Long ago, I worked in a school for emotionally disturbed children located in what had been a tuberculosis hospital. Since then, I’ve heard of other schools located in other former TB hospitals. Why, one might ask, are such hospitals available for use as schools? The reason, of course, is that the disease has largely been cured.
Imagine, however, that education policymakers had been in charge of TB hospitals. We would have had all sorts of theories about how to make them work better. We’d have accountability, with recognition for institutions with low death rates and threats of closure for those with high rates. We’d be arguing about common standards for these hospitals. We’d be trying to get rid of ineffective directors and staff. We’d be authorizing “charter hospitals” that could create their own treatment plans. All of these efforts might be helpful, as they may be in education. But they wouldn’t cure the disease. They’d leave the core, ineffective treatment protocols intact while trying to produce improvements by better management of existing treatments.
As Congress tackles the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, the largest federal education program for K-12 schooling, its members should think not only about how to manage current practices, but also about how to ensure that proven educational practices become widely and effective used. This is especially true for high-poverty schools that receive substantial federal Title I funding aimed at improving the academic achievement of disadvantaged students. It was not management that cured tuberculosis. It was research, development, and expansion of proven therapies. “Curing” what ails education will not be as straightforward as curing a disease, but the process will be similar. The only way to produce substantial improvements on a large scale is by developing and rigorously evaluating promising methods, and then scaling up the ones that work. Yes, new forms of school organization, management, teacher recruitment, and accountability may also be needed, but they must be built around the requirements of proven practices at the classroom level, not just tweaking current practices around the edges.
Investing in Innovation
A model for evidence-based reform in education is the Obama administration’s Investing in Innovation, or i3, initiative. It provides large grants to help proven programs—ones found to be effective through numerous rigorous evaluations—to expand to more schools and benefit more children. Four programs—Success for All, with which I’m associated; Reading Recovery; the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP; and Teach For America—were awarded scale-up funding. Another 15 programs with some evidence of effectiveness received grants for further development and evaluation, and 30 newer programs received smaller development grants. The genius of the i3 approach is that it combines support for disseminating the best of what exists now with support for promising approaches.
The i3 model should be at the core of the ESEA reauthorization. In particular, Title I, the $14 billion program to help high-poverty schools, should help school leaders learn about and then adopt proven approaches known to increase achievement in schools grappling with significant poverty. These might include proven whole-school-reform approaches; small-group and individual-tutoring models for struggling readers; effective classroom approaches for reading, writing, mathematics, science, social studies, and other subjects; successful methods for English-language learners; proven uses of technology; and effective dropout-prevention, college-attendance, and vocational programs.
In many of these areas, proven programs already exist. This is particularly true in early reading, where proven classroom programs supplemented by proven tutoring approaches for struggling readers could virtually eliminate reading failure if universally applied. Effective programs also are ready for scale-up in secondary reading, elementary and secondary mathematics, and many other subjects.
The only way to produce substantial improvements on a large scale is by developing and rigorously evaluating promising methods, and then scaling up the ones that work."
In all subjects and grade levels, there is a need for far greater investment in research and development to discover new methods of teaching, taking advantage of new technologies (such as interactive whiteboards, computers, and hand-held devices) as well as knowledge about how to teach with or without technology (such as teaching of meta-cognitive “learning to learn” skills). New approaches for English-language learners and struggling learners at all grade levels are on the horizon or ready to go.
Knowledge about “what works” in education is increasingly available on websites, such as the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse and the online Best Evidence Encyclopedia. Yet at present, Title I schools have little incentive or even encouragement to seek out and implement proven programs. Instead, too many Title I schools endlessly try to reinvent the wheel, focusing on avoiding punishment rather than creating joyful and effective learning environments.
Medicine, agriculture, engineering, and many other fields were utterly transformed in the 20th century by embracing evidence-driven progress. In these fields, proven solutions ultimately replaced ineffective ones and then were regularly replaced by even-better solutions in a relentless process of research, development, and dissemination.
Education is not identical to these fields, but education reform should embrace evidence as the basis for policy and practice. Largely because of growing support for research and development by both major political parties since the early 1990s, we now have the capacity to provide Title I schools nationally with evidence-supported programs and practices. We know a lot about how to create and scale up new approaches in education. For example, before the previous administration ended the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program, approximately 6,000 Title I schools used comprehensive reform approaches. Unquestionably, if Title I focuses on proven reforms that improve daily classroom teaching, these reforms can go to scale, and can reduce achievement gaps in thousands of schools.
Everyone knows that the ESEA reauthorization must attend to accountability, teacher quality, and national standards. These are important issues, but they aren’t enough. They may help us better manage existing schools, using today’s methods, just as better management might have helped the TB hospitals. But major and lasting improvements will require new and better methods that transform classroom practices and get kids eager to go to school, excited by their learning progress and the concept of learning how to learn.
America’s place in the world economy was built on its leadership in innovation, research, and development. Why not solve our educational problems the same way? Finding out what works and then putting it to work is where we excel. The coming reauthorization of the ESEA gives us an opportunity to put this know-how to work in our schools.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as Job One for Title I: Use What Works