06/11/2013 09:01 am ET | Updated Aug 11, 2013

Many Programs Meet New Evidence Standards


One of the most common objections to evidence-based reform is that there are too few programs with strong evidence of effectiveness to start encouraging schools to use proven programs. The concern is that it looks bad if a policy of "use what works" leads educators to look for proven programs, only to find that there are very few such programs in a given area, or that there are none at all.

The lack of proven programs is indeed a problem in some areas, such as science and writing, but it is not a problem in others, such as reading and math. There is no reason to hold back on encouraging evidence where it exists.

The U.S. Department of Education has proposed changes to its EDGAR regulations to define "strong" and "moderate" levels of evidence supporting educational programs. These standards use information from the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), and are very similar to those used in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to designate programs eligible for "scale-up" or "validation" grants, respectively.

As an exercise, my colleagues and I checked to see how many elementary reading programs currently exist that qualify as "strong" or "moderate" according to the new EDGAR standards. This necessitated excluding WWC-approved programs that are not actively disseminated and those that would not meet current WWC standards (2.1 or 3.0), and adding programs not yet reviewed by WWC but that appear likely to meet its standards.

Here's a breakdown of what we found.

Beginning Reading (K-1)
Total programs                              26
   School/classroom programs      16
   Small-group tutoring                   4
   1-1 tutoring                                   6

Upper Elementary Reading (2-6)
Total programs                               17
   School/classroom programs       12
   Small-group tutoring                    4
   1-1 tutoring                                     1

The total number of unique programs is 35 (many of the programs covered both beginning and upper-elementary reading). Of these, only four met the EDGAR "strong" criterion, but the "moderate" category, which requires a single rigorous study with positive impacts, had 31 programs.

We'll soon be looking at secondary reading and elementary and secondary math, but the pattern is clear. While few programs will meet the highest EDGAR standard, many will meet the "moderate" standard.

Here's why this matters. The EDGAR definitions can be referenced in any competitive request for proposals to encourage and/or incentivize the use of proven programs, perhaps offering two competitive preference points for proposals to implement programs meeting the "moderate" standard and three points for proposals to adopt programs meeting the "strong" standard.

Since there are many programs to choose from, educators will not feel constrained by this process. In fact, many may be happy to learn about the many offerings available, and to obtain objective information on their effectiveness. If none of the programs fit their needs, they can choose something unevaluated and forgo the extra points, but even then, they will have considered evidence as a basis for their decisions. And that would be a huge step forward.