Government Plays an Essential Role in Diffusion of Innovations

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of concern in reform circles about how externally derived evidence can truly change school practices and improve outcomes. Surveys of principals, for example, routinely find that principals rarely consult research in making key decisions, including decisions about adopting materials, software, or professional development intended to improve student outcomes. Instead, principals rely on their friends in similar schools serving similar students. In the whole process, research rarely comes up, and if it does, it is often generic research on how children learn rather than high-quality evaluations of specific programs they might adopt.

Principals and other educational leaders have long been used to making decisions without consulting research. It would be difficult to expect otherwise, because of three conditions that have prevailed roughly from the beginning of time to very recently: a) There was little research of practical value on practical programs; b) The research that did exist was of uncertain quality, and school leaders did not have the time or training to determine studies’ validity; c) There were no resources provided to schools to help them adopt proven programs, so doing so required that they spend their own scarce resources.

Under these conditions, it made sense for principals to ask around among their friends before selecting programs or practices. When no one knows anything about a program’s effectiveness, why not ask your friends, who at least (presumably) have your best interests at heart and know your context? Since conditions a, b, and c have defined the context for evidence use nearly up to the present, it is not surprising that school leaders have built a culture of distrust for anyone outside of their own circle when it comes to choosing programs.

However, all three of conditions a, b, and c have changed substantially in recent years, and they are continuing to change in a positive direction at a rapid rate:

a) High-quality research on practical programs for elementary and secondary schools is growing at an extraordinary rate. As shown in Figure 1, the number of rigorous randomized or quasi-experimental studies in elementary and secondary reading and in elementary math have skyrocketed since about 2003, due mostly to investments by the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) and Investing in Innovation (i3). There has been a similar explosion of evidence in England, due to funding from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). Clearly, we know a lot more about which programs work and which do not than we once did.

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b) Principals, teachers, and the public can now easily find reliable and accessible information on practical programs on the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), Evidence for ESSA, and other sites. No one can complain any more that information is inaccessible or incomprehensible.

c) Encouragement and funding are becoming available for schools eager to use proven programs. Most importantly, the federal ESSA law is providing school improvement funding for low-achieving schools that agree to implement programs that meet the top three ESSA evidence standards (strong, moderate, or promising). ESSA also provides preference points for applications for certain sources of federal funding if they promise to use the money to implement proven programs. Some states have extended the same requirement to apply to eligibility for state funding for schools serving students who are disadvantaged or are ethnic or linguistic minorities. Even schools that do not meet any of these demographic criteria are, in many states, being encouraged to use proven programs.

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Photo credit: Jorge Gallo [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

I think the current situation is like that which must have existed in, say, 1910, with cars and airplanes. Anyone could see that cars and airplanes were the future. But I’m sure many horse-owners pooh-poohed the whole thing. “Sure there are cars,” they’d say, “but who will build all those paved roads? Sure there are airplanes, but who will build airports?” The answer was government, which could see the benefits to the entire economy of systems of roads and airports to meet the needs of cars and airplanes.

Government cannot solve all problems, but it can create conditions to promote adoption and use of proven innovations. And in education, federal, state, and local governments are moving rapidly to do this. Principals may still prefer to talk to other principals, and that’s fine. But with ever more evidence on ever more programs and with modest restructuring of funds governments are already awarding, conditions are coming together to utterly transform the role of evidence in educational practice.

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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Helping Struggling Schools

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Illustration by James Bravo

There are a lot of schools in the U.S. that need to be achieving much better outcomes. However, there is a much smaller group of schools in which achievement levels are appalling. The solutions for garden-variety low-achieving schools are arguably different from those for schools with the very worst levels of performance.

In recent years, a key resource for very low-achieving schools has been the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program. SIG provides substantial funding to schools in the lowest 5 percent of their states on achievement measures. Up until this year, schools receiving SIG funds had to choose among four models.

This year, three new models were added to SIG. These include an option to use an evidence-proven whole-school reform model; such a model has to have been successfully evaluated in a study meeting What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) standards. This is potentially a significant advance. Perhaps, if many schools choose proven models, this option will enhance the effectiveness and image of the much-maligned SIG program. (Full disclosure: Our Success for All program is one of four approaches approved thus far by the U.S. Department of Education for use under the evidence-proven whole-school option for SIG.)

However, stop for a moment and consider what’s going on here. The lowest-achieving schools in America are being offered substantial funding (currently, up to $2 million over five years) to turn themselves around. These schools need the very best programs provided by organizations with a proven track record. Of all schools, why should these very needy schools receive unproven approaches, perhaps invented from scratch for the SIG proposal and therefore never even piloted before? When your car breaks down, do you tow it to a mechanic who has never fixed a car before? When you have medical problems, do you want to be someone’s first patient?

There should always be a fund separate from ordinary Title I to provide intensive assistance to schools in the lowest 5 percent of their states on state assessments. However, instead of focusing SIG on governance, personnel, and untested prescriptions, as it has done up to now, SIG (or its successor) should focus on helping schools select and effectively implement proven programs. In addition to the four “evidence-proven whole-school reform” models identified recently, SIG schools might be funded to implement a mix of reading approaches, math approaches, tutoring models, and social-emotional approaches, for example, each of which has convincing evidence of effectiveness.

The recent changes in SIG, allowing proven whole-school reforms, are a big step in the right direction, but additional steps in the same direction are needed to make this crucial investment a model of wise use of federal funds to solve serious problems in education.