New Years Resolutions for Evidence-Based Reform

I want to wish all of my readers a very happy New Year. The events of 2015, particularly the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), gives us reason to hope that evidence may finally become a basis for educational decisions. The appointment of John King, clearly the most evidence-oriented and evidence informed Secretary of Education ever to serve in that office, is another harbinger of positive change. Yet these and other extraordinary events only create possibilities for major change, not certainties. What happens next depends on our political leaders, on those of you reading this blog, and on others who believe that children deserve proven programs. In recognition of this, I would suggest a set of New Years resolutions for us all to collectively achieve in the coming year.

1. Get beyond D.C. The evidence movement in education has some sway within a half-mile radius of K Street and in parts of academia, but very little in the rest of the country. ESSA puts a lot of emphasis on moving power from Washington to the states, and even if this were not true, it is now time to advocate in state capitols for use of proven programs and evidence-informed decisions. In the states and even in Washington, evidence-based reform needs a lot more allies.

2. Make SIG work. School Improvement Grants (SIG) written this spring for implementation in fall, 2016, continue to serve the lowest performing 5% of schools in each state. Schools can choose among six models, the four original ones (i.e., school closure, charter-ization, transformation, and turnaround) plus two new ones: proven, whole-school reforms, and state-developed models, which may include proven programs. SIG is an obvious focus for evidence, since these are schools in need of sure-fire solutions, and the outcomes of SIG with the original four models have been less than impressive. Also, since SIG is already well underway, it could provide an early model of how proven programs could transform struggling schools. But this will only happen if there is encouragement to states and schools to choose the proven program option. Perceived success in SIG would go a long way toward building support for use of proven programs more broadly. (School Improvement will undergo significant changes the following year pursuant to ESSA and this merits its own blog, but it's important to note here that states will be required to include evidence-based interventions as part of their plan, so moving towards evidence now may help ease their transition later.)

3. Celebrate successes of Investing in Innovation (i3). The 2010 cohort, the first and largest cohort of i3 grantees, is beginning to report achievement outcomes from third-party evaluations. As in any set of rigorous evaluations, studies that did not find significant differences are sure to outnumber those that do. We need to learn everything we can from these evaluations, whatever their findings, but there is a particular need to celebrate the findings of those studies that did find positive impacts. These provide support for the entire concept of evidence-based reform, and give practicing educators programs with convincing evidence that are ready to go.

4. In as many federal discretionary funding programs as possible, provide preference points for applications proposing to implement proven programs. ESSA names several (mostly small) funding programs that will provide preference points to proposals proposing to use proven programs. This list should be expanded to include any funding program in which proven programs exist. Is there any reason not to encourage use of proven programs? It costs nothing, does not require use of any particular program, and makes positive outcomes for children a lot more likely.

5. Encourage use of proven programs in formula funding, such as Title I. Formula funding is where the big money goes, and activities funded by these resources need to have as strong an evidence base as possible. Incentives to match formula funding, as in President Obama's Leveraging What Works proposal, would help, of course, but are politically unlikely at the moment. However, plain old encouragement from Washington and state departments of education could be just as effective. Who can argue against using Title I funds, for example, to implement proven approaches? Will anyone stand up to advocate for ineffective or unproven approaches for disadvantaged children, once the issue is out in the open?

These resolutions are timely, because, at least in my experience, both government and the field adjust to new legislation in the first year, and then whatever sticks stays the same for many years. Whatever does not stick is hard to add in later. The evidence elements of ESSA will matter to the extent our leaders make them matter, right now, in 2016. Let's do whatever we can to help them make the right choices for our children.