Friday, March 14, 2008

Making Way for Innovation: An Open Email to Two Congressional Staffers Working on NCLB

Roberto and Brad, it was a pleasure hearing your commentary at the February 20 Policy Forum “Using Evidence for a Change” and having a chance to meet you afterward. Roberto, we promised you a note summarizing the views expressed by several on the panel and raised in the question period.

We can contrast two views of research evident at the policy forum:

The first view holds that, because research is so expensive and difficult, only the federal government can afford it and only highly qualified professional researchers can be entrusted with it. The goal of such research activities is to obtain highly precise and generalizable evidence. In this view, practitioners (at the state, district, or school level) are put in the role of consumers of the evidence.

The second view holds that research should be made a routine activity within any school district contemplating a significant investment in an instructional or professional development program. Since all the necessary data are readily at hand (and without FERPA restrictions), it is straightforward for district personnel to conduct their own simple comparison group study. The result would be reasonably accurate local information on the program‘s impact in the setting. In this view, practitioners are producers of the evidence.

The approach suggested by the second view is far more cost effective than the first, as well as more timely. It is also driven directly by the immediate needs of districts. While each individual study would pertain only to a local implementation, in combination, hundreds of such studies can be collected and published by organizations like the What Works Clearinghouse or by consortia of states or districts. Turning practitioners into producers of evidence also removes the brakes on innovation identified in the policy forum. With practitioners as evidence producers, schools can adopt “unproven” programs as long as they do so as a pilot that can be evaluated for its impact on student achievement.

A few tweaks to NCLB will be necessary to turn practitioners into producers of evidence:

1. Currently NCLB implicitly takes the “practitioners as consumers of evidence” view in requiring that the scientifically based research be conducted prior to a district‘s acquisition of a program. We have already published a blog entry analyzing the changes to the SBR language in the Miller-McKeon and Lugar-Bingaman proposals and how minor modifications could remove the implicit “consumers” view. These are tweaks such as, for example, changing a phrase that calls for:
“including integrating reliable teaching methods based on scientifically valid research”
to a call for
“including integrating reliable teaching methods based on, or evaluated by, scientifically valid research.”

2. Make clear that a portion of the program funds are to be used in piloting new programs so they can be evaluated for their impact on student achievement. Consider a provision similar to the “priority” idea that Nina Rees persuaded ED to use in awarding its competitive programs.

3. Build in a waiver provision such as that proposed by the Education Sciences Board that would remove some of the risk to a failing district in piloting a new promising program. This “pilot program waiver” should cover consequences of failure for the participating schools for the period of the pilot. The waiver should also remove requirements that NCLB program funds be used only for the lowest scoring students, since this would preclude having the control group needed for a rigorous study.

The view of “practitioners as consumers of evidence” is widely unpopular. It is viewed by decision-makers as inviting the inappropriate construction of an approved list, as was revealed in the Reading First program. It is seen as restricting local innovation by requiring compliance with the proclamations of federal agencies. In the end, science is reduced to a check box on the district requisition form. If education is to become an evidence-based practice, we have to start with the practitioners. —DN