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Shifting Government from "Who Gets What" to "What Works"

Every political science student knows the old adage that the focus of government is "Who gets what?" That is, government takes in taxes and then distributes benefits, and contending groups pressure government to increase the proportion of those benefits delivered to their constituents.

The "who gets what" dynamic exists as much in education as anywhere else, and perhaps even more, as education (like the military) is overwhelmingly a government-funded operation. Whenever the annual budget numbers come out for the U.S. Department of Education, advocacy groups scan every figure looking for gains or losses in their favored line items. There is nothing wrong with this, but the laser focus on line items may be distracting us from a focus on the more important question: are we getting better able to solve the enduring problems of education? Do we know more about "what works" and how to use public funds to support proven approaches?

The Obama Administration's Investing in Innovation (i3) initiative is an excellent example of a "what works" approach rather than a "who gets what" mentality. It is funding a broad array of educational innovations to scale up proven ones and help developers of new approaches build capacity and effectiveness. Senator Bennet is advancing a proposal to create a set-aside in i3 for a new ARPA-ED initiative, modeled after the Defense Department's successful DARPA. Unique to this proposal, discussed this week at the American Enterprise Institute, is that it would explicitly avoid "who gets what" structure and would focus directly on creating groundbreaking new technological capabilities in education. In fact, when prodded about how this would benefit rural communities, the Department of Education's Jim Shelton boldly indicated that that kind of small thinking would not transform the way we educate kids in this country, and we instead need to focus on capabilities above special interests.

The i3 funding is unprecedented, but it is still a tiny slice of federal education funding. Over time, it is sure to increase the number of proven, replicable programs from which schools can choose. If you view the $150 million per year i3 and a potential set-aside for ARPA-ED initiatives as a strategy to improve the impact of the $14 billion Title I program, you have to conclude that i3 and ARPA-ED are extremely cost-effective investments. Yet in the media, percentage increases in big line items like Title I are widely reported and debated, while the smaller line items, like research, development, and dissemination, are lost in the small print.

Government reports budget numbers annually and National Assessment of Educational Progress data every few years. Perhaps in addition to these reports, the federal government should publish a regular report on how much more we've learned over the past period about how to improve student learning and other outcomes. Maybe focusing on and identifying advances in proven capacity to improve student outcomes would encourage legislators to invest in this capacity and encourage educators to use it, perhaps moving education policy toward more of a "what works" focus.

I am more hopeful than ever that we are headed in the right direction, but we have a way to go to make evidence the centerpiece of a new reality of teaching children effectively.

For the latest on evidence-based education, follow me on twitter: @RobertSlavin

Disclosure: Dr. Slavin's organization, the Success for All Foundation, is a recipient of federal Investing in Innovation funds.

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