maintain Your Core
Reading Recovery has taken seriously the idea of identifying the intervention’s core elements and also responding to the educational system’s current needs. They know that one-to-one instruction and 30-minute daily lessons are non-negotiable, but they also recognize that adaptations are needed. For example, innovations in the lesson framework have resulted in a design for classroom instruction (Literacy Collaborative), small groups (Comprehensive Intervention Model), and training for special education and ESL teachers (Literacy Lessons). “Our innovations have come as direct requests from schools,” says D’Agostino. “For example, a school says they need something for English Language Learners and we develop something new for that one school that then becomes a part of our overall product line. It allows growth for Reading Recovery and flexibility for schools.” Another non-negotiable is keeping training centralized. Although teacher leaders can receive training at one of the 19 partner universities, there are only a few places where trainers of teacher leaders can get certified. That allows Reading Recovery to maintain some quality control and fidelity over teacher leader training. “I’ve always been impressed with the fidelity of Reading Recovery instruction,” said D’Aogstino. “I’ve seen Reading Recovery lessons in Zanesville, Ohio and Dublin, Ireland. The framework is the same, but each lesson is different in terms of how the teacher interacts with the student to scaffold literacy learning.

Combine Historical Expertise with Fresh Perspective
D’Agostino is quick to note that one of Reading Recovery’s strengths and challenges is the longevity of its founders and senior leadership. Many of the original developers of the intervention are still in leadership positions. This allows for a historical perspective and continuity of purpose that are rare in education these days. It can also hinder innovation. That is why the organization also tries to find leadership positions for newer faculty and teachers with recent teaching and administrative experience who can bring fresh ideas and a willingness to push for some of the new adjustments to the model that schools are requesting.

Adapt, Adjust, and Meet Schools Where They Are
D’Agostino emphasizes that Reading Recovery’s current success and long history is no reason to sit back and relax. “We have survived a lot of changes over the years. We’ve grown, we’ve shrunk, we’ve survived major threats to our program from other national initiatives. Right now with our i3 grant, we are in a great position. We are going to reach our goal of training 3,700 teachers and producing good effects. But I don’t know that that will position us well for the future. In fact, I won’t be happy if we just reach our goals.” Sustaining an effective intervention and bringing it to more schools and students around the country means innovating, moving, pushing to the next level…and spreading the word. “Schools don’t necessarily hear about government funded initiatives that achieve high evidence standards according to the What Works Clearinghouse,” muses D’Agostino. “They hear from hundreds of vendors each year citing their effectiveness, so how do we distinguish ourselves? We can’t just assume success in our i3 grant will lead to sustainability. Sustainability is all about results. For example, we know that the outcomes are remarkable – most of the lowest-achieving first graders accelerate with Reading Recovery and reach the average of their cohort – but we also know from our annual evaluation that there’s a great deal of variation across schools and teachers. So right now we want to know, what do effective Reading Recovery teachers do and how is that different from less effective Reading Recovery teachers? Knowing more about that black box of teaching will help the intervention overall. And understanding how to foster local ownership will give the intervention its real staying power.”

Lessons from Innovators: Strategic Literacy Initiative


The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The W. T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment, will highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.

“Teachers start to see that students can do more than they thought. And it changes the way they teach.”

Ruth Schoenbach has seen thousands of classrooms transformed by the teacher training programs offered by the Strategic Literacy Initiative (SLI) at WestEd, a national education R&D lab with headquarters in San Francisco. She and Cynthia Greenleaf co-direct SLI. One of the most ambitious of SLI’s programs is a scale up of the Reading Apprenticeship model known as RAISE (Reading Apprenticeship Improving Secondary Education) funded through i3. RAISE seeks to significantly increase the literacy and content knowledge of more than 400,000 high school students and 2,800 teachers in five states, and to build local capacity to continue the work after the grant ends in 2015.

After three rigorous, randomized federally funded studies confirmed that students exposed to Reading Apprenticeship made real gains in literacy and had more positive feelings about themselves as readers and students, Schoenbach and her colleagues knew that their program worked – and so did school districts across the country. The increased demand for Reading Apprenticeship and the support of the i3 grant put RAISE at the front of the work, and SLI in the position of having to vastly scale up their operations.

This is where things got interesting. RAISE training is more than just a new set of routines for teachers to use in the classroom. It’s a transformation of teachers’ beliefs about themselves, their students, and the nature of literacy itself. The work can be messy, intense, and deeply personal – and now SLI had to figure out how to train scores of new facilitators to replicate their work with thousands of new teachers in every kind of community across the country.

“The challenge,” Schoenbach said, “is figuring out how to be true to the principles we know work, while being responsive to the incredible diversity of classrooms, students, and teachers in a school, a city, a state.” The problems of scaling up – holding fidelity to the model while responding nimbly to local needs – are familiar in many industries, and the common response in teacher professional development is to simplify. For RAISE the problem was making the knowledge of SLI’s professional development accessible to new audiences throughout the country, and simplifying was not the answer. Instead, the RAISE project engaged the notion of developing a generative scale up.

Generative Scale Up of RAISE
Innovative training of large numbers of facilitators is not the only aspect of RAISE that requires smart adaptation. “The key to our overall scale up of Reading Apprenticeship,” Ruth said, “is to incorporate the deep experience and knowledge of those at the state and local levels, and, at the same time, to preserve the core tenets of Reading Apprenticeship, without adding elements that are not integral to our instructional model.”

Meaningful local relationships turned out to be one key to flexible expansion. “Sometimes we in the SLI national office can identify problems from afar, either through our staff in the field or through formative evaluation,” Schoenbach says. “But we just don’t have our ears to the ground like our State Coordinators do. They are attuned to those all-important local moments when the context offers up a great opportunity – like a new state superintendent who wants to focus on the Common Core Standards or a possible link between Reading Apprenticeship and a statewide literacy initiative. Our local partners’ deep knowledge of Reading Apprenticeship helps them work with others to build new and robust connections between our framework and the needs, views, and contexts of the many different stakeholders in their states.”

Making the Invisible Visible for Professional Development Facilitators
The quality of our scale up will depend on the quality of our professional development facilitators,” said Schoenbach. “They are the heart of the transformation.” The staff and researchers at SLI have been working for years to make their unique inquiry-based professional development more accessible. They knew that facilitators – most of whom are full time teachers themselves – needed to be comfortable inviting teachers to explore their own disciplinary literacy in depth, and to challenge RAISE participants’ assumptions about students’ capacities and their own teaching approaches. What they did not know is just how much work that would take.

The i3 emphasis on innovation encourages grantees to adapt program plans to emergent project needs. This enabled SLI to respond to what they were learning from new communities and to develop and refine new program elements. One response was the development of a hybrid model for facilitators’ learning, one that included face-to-face as well as wrap around online support. Through innovations like this one, the RAISE project has begun to make the “invisible” elements of strong facilitation of Reading Apprenticeship professional development more visible to a wider and more diverse generation of facilitators.

Taking a Charter Network to Scale: IDEA Public Schools

The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The W. T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment, will highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.

What are charter management organizations learning about scaling up their strategies?

Today’s post is based on a conversation between the Forum for Youth Investment and IDEA Public Schools’ Chief Human Assets Officer Audrey Hooks. She describes IDEA’s attempt to disseminate its guiding principles and knowledge, not just curriculum and materials.

IDEA Public Schools is a growing network of K-12 public charter schools serving more than 13,000 students in 28 schools throughout the Rio Grande Valley, Austin and San Antonio. In the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, IDEA leads 12 primary and 12 secondary public charter schools, alongside 20 Independent School Districts. For their i3 project, they formed a partnership with the Pharr, San Juan and Alamo Independent School District (PSJA). Together, the goal is to reform the human capital systems in both districts (IDEA and PSJA), from onboarding principals and teachers to developing them as leaders and evaluating them. “What is unique about our i3 project is that both districts have very similar needs and we are meeting those needs through solutions that include similar components,” reports Hooks. “But as we have gone through the grant and gotten more sophisticated in our thinking, each district has customized and personalized our offerings based on the unique cultures of each organization.” The two districts had explored working together for years, and the i3 grant gave them the opportunity. In particular, it created the opportunity for each district to test out strategies to build capacity internally rather than bring in outside firms or consultants, and to build the necessary district infrastructure to support those changes.

Over the course of this work, one of the key lessons that IDEA and PSJA have learned about scaling is that ideas and best practices are more important than specific curriculum and training modules. According to Hooks:

The first thing we had to do was come together as a partnership to decide what we actually believed was most important to scale. Was it most important that adopters use the exact modules of our curriculum with fidelity? No, we decided. Instead we have a set of human capital principles that we think are the most important to get out there.

Those principles, gleaned from two years of doing this work, include:

1. Clearly define teacher and leader excellence. Use the definitions in every stage of the human capital pipeline – to hire the right people, onboard and train them, evaluate their performance, and make promotion decisions. 
It sounds simple says Hooks, but in reality, it is not a practice most districts follow. Hooks:

More often than not, the hiring team doesn’t talk to the coaching team, doesn’t talk to the people who do performance evaluation. The point is not that all districts need to use the same framework, just that you need a good, research-based framework that your organization is committed to using in a variety of settings – hiring, coaching and evaluation.

2. Success at all stages of human capital work can and should be measured in part by student achievement. 
Hook says:

For example, one critical measure of teacher success comes a year after teachers have been hired and involves looking at their impact on student achievement – that is one of the factors that we should use to determine if our hiring team and principals are making strong hiring choices.

3. Human capital development should be integrated into the everyday business of the district. In the IDEA/PSJA partnership, effective development is not a slate of programs but rather a philosophy of operation. “We actually made a decision not to create a separate i3 work group to create materials and an institute on professional development and training,” says Hooks.

Instead, we decided that it had to be embedded to ensure its sustainability. I don’t have a shadow of a doubt that if I were to leave, that five years from now the IDEA schools would still have our Principal in Residence Program, our Leadership Institute and all these great human capital developments that i3 kick started for us. They aren’t going anywhere. The reason they are so embedded is because we built them in house.

Embedding principles in a district is an important first step, but when the practices and strategies that enact these principles are allowed to develop internally they become part of the operating procedure for any new school that IDEA opens. That is significant given IDEA has a goal to open 56 more schools by the end of 2018. Hooks believes this learning in their i3 work has informed and enabled their scaling. Although she was always confident they could raise funds to build new buildings and get schools up and running, she was less certain about finding and training the talent. Now with the new Principal in Residence program and the Teacher Institute in place, she feels confident they can find the people to fill all those new schools.

One of the most critical lessons of this grant is that the partners are able to embed new human capital principles in two very different systems – one rapidly growing, relatively new organization and one established district serving twice as many students. When it comes to embedding new principles and practices in a well-established district like PSJA, change can be harder. Hooks acknowledges that in a district that has been around for more than 100 years, current practices may be more established and there are often more staff members to invest in any changes to fundamental practices. The PSJA staff who are implementing human capital practices have had great success thus far, which is a promising sign that the principles described above are still valid, regardless of setting, and that even in a district where change may be more difficult, having these guiding principles in place will make change easier than simply trying to import new training or curricula without that foundation.

How Government Can Support Effective Innovation in Education

There are few aspects of life more thoroughly dominated by government than education. This is particularly true of educational innovation. Innovative programs and materials do often come from the private sector, but they are adopted only if government supports them.

There are two theories of government as regards improvements in education. One emphasizes regulation. For example, many states decree which textbooks can be used. Most states use this authority just to maintain minimum standards (e.g., paper weight, accuracy, non-discriminatory language), but others use their textbook adoption authority to force specific practices, such as use of phonics or certain approaches to teaching about evolution. None, however, use textbook adoption to encourage use of proven programs, which is apparently less important than paper weight. At the national level, regulations relating to Title I, charter schools, special education, and much more are intended to drive practice in a particular direction. Again, evidence plays little role. For example, study after study has found little effect of supplemental educational services (usually after-school remediation), yet SES has continued as a part of NCLB, taking billions from schools’ Title I budgets.

The alternative theory of government-supported innovation emphasizes fostering change by setting evaluation standards and letting the private sector innovate, as well as funding much R&D directly, and then helping scale up proven approaches. In medicine, companies come up with new devices to cure diseases, and those found in rigorous research to significantly improve outcomes are taken up at all levels of medical practice, with government support. Similarly, the Air Force might specify detailed characteristics it wants in a new pilotless drone and would then find bidders capable of building such a plane, adopting particular prototypes only if the plane ultimately meets the standards.

All areas of government also use regulation to promote certain policies and practices, but in education government almost never builds up practice from proven programs and practices. As a result, innovation in technology, textbooks, professional development, and other areas are driven by fashions, fads, politics, and marketing, not evidence.

At long last, this is beginning to change. The U.S. Department of Education is supporting the evaluation and scale-up of proven programs in its Investing in Innovation (i3) program. Recently, the Department proposed new regulations defining “strong” and “moderate” levels of evidence supporting educational innovations. These and other developments have not yet created an evidence-based system, far from it, but they are serious starts in the right direction.

Creating and then scaling up effective practices takes time, but its advantage is that if scale-up ensures effective implementation and continued positive outcomes, evidence-based reform builds from success to success and can learn over time what works under which circumstances. In contrast, innovation by national or statewide regulation is always a massive gamble, and most evaluations of grand national or statewide policies find that they made little difference.

Government by regulation may be good for maintaining the current system, but real change in any field depends on research and development. Government policies for education need to balance regulation with innovation, evaluation, and dissemination of proven programs and practices.

Shifting Government from “Who Gets What” to “What Works”

Every political science student knows the old adage that the focus of government is “Who gets what?” That is, government takes in taxes and then distributes benefits, and contending groups pressure government to increase the proportion of those benefits delivered to their constituents.

The “who gets what” dynamic exists as much in education as anywhere else, and perhaps even more, as education (like the military) is overwhelmingly a government-funded operation. Whenever the annual budget numbers come out for the U.S. Department of Education, advocacy groups scan every figure looking for gains or losses in their favored line items. There is nothing wrong with this, but the laser focus on line items may be distracting us from a focus on the more important question: are we getting better able to solve the enduring problems of education? Do we know more about “what works” and how to use public funds to support proven approaches?

The Obama Administration’s Investing in Innovation (i3) initiative is an excellent example of a “what works” approach rather than a “who gets what” mentality. It is funding a broad array of educational innovations to scale up proven ones and help developers of new approaches build capacity and effectiveness. Senator Bennet is advancing a proposal to create a set-aside in i3 for a new ARPA-ED initiative, modeled after the Defense Department’s successful DARPA. Unique to this proposal, discussed this week at the American Enterprise Institute, is that it would explicitly avoid “who gets what” structure and would focus directly on creating groundbreaking new technological capabilities in education. In fact, when prodded about how this would benefit rural communities, the Department of Education’s Jim Shelton boldly indicated that that kind of small thinking would not transform the way we educate kids in this country, and we instead need to focus on capabilities above special interests.

The i3 funding is unprecedented, but it is still a tiny slice of federal education funding. Over time, it is sure to increase the number of proven, replicable programs from which schools can choose. If you view the $150 million per year i3 and a potential set-aside for ARPA-ED initiatives as a strategy to improve the impact of the $14 billion Title I program, you have to conclude that i3 and ARPA-ED are extremely cost-effective investments. Yet in the media, percentage increases in big line items like Title I are widely reported and debated, while the smaller line items, like research, development, and dissemination, are lost in the small print.

Government reports budget numbers annually and National Assessment of Educational Progress data every few years. Perhaps in addition to these reports, the federal government should publish a regular report on how much more we’ve learned over the past period about how to improve student learning and other outcomes. Maybe focusing on and identifying advances in proven capacity to improve student outcomes would encourage legislators to invest in this capacity and encourage educators to use it, perhaps moving education policy toward more of a “what works” focus.

I am more hopeful than ever that we are headed in the right direction, but we have a way to go to make evidence the centerpiece of a new reality of teaching children effectively.

For the latest on evidence-based education, follow me on twitter: @RobertSlavin

Disclosure: Dr. Slavin’s organization, the Success for All Foundation, is a recipient of federal Investing in Innovation funds.