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Federal Opinion

Overcoming Four Barriers to Evidence-Based Education

By Robert E. Slavin — May 01, 2013 5 min read
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Imagine if we used evidence to guide everything we do and teach in our nation’s neediest schools.

As part of this vision, educators would constantly look at their own outcomes and benchmark them against those of similar schools elsewhere. In areas that needed improvement, school leaders could easily identify proven, replicable programs. As part of the learning and adoption process, they would attend regional effective-methods fairs, send delegations to visit nearby schools using the programs, and view videos and websites to see what the programs looked like in operation.

If school leaders chose interventions that met high standards of evidence, the U.S. Department of Education and other agencies would make available modest funding and offer other supports to help schools implement their interventions with fidelity. We have not seen evidence-based reforms implemented nationwide in this manner—or the quality of education available to poor children improve—in the past three decades. This is due to four basic problems:

• Too few rigorous evaluations of promising programs;

• Inadequate dissemination of evidence of effectiveness;

• A lack of incentives for localities to implement proven interventions; and

• Insufficient technical assistance for implementing evidence-based interventions with fidelity.

The federal government can play a productive role in addressing each of these problems. Drawing on lessons from previous initiatives, it is now possible to design a system in which government, developers, researchers, and educators work together to transform educational practice, especially in Title I schools.

On the problem of evidence, the federal Institute of Education Sciences, or IES, and the Investing in Innovation, or i3, program are supporting third-party, randomized, large-scale evaluations of interventions intended to go to scale. Once interventions are identified in randomized controlled trials, federal and state governments can get out of the way in terms of mandating which interventions schools use. When students using innovative methods learned significantly more than those in control groups, policymakers could have confidence that whatever schools chose was likely to make a meaningful difference.

We still need more proven interventions in such priority areas as reading, math, science, and turnaround strategies for struggling schools, but we know a lot more today than we did several years ago about what works.

Helping schools become informed and intelligent consumers and users of proven interventions is the shortest route to improving essential outcomes for Title I schools. Today, it is easier than ever to find information on proven programs. The What Works Clearinghouse, a project of the Education Department; the Best Evidence Encyclopedia at Johns Hopkins University; and other review facilities have made a start in this direction. But more work is needed to help educators find practical information and make informed choices among proven approaches. There should also be incentives to encourage the uptake of evidence-based interventions. The federal i3 program is driving funding toward interventions that have a strong evidence base. However, there remains a need for a coherent system of supports for the entire pipeline from development to evaluation to dissemination. In particular, evidence-based reform has not yet had a major impact on major education initiatives, such as Title I or the federal School Improvement Grant, or SIG, program.

The Education Department needs to do more to encourage Title I schools to adopt proven programs in areas of need. For example, the department could award points to grant applicants who propose using programs that possess high levels of effectiveness, as defined in the legislation authorizing i3. Beyond this, federal officials need to nurture the evidence-based-reform process. The department could support various organizations to help state, district, and school leaders learn about proven programs in regional effective-methods fairs, for example.

 Helping schools become informed and intelligent consumers and users of proven interventions is the shortest route to improving essential outcomes for Title I schools.”

Finally, a strong evidence base is useless if an intervention is not implemented well. School leaders will need technical assistance to effectively implement and support whatever proven models they choose. The groups creating interventions—especially nonprofits and universities—need help to create and sustain effective organizations that can support the interventions they design with high-quality technical assistance.

A vigorous effort to develop, promote, and support proven interventions is certain to lead to widespread, measurable, and irreversible improvements in practices and outcomes in Title I schools. Contrary to popular belief, attaining scale for reform strategies need not be a challenge to evidence-based reform.

Since the beginning of the education reform movement, there have been no shortages of interventions, and no shortages of schools eager to embrace them. Experience is clear that, with encouragement and modest resources, very large numbers of schools will adopt externally developed programs.

The National Diffusion Network of the 1980s reached thousands of schools with more than 500 programs, using state facilitators to help disseminate promising models. The Obey-Porter comprehensive-school-reform program of the late 1990s enabled thousands of Title I schools to adopt whole-school-reform models.

Those who say that schools will not adopt externally developed programs have been proven wrong many times. What was lacking in these earlier efforts was a strong evidence base for most of the adopted models, but that limitation is being rapidly solved by the i3 and IES investments.

It is clear that developers can create and successfully evaluate replicable models, and that schools will eagerly embrace them if they are offered encouragement and resources. The federal government can play a useful role in ensuring that evaluations are of the highest quality; evidence of effectiveness is easily available to school leaders; incentives exist for states, districts, and schools to adopt proven models; and high-quality technical assistance helps school leaders effectively implement and support whatever models they choose.

Some aspects of this framework are already in place, thanks in particular to the work being supported by i3 and the IES. With more attention to this pipeline, we could witness a transformation of American schooling into a system in which evidence-based practice and continuous improvement progressively enhance outcomes for vulnerable children.

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2013 edition of Education Week

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