Among many educators and policy makers, the idea of evidence-based reform is scary. They fear that rigorous evaluations will fail to support their favorite government programs. What if studies find few benefits of Title I or other longstanding government programs focused on disadvantaged children?
If the evidence movement comes to be seen as the Grim Reaper, intent on stamping out funding programs, it is doomed. Government spending on disadvantaged children needs to be made more impactful, not abandoned. Title I, for example, is not a specific school or classroom intervention, it is a funding source that supports more and less effective initiatives. The goal of research and development should not be to determine whether Title I "works," but to inform Title I directors, principals, and teachers about which investments of Title I dollars pay off in enhanced student achievement and which do not. R & D needs to create and evaluate new reading and math approaches, interventions for English learners and struggling readers, technology applications, whole-school reforms, and other methodologies. Those that work can then be encouraged as alternatives for Title I schools everywhere to use. As these strategies become more and more widely used, Title I itself will become more and more effective.
As effective uses of Title I funds become more common, less effective uses will fall away. For example, research has long found that traditional uses of paraprofessionals add little to student learning. However, there are several proven programs that use paraprofessionals to tutor struggling readers one-to-one or in small groups. If Title I schools are encouraged to use paras in new ways, less effective uses will be likely to diminish.
With time and continued investment, the evidence base for effective practices will grow, and Title I can further encourage the use of proven approaches. It can use incentives as well as information, but should not mandate the use of particular programs. Title I or other federal programs can invest in R & D, disseminate information on effective practices, help providers of proven programs to go to scale, provide funding to help schools adopt proven approaches, and so on, helping Title I transition from a focus on remediation to a focus on innovation and forward-looking practice. All educators support improving the outcomes of Title I, and I believe they would come to support a process capable of bringing proven innovations to disadvantaged schools.
If evidence-based reform is seen as a way to improve, not threaten, Title I and other federal funding programs, educators and policy makers can come to see it as an ally, not a threat. In a sense, it does not matter how effective Title I is today, as long as it is clearly getting better every year. Creating, evaluating, and disseminating effective approaches for use within Title I is the best way to ensure that Title I gets better outcomes. It maintains the key funding source for reform, and it builds support for evidence among those who care about disadvantaged kids.