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Are Evidence and Innovation in Conflict?

I do a fair amount of speaking on the importance of evidence-based reform in education, and I hear a disturbing objection to this idea: insisting on evidence for educational programs will slow down the process of innovation.

At one level, this is an astonishing argument. If we don't know if innovations work, why should we care if they are not widely used? Actually, at least 99% of the textbooks, software, and professional development approaches adopted by schools today have never been evaluated successfully in comparison to control groups, so complaining about evidence-based reform is a bit premature.

However, there is a genuine dilemma. Technology innovations, for example, develop very rapidly, and it takes time to do proper evaluations. If government insisted that schools use only proven programs, there would be a danger that promising innovations might never get established, or might be obsolete by the time the report appears.

The solution to this dilemma is to encourage but not require schools to adopt proven programs. Government could offer special incentive funds (as in the Obey-Porter Comprehensive School Reform program of the late 1990s) or by awarding 5 to 10 competitive preference points for schools that commit to implementing proven programs with fidelity. Beyond encouraging schools themselves, these incentives would encourage developers and innovators to create and evaluate promising approaches, knowing that if they work, many schools may adopt them.

The whole idea of evidence-based reform is to go beyond ideas and create a system to support the development, evaluation, and dissemination of effective innovations. Wise policies would support all steps in this process, including step one: the crucial development and piloting of promising innovations.

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