02/12/2013 03:57 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2013

How Government Can Support Effective Innovation in Education

There are few aspects of life more thoroughly dominated by government than education. This is particularly true of educational innovation. Innovative programs and materials do often come from the private sector, but they are adopted only if government supports them.

There are two theories of government as regards improvements in education. One emphasizes regulation. For example, many states decree which textbooks can be used. Most states use this authority just to maintain minimum standards (e.g., paper weight, accuracy, non-discriminatory language), but others use their textbook adoption authority to force specific practices, such as use of phonics or certain approaches to teaching about evolution. None, however, use textbook adoption to encourage use of proven programs, which is apparently less important than paper weight. At the national level, regulations relating to Title I, charter schools, special education, and much more are intended to drive practice in a particular direction. Again, evidence plays little role. For example, study after study has found little effect of supplemental educational services (usually after-school remediation), yet SES has continued as a part of NCLB, taking billions from schools' Title I budgets.

The alternative theory of government-supported innovation emphasizes fostering change by setting evaluation standards and letting the private sector innovate, as well as funding much R&D directly, and then helping scale up proven approaches. In medicine, companies come up with new devices to cure diseases, and those found in rigorous research to significantly improve outcomes are taken up at all levels of medical practice, with government support. Similarly, the Air Force might specify detailed characteristics it wants in a new pilotless drone and would then find bidders capable of building such a plane, adopting particular prototypes only if the plane ultimately meets the standards.

All areas of government also use regulation to promote certain policies and practices, but in education government almost never builds up practice from proven programs and practices. As a result, innovation in technology, textbooks, professional development, and other areas are driven by fashions, fads, politics, and marketing, not evidence.

At long last, this is beginning to change. The U.S. Department of Education is supporting the evaluation and scale-up of proven programs in its Investing in Innovation (i3) program. Recently, the Department proposed new regulations defining "strong" and "moderate" levels of evidence supporting educational innovations. These and other developments have not yet created an evidence-based system, far from it, but they are serious starts in the right direction.

Creating and then scaling up effective practices takes time, but its advantage is that if scale-up ensures effective implementation and continued positive outcomes, evidence-based reform builds from success to success and can learn over time what works under which circumstances. In contrast, innovation by national or statewide regulation is always a massive gamble, and most evaluations of grand national or statewide policies find that they made little difference.

Government by regulation may be good for maintaining the current system, but real change in any field depends on research and development. Government policies for education need to balance regulation with innovation, evaluation, and dissemination of proven programs and practices.