12/18/2013 10:18 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

Brokering Proven Programs to Schools


I dislike holiday shopping. The problem is that there are way too many choices. Have you ever walked into a store looking for something specific and been so overwhelmed with the number and range of choices that you turned around and left? I know I have. Much as we all like to have choices, too many of them with too many factors differentiating them can be overwhelming.

In the case of disseminating proven educational programs, this problem is even worse. On paper, all programs look pretty much alike, but it takes a long time to look at videos or visit schools to consider what programs really do. Even in schools in which everyone knows that change is needed, it is difficult to get consensus on a particular direction. It may be easier to just keep the same programs and hope that, somehow, kids will do better next year. Also, school leaders are always being hustled to adopt all sorts of textbooks, electronic hardware and software, and professional development approaches, usually lacking a shred of evidence, so they may decide to go with a product offered by a given sales person because he or she is friendly or persuasive.

If evidence-based reform is ever to take hold, there will need to be local brokers capable of helping school leaders learn about programs that could potentially be helpful to them. Local brokers might collect sets of materials for local leaders to view for many programs on a given topic (e.g., reading, math, whole-school reform). They might organize visits to local schools already using programs with strong evidence. They might organize or locally publicize webinars on various programs in which participants have an opportunity to learn about the programs and ask follow-up questions. Local brokers would know a lot about local resources, circumstances, and needs, and could thereby use that information to help school leaders choose proven programs as well as preparing program developers.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the National Diffusion Network (NDN) funded a system of state facilitators who worked within their states to help districts and schools adopt programs that met a set of standards. Small grants to some "developer/disseminators" also helped them build capacity to disseminate their programs. By the end of the NDN, there were thousands of schools using one of more than 500 programs.

If brokers could become trusted local guides to the complex world of educational innovation, school leaders could start making wise and informed choices, and developers could spend more of their time and energy on development and evaluation. Kids would benefit right away, and the system would then have an opportunity to get smarter both about the models and about the brokering process itself.