The way to improve educational practice at scale is to invest in R&D

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Last week, I argued that the education-policy field has reached a state of homeostasis, “characterized by clearer and fairer but lighter touch accountability systems; the incremental growth of school choice options for families; but no appetite for big and bold new initiatives.” This “end of policy,” as I called it, won’t last forever, but while it’s here, we have a chance to finish what we started and usher in a “Golden Age of Educational Practice.” In other words, to implement the higher standards with fidelity. To improve teacher preparation and development. To strengthen charter school oversight and quality. To make the promise of high quality career and technical education real.

The challenge, I said, is that “while policymakers might be taking a break from education policy, we cannot afford to take a break from educational improvement.”

Unless, that is, we’re satisfied with the results our $650 billion educational system is producing. But we shouldn’t be. It’s not just lackluster student achievement, with barely a third of students reaching “NAEP proficiency” in core subjects. It’s also the 61 percent of students who graduate high school unprepared for what’s next, and the alarming number of young people who struggle to get and hold decent jobs, or who feel alienated from civic life.

If you care about the future of our country, you have to worry about how to improve our schools—how to help the bad ones get to good (or go away), and the good ones get to great.

But how? If big new policy initiatives are off the table, at least for now, how might concerned citizens, including wealthy philanthropists, make a difference? (Those philanthropists certainly shouldn’t give up on K–12 education, as Dylan Matthews has advocated.)

In the weeks ahead, I’m going to write about various ideas, with a focus on traditional—i.e., district-operated—public schools. (Yes, I believe that school choice and charter schools have much promise, too.) All of my notions fall under the headings of innovation, research, and development. In other words, let’s use science to drive progress in education, as it has in so many other fields. Here’s a sampler:

  1. Invest in much better information-gathering about what’s happening in our schools. Despite all the talk about data, we are largely flying blind when it comes to educational practice (we policy wonks, policymakers, and even leaders of state and local education agencies). Yes, we have NCES surveys, state administrative data, test scores, and occasional surveys of teachers, but that leaves huge gaps. It’s not just that we don’t know enough about “what works,” we don’t even know what’s going on. For instance, advocates and critics argue plenty about whether Common Core is working, but nobody knows if it’s really being implemented because we have barely any information about the training teachers have received, the curricula they are utilizing, the assignments they’re giving kids, or anything else inside the black box of the classroom. If we want to get better at getting better, we need to fix this.
  2. Ramp up the evaluation of promising innovations. Education does not want for new ideas; in fact, our field can be accused of faddism, as shiny new objects burst onto the scene and attract our attention away from the drudgery of implementing the last new idea. What we’re not nearly disciplined enough about, though, is testing the new ideas rigorously in experimental or quasi-experimental settings. Yes, smart government policy can help here, via initiatives like Investing in Innovation or the work of the National Center for Education Evaluation (part of the Institute of Educational Sciences). We could also be using federal charter school dissemination grants much better to test the effectiveness of promising innovations in the charter sector. But far-sighted philanthropists could support this sort of work, too, just as they do in the world of medicine.
  3. Develop tools and technologies that help educators implement evidence-based practices in the classroom. This is the “D” side of R&D, one that the U.S. government has never invested much money in, but where philanthropists can have a big impact. Funders such as Gates or Schusterman have focused on non-profit entities, especially in the Open Educational Resources space. Silicon Valley funders like the Emerson Collective and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have been willing to back for-profit toolmakers, too. All of this is welcome, whether it comes to building better curricula and instructional materials; incorporating digital technology into the classroom in thoughtful ways; or helping teachers better assess student progress and report it to parents. But we need a lot more of it, and we can’t assume that “if we build it, educators will come.” Which brings us to…
  4. Invest in mechanisms to make “evidence based practices” the norm in our schools rather than the exception. One great way to get proven practices into use is via tools and technologies, as explained above. But a new curriculum or better assessment system isn’t going to sell itself. Even in medicine, where science is a bedrock of the culture, pharmaceutical companies and device makers spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to get doctors to use their proven products. They also have “clinical practice guidelines” that are based on solid research and that the field is expected to follow. We need something similar in education.
  5. Scale up success, à la Advanced Placement. The “disruptive innovation” crowd likes to posit various innovations as the Uber for education; the analogy usually breaks down because Uber sells directly to consumers, while most educational innovations sell to schools. But there is an example of an initiative that has shown great results at national scale, and that’s the Advanced Placement program. Learning its lessons would allow philanthropists and others to develop similar initiatives for other domains—career and technical education at the least, but perhaps others.

Stay tuned for my thoughts on each of these, and please send along your ideas, as well. Policy may be out of fashion, but improving our schools had better not be.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.