The Senate draft language for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), released yesterday, gives me hope for evidence-based reform in education. Busy policy shops and newsrooms are still digesting the 860-page draft, and will surely provide thorough analysis in the coming days. In the meantime, I would like to highlight three critical developments for evidence-based reform:
1) The Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), only funded through appropriations in the past, would be codified in law. Already in its second round of competition, this program is no longer "new," but a permanent authorization would be a real game changer. i3 provides funding to scale up programs that already meet a high standard of evidence and scalability and to develop and evaluate programs that appear capable of eventually reaching this standard. If authorized, i3 would produce an ever-expanding array of proven, replicable programs capable of solving all sorts of enduring problems of educational practice.
2) The draft language gives persistently low-achieving schools the option of implementing proven whole-school reform designs, defined as those found to be effective in at least two large, rigorous randomized or quasi-experimental studies. This is huge, on two counts. First, it reintroduces the idea that schools in difficulty should consider coherent, well-designed approaches, rather than employing consultants to help them start from scratch. Perhaps even more importantly, the mention of specific, relatively high standards of evidence for these programs is the first time in ESEA history that such evidence has been central to options offered to struggling schools. This is not the squishy "based on scientifically-based evidence" of NCLB. This is the real McCoy. If this provision survives into the final bill, it will lead to an acceleration of research, development, and dissemination of whole-school turnaround strategies.
3) Though not part of the draft, Senator Bennet plans to introduce an amendment authorizing ARPA-ED as a part of ESEA. Modeled after the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), ARPA-ED would encourage and fund development of break-the-mold new technologies and approaches, which would need to show evidence that they improve learning substantially in comparison to current methods. New approaches could find solutions to enduring problems as diverse as the teaching of algebra, simulating experiments in science, treating reading disabilities, and helping English learners become proficient. What ARPA would add to i3 is a proactive outreach to non-traditional innovators perhaps capable of creating astonishing leaps forward in educational practice.
I have yet to read the full 860 pages released yesterday, but it is already apparent that those at the negotiating table in the Senate managed to stick to their guns on the importance of evidence in school innovation. I hope the support for innovation and evidence survives the political process. The future progress of our schools serving disadvantaged children depends on it.