What Works, In Context

"Invest in what works."

It seems simple: The public and private resources available to invest in reducing achievement gaps in education, teenage pregnancy rates, child poverty and any other cause are limited. Therefore, funding should be channeled to programs that are proven to be effective.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act could direct billions in federal funds to invest in what works. How we define "what works" will determine if we are ultimately successful.

This shift to evidence-based education policy follows a pattern set by federal programs such as the Social Innovation Fund and the Investing in Innovation Fund, and supported by private philanthropies such as the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and The Wallace Foundation (both of which have supported evaluations of my organization). Such programs have funded a host of rigorous evaluations, including randomized controlled trials, of social interventions and uncovered valuable insight into the not only if interventions work, but more importantly, why and how they work.

There is rarely a clear black or white distinction about what truly works. There is evidence that we are beginning to see a more nuanced definition of what works. In April, Results for America and The Bridgespan Group published a new report about the market for evidence on effectiveness. They found that investing in what works, while necessary, is not sufficient to propel positive social change forward. Evidence of effectiveness is useful for understanding whether a given intervention works in a particular place, at a particular time. Outside of that place and that time, it is but one source of information among many others that together inform a continuous learning process.

The ability to adapt quickly -- to continuously improve and to stay one step ahead when it comes to innovation and learning -- is one of the most important characteristics of effective nonprofits. The nonprofit I work for, BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), has been fortunate to possess strong evidence of impact for its summer learning model. That evidence comes from two random assignment evaluations that looked at the academic impact of our summer learning model; one conducted by the Urban Institute that focused on elementary school students, the second by MDRC focused on middle school students and published findings earlier this year.

Such evaluation results - and other evidence from the field - are a compass, not a map. The quality of our programs and the consistent, positive outcomes achieved by our scholars is more a reflection of continuous improvement in our delivery models rather than the result of a single study at one point in time. Research helps us and our school partners navigate toward our North Star rather than prescribing our every step.

Investing in what works also must mean investing in a culture of continuous improvement. For us, this means investing in our organization's capacity to chart out, execute, and refine a continuous learning cycle, which spreads new insights across the organization throughout the year. This includes supporting the information systems and feedback loops, developing the talent and committing the time and space for learning and improvement to take place. It also includes a bi-annual tradition of our program leaders from across a city gathering to discuss best practices, lessons learned and areas for improvement, as well as a company policy of sabbaticals to help our staff reflect on their work and deepen their knowledge of the field.

Investing in what is working means taking a leap of reason. What we know about what makes summer learning effective is not limited to BELL programs. What we have learned -- about setting a culture of high expectations, about providing middle school scholars with the opportunity to exercise their voice and choice when it comes to enrichment activities and about organizing scholars into small groups according to their learning needs -- is useful for any provider of summer learning programs. That's why we have developed a new licensing model, working with many partner organizations around the country, constantly sharing best practices and emerging knowledge so that others can apply what works in their own contexts.

The challenges we're trying to solve are far too large and far too complex for any single study to define what works. Let's look at problems from many angles. Let's make sure we have a complete picture of what's working for students now, and how we can improve and scale impact over time.

Tiffany Gueye, Ph.D., is the Chief Executive Officer at BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life). She is also on the Advisory Board of Results for America.