03/13/2013 06:07 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

Under-Performing Schools: Stop Experimenting, Start Fixing

Imagine an army of nearly 2,000 volunteers hunkering down for a three-year battle focused on rescuing 60 of America's worst-performing schools.

That's the vision behind School Turnaround AmeriCorps, a $15 million effort funded by the Department of Education and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). By matching up the muscle of AmeriCorps with the brains of education reformers, the School Turnaround program has the potential to make a real difference in the lives of countless disadvantaged students.

In announcing the program late last month, Wendy Spencer, the CEO of CNCS, was typically focused on national service as a solution to social problems, rather than an end in itself. "This partnership will expand the role of AmeriCorps members in helping students, teachers, parents and school administrators transform schools into models of achievement," she said. "We welcome new ideas that will result in the same outcome: schools that are putting children on the pathway to success."

There's no doubt that teachers and administrators in failing schools will appreciate the extra backup provided by this new program. Lacking external supports, our poorest children come to school each day in search of food, shelter, counseling, medical care and as well as a host of academic needs. All of those things take time, leaving teachers chronically overworked and under-supported. This is something I hear over and over again in my visits to schools around the country: Every time we provide supports for struggling students, teachers and principals feel supported, too.

But as much as I want to welcome the human capital provided by School Turnaround AmeriCorps, I can't help worrying about the human cost.

As it now stands, the new program is a grand experiment that inadvertently treats both students and volunteers as guinea pigs. Though the initial press releases tout "proven" techniques and "evidence-based" approaches, it turns out that program funding is not limited to organizations with a successful track record in dropout prevention, improved academic proficiency, school safety, family engagement and so forth. Instead, grant proposals are being solicited from any organization with the "promise of a strong theory" or a "well-specified conceptual framework."

When you're investing the time and effort of nearly 2,000 volunteers, I don't believe that strong theories and conceptual frameworks are sufficient. Many AmeriCorps volunteers will be young people getting a first taste of national service, and their energy and idealism are resources that we can ill afford to squander. Give them an early sense of accomplishment, make them a part of something truly life changing and you cement their commitment to a lifetime of service. But ask them to waste their energies on an ill-conceived experiment with a vague measure of success, and you risk the early onset of soul-crushing cynicism.

As for the students, is it morally acceptable to risk their future on a theoretical framework when we already have effective interventions backed by strong evaluations and years of quality improvements?

To clarify the moral argument, imagine for a moment that your child was seriously ill: No parent with financial means would turn first to a risky medical experiment just because the treatment was free or low-cost. Rather, we'd seek out the most experienced, most successful doctors we could find in order to give our child the very best shot at a full and quick recovery. Why, then, is it acceptable to subject the poorest children in the lowest-performing schools to a $15 million series of educational experiments, when proven "treatments" are readily available?

I understand that innovation doesn't happen without experimentation, and I'm a firm believer in new approaches for solving intractable problems. But smart experiments are generally small experiments, designed to limit the fallout of a potential failure. When the stakes are higher and the scope is wider, that's the time to stick with what works.

Organizations like the Minnesota Reading Corps and others have spent years developing evidence based and rigorously evaluated programs that are ready today to use National Service volunteers to extend their impact. Their results are impressive and their data unimpeachable. For the sake of both the volunteers and the children they seek to help, we should demand that programs such as School Turnaround AmeriCorps focus on evidence rather than theories.

The noble purpose of focusing these resources on the worst-performing schools should give policymakers the justification to require that only the most effective interventions are deployed to support students and educators. This strategy will in turn enable educators to turnaround the lowest performing schools in America, thus breaking the cycle of poverty for millions of young people.