THE BLOG

When Will We Reach Our 1962 Moment in Education?

04/23/2015 05:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

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When I was in college, I had an ancient 1957 Chevy. What a great car. Stylish, dependable, indestructible.

My 1957 Chevy was beautiful, but it had no seatbelts, no airbags, and no recourse if the brakes went out. It got about 13 miles to the gallon, polluted the atmosphere, and was not expected to last more than 100,000 miles. Due to development, evaluation, and public-spirited policy, all these problems have been solved. Automotive design has been revolutionized by embracing policies based on innovation and evidence.

Not that I remember 1957 very well, but I was thinking about it as a model for where we are today in evidence-based reform in education, as distinct from medicine. In 1957, drug companies could make any claims they liked about medications. There was research, but physicians routinely ignored it. However, change was on the way. In 1962, the Kefauver-Harris Amendment required that all drug applications to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA, established in 1927) demonstrate "substantial evidence" of safety and effectiveness. These standards continue to evolve, but today it is unthinkable that drug companies could make misleading claims about unproven medicines.

In 1957, the progress toward evidence-based reform in medicine would have been clear, but the policy world was not yet ready. For one thing, the American Medical Association fought tooth and nail against the evidence standards, as did most drug companies. Yet evidence prevailed because despite the power and money of the AMA and the drug companies, millions of ordinary citizens, not to mention the majority of physicians, knew that prescribing medications of unknown safety and effectiveness was just plain wrong. Everyone takes medicine, or we have relatives who do, and we want to know what works and what doesn't. Specifically, a European drug called Thalidomide taken by pregnant mothers caused massive and widespread birth defects, and this swept away the opposition to drug testing standards.

In education, we have not reached our 1962 moment. Publishers and software developers are free to make any claims they like about the effectiveness of their products, and educators have difficulty sorting effective from ineffective products. Yet the handwriting is on the wall. Rigorous evaluations of educational programs are becoming more and more common. Many of these evaluations are being paid for by the companies themselves, who want to be on the right side of history when and if our 1962 moment arrives.

In education, our 1962 will probably not involve an equivalent of the FDA or a prohibition on the use of untested products. Unlike medicine, few educational products are likely to be harmful, so experimentation with new approaches is a lot safer. What is more likely, I believe, is that there will be incentives and encouragement from various levels of government for schools to adopt proven programs. In particular, I think it is very likely that Title I and other federal programs will begin insisting on a strong evidence base for investments of federal dollars.

To reach our 1962 moment will require sustained investment in development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven programs in all subjects and grade levels, and a change of policies to encourage the use of proven programs.

I hope our 1962 moment is coming soon. To bring it closer, we have a lot of work to do, in innovation, evaluation, policy, and practice. Government, foundations, innovators, researchers, and anyone who knows the transformative potential of education should be working toward the day when we no longer have to guess what works and what doesn't. This is the time to build up our stock of proven, replicable programs of all kinds. It is also the time to try policy experiments such as Investing in Innovation (i3), SIG evidence-proven whole-school models, and Leveraging What Works, because when our 1962 comes, we will need to know how to build support for the whole evidence movement. Like my beloved 1957 Chevy, I hope we're driving confidently toward our 1962 and beyond, confident that every new year will bring better outcomes for all.