Do School Districts Really Have Difficulty Meeting ESSA Evidence Standards?

The Center for Educational Policy recently released a report on how school districts are responding to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requirement that schools seeking school improvement grants select programs that meet ESSA’s strong, moderate, or promising standards of evidence. Education Week ran a story on the CEP report.

The report noted that many states, districts, and schools are taking the evidence requirements seriously, and are looking at websites and consulting with researchers to help them identify programs that meet the standards. This is all to the good.

However, the report also notes continuing problems districts and schools are having finding out “what works.” Two particular problems were cited. One was that districts and schools were not equipped to review research to find out what works. The other was that rural districts and schools found few programs proven effective in rural schools.

I find these concerns astounding. The same concerns were expressed when ESSA was first passed, in 2015. But that was almost four years ago. Since 2015, the What Works Clearinghouse has added information to help schools identify programs that meet the top two ESSA evidence categories, strong and moderate. Our own Evidence for ESSA, launched in February, 2017, has up-to-date information on virtually all PK-12 reading and math programs currently in dissemination. Among hundreds of programs examined, 113 meet ESSA standards for strong, moderate, or promising evidence of effectiveness. WWC, Evidence for ESSA, and other sources are available online at no cost. The contents of the entire Evidence for ESSA website were imported into Ohio’s own website on this topic, and dozens of states, perhaps all of them, have informed their districts and schools about these sources.

The idea that districts and schools could not find information on proven programs if they wanted to do so is difficult to believe, especially among schools eligible for school improvement grants. Such schools, and the districts in which they are located, write a lot of grant proposals for federal and state funding. The application forms for school improvement grants always explain the evidence requirements, because that is the law. Someone in every state involved with federal funding knows about the WWC and Evidence for ESSA websites. More than 90,000 unique users have used Evidence for ESSA, and more than 800 more sign on each week.

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As to rural schools, it is true that many studies of educational programs have taken place in urban areas. However, 47 of the 113 programs qualified by Evidence for ESSA were validated in at least one rural study, or a study including a large enough rural sample to enable researchers to separately report program impacts for rural students. Also, almost all widely disseminated programs have been used in many rural schools. So rural districts and schools that care about evidence can find programs that have been evaluated in rural locations, or at least that were evaluated in urban or suburban schools but widely disseminated in rural schools.

Also, it is important to note that if a program was successfully evaluated only in urban or suburban schools, the program still meets the ESSA evidence standards. If no studies of a given outcome were done in rural locations, a rural school in need of better outcomes could, in effect, be asked to choose between a program proven to work somewhere and probably used in dissemination in rural schools, or they could choose a program not proven to work anywhere. Every school and district has to make the best choices for their kids, but if I were a rural superintendent or principal, I’d read up on proven programs, and then go visit some rural schools using that program nearby. Wouldn’t you?

I have no reason to suspect that the CEP survey is incorrect. There are many indications that district and school leaders often do feel that the ESSA evidence rules are too difficult to meet. So what is really going on?

My guess is that there are many district and school leaders who do not want to know about evidence on proven programs. For example, they may have longstanding, positive relationships with representatives of publishers or software developers, or they may be comfortable and happy with the materials and services they are already using, evidence-proven or not. If they do not have evidence of effectiveness that would pass muster with WWC or Evidence for ESSA, the publishers and software developers may push hard on state and district officials, put forward dubious claims for evidence (such as studies with no control groups), and do their best to get by in a system that increasingly demands evidence that they lack. In my experience, district and state officials often complain about having inadequate staff to review evidence of effectiveness, but their concern may be less often finding out what works as it is defending themselves from publishers, software developers, or current district or school users of programs, who maintain that they have been unfairly rated by WWC, Evidence for ESSA, or other reviews. State and district leaders who stand up to this pressure may have to spend a lot of time reviewing evidence or hearing arguments.

On the plus side, at the same time that publishers and software producers may be seeking recognition for their current products, many are also sponsoring evaluations of some of their products that they feel are mostly likely to perform well in rigorous evaluations. Some may be creating new programs that resemble programs that have met evidence standards. If the federal ESSA law continues to demand evidence for certain federal funding purposes, or even to expand this requirement to additional parts of federal grant-making, then over time the ESSA law will have its desired effect, rewarding the creation and evaluation of programs that do meet standards by making it easier to disseminate such programs. The difficulties the evidence movement is experiencing are likely to diminish over time as more proven programs appear, and as federal, state, district, and school leaders get comfortable with evidence.

Evidence-based reform was always going to be difficult, because of the amount of change it entails and the stakes involved. But sooner or later, it is the right thing to do, and leaders who insist on evidence will see increasing levels of learning among their students, at minimal cost beyond what they already spend on untested or ineffective approaches. Medicine went through a similar transition in 1962, when the U.S. Congress first required that medicines be rigorously evaluated for effectiveness and safety. At first, many leaders in the medical profession resisted the changes, but after a while, they came to insist on them. The key is political leadership willing to support the evidence requirement strongly and permanently, so that educators and vendors alike will see that the best way forward is to embrace evidence and make it work for kids.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

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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Superman and Statistics

In the 1978 movie “Superman,” Lois Lane, star journalist, crash-lands in a helicopter on top of a 50-story skyscraper.   The helicopter is hanging by a strut to the edge of the roof, and Lois is hanging on to a microphone cord.  Finally, the cord breaks, and Lois falls 45 floors before (of course) she is swooped up by Superman, who flies her back to the roof and sets her down gently. Then he says to her:

“I hope this doesn’t put you off of flying. Statistically speaking, it is the safest form of travel.”

She faints.

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Don’t let the superhero thing fool you: The “S” is for “statistics.”

I’ve often had the very same problem whenever I do public speaking.  As soon as I mention statistics, some of the audience faints dead away. Or perhaps they are falling asleep. But either way, saying the word “statistics” is not usually a good way to make friends and influence people.

 

The fact is, most people don’t like statistics.  Or more accurately, people don’t like statistics except when the statistical findings agree with their prejudices.  At an IES meeting several years ago, a well-respected superintendent was invited to speak to what is perhaps the nerdiest, most statistically-minded group in all of education, except for an SREE conference.  He actually said, without the slightest indication of humor or irony, that “GOOD research is that which confirms what I have always believed.  BAD research is that which disagrees with what I have always believed.”  I’d guess that the great majority of superintendents and other educational leaders would agree, even if few would say so out loud to an IES meeting.

If educational leaders only attend to statistics that confirm their prior beliefs, one might argue that, well, at least they do attend to SOME research.  But research in an applied field like education is of value only if it leads to positive changes in practice.  If influential educators only respect research that confirms their previous beliefs, then they never change their practices or policies because of research, and policies and practices stay the same forever, or change only due to politics, marketing, and fads. Which is exactly how most change does in fact happen in education.  If you wonder why educational outcomes change so slowly, if at all, you need look no further than this.

Why is it that educators pay so little attention to research, whatever its outcomes, much in contrast to the situation in many other fields?  Some people argue that, unlike medicine, where doctors are well trained in research, educators lack such training.  Yet agriculture makes far more practical use of evidence than education does, and most farmers, while outstanding in their fields, are not known for their research savvy.

Farmers are, however, very savvy business owners, and they can clearly see that their financial success depends on using seeds, stock, methods, fertilizers, and insecticides proven to be effective, cost-effective, and sustainable.  Similarly, research plays a crucial role in technology, engineering, materials science, and every applied field in which better methods, with proven outcomes, lead to increased profits.

So one major reason for limited use of research in education is that adopting proven methods in education rarely leads to enhanced profit.  Even in parts of the educational enterprise where profit is involved, economic success still depends far more on politics, marketing, and fads, than on evidence. Outcomes of adopting proven programs or practices may not have an obvious impact on overall school outcomes because achievement is invariably tangled up with factors such as social class of children and schools’ abilities to attract skilled teachers and principals.  Ask parents whether they would rather have their child to go to a school in which all students have educated, upper-middle class parents, or to a school that uses proven instructional strategies in every subject and grade level.  The problem is that there are only so many educated, upper-middle class parents to go around, so schools and parents often focus on getting the best possible demographics in their school rather than on adopting proven teaching methods.

How can education begin to make the rapid, irreversible improvements characteristic of agriculture, technology, and medicine?  The answer has to take into account the fundamental fact that education is a government monopoly.  I’m not arguing whether or not this is a good thing, but it is certain to be true for many years, perhaps forever.  The parts of education that are not part of government are private schools, and these are very few in number (charter schools are funded by government, of course).

Because government funds nearly all schools, it has both the responsibility and the financial capacity to do whatever is feasible to make schools as effective as it possibly can.  This is true of all levels of government, federal, state, and local.  Because it is in charge of all federal research funding, the federal government is the most logical organization to lead any efforts to increase use of proven programs and practices in education, but forward-looking state and local government could also play a major role if they chose to do so.

Government can and must take on the role that profit plays in other research-focused fields, such as agriculture, medicine, and engineering.   As I’ve argued many times, government should use national funding to incentivize schools to adopt proven programs.  For example, the federal government could provide funding to schools to enable them to pay the costs of adopting programs found to be effective in rigorous research.  Under ESSA, it is already doing this, but right now the main focus is only on Title I school improvement grants.   These go to schools that are among the lowest performers in their states.  School improvement is a good place to start, but it affects a modest number of extremely disadvantaged schools.  Such schools do need substantial funding and expertise to make the substantial gains they are asked to make, but they are so unlike the majority of Title I schools that they are not sufficient examples of what evidence-based reform could achieve.  Making all Title I schools eligible for incentive funding to implement proven programs, or at least working toward this goal over time, would arouse the interest and enthusiasm of a much greater set of schools, virtually all of which need major changes in practices to reach national standards.

To make this policy work, the federal government would need to add considerably to the funding it provides for educational research and development, and it would need to rigorously evaluate programs that show the greatest promise to make large, pragmatically important differences in schools’ outcomes in key areas, such as reading, mathematics, science, and English for English learners.  One way to do this cost-effectively would be to allow districts (or consortia of districts) to put forward pairs of matched schools for potential funding.   Districts or consortia awarded grants might then be evaluated by federal contractors, who would randomly assign one school in each pair to receive the program, while the pair members not selected would serve as a control group.  In this way, programs that had been found effective in initial research might have their evaluations replicated many times, at a very low evaluation cost.  This pair evaluation design could greatly increase the number of schools using proven programs, and could add substantially to the set of programs known to be effective.  This design could also give many more districts experience with top-quality experimental research, building support for the idea that research is of value to educators and students.

Getting back to Superman and Lois Lane, it is only natural to expect that Lois might be reluctant to get on another helicopter anytime soon, no matter what the evidence says.  However, when we are making decisions on behalf of children, it’s not enough to just pay attention to our own personal experience.  Listen to Superman.  The evidence matters.

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.

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.

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.