K-12 Education Bill Advances Evidence-based Policy, Replaces i3

Evidence-based policy will soon receive a significant boost from a major K-12 education bill that is nearing the finish line.  This week the Senate is expected to pass a major rewrite of the Bush era No Child Left Behind Act, sending it to President Obama who is expected to sign it into law by the end of the year.

The legislation (S. 1177), dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), includes several evidence-related provisions, including a replacement for one of the Obama administration’s signature evidence-based initiatives, the Investing in Innovation (i3) program.

The bill also shifts substantial authority away from Washington and back to states and local school districts. Some are calling the bill’s combination of greater flexibility and increased support for rigorous evidence a potentially powerful combination.

“For a lot of people this was about the past. It was about fixing the mistakes of No Child Left Behind,” said Jeremy Ayers, vice president for policy at Results for America, “but with the focus on evidence it’s just as much about looking to the future.”

Such sentiments were evident on both sides of the political aisle.  “It helps to support and grow local innovations,” said outgoing Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement issued shortly after the House passed the bill by a wide margin.  The Senate is expected to pass the bill by a similarly large margin later this week.

With enactment just around the corner, what will it mean for evidence-based policy?

Bipartisan Replacement for i3

One of the principal changes will be a replacement for the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund. The program, which provides money for local education projects and rigorous evaluations to determine their effectiveness, was first created as part of the 2009 stimulus package, but it was never fully authorized.  Because it is closely associated with President Obama, it was unpopular among congressional Republicans, who repeatedly attempted to zero it out in annual appropriations bills.

ESSA replaces this program with a new Education Innovation and Research Program (legislative language) that also provides support for rigorously-evaluated local initiatives. Like i3, it will include three tiers of grants based on their associated levels of evidence, but its supporters say it will be more bottom-up than its predecessor.  Based on a proposal from the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, it drops federally-determined program “priorities” that were a hallmark of the current program and provides greater flexibility for locally-devised innovations.

The proposal has drawn strong bipartisan support in the Senate, where Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) were its principal backers.  It has also drawn strong support from the Knowledge Alliance, a coalition of organizations that support evidence-based education policy.

“Too often, we fund unproven programs with little to show in the way of results,” Hatch said. “More of our federal dollars should work to encourage innovative programs and practices that can demonstrate significant education outcomes. Our Education and Innovation Research Program establishes a dedicated funding stream to support the development and expansion of evidence-based programs and practices designed and implemented by educators and local communities.”

The new program will receive less funding, however.  The bill authorizes $70.5 million for each of fiscal years 2017-18 and $90.6 million in fiscal years 2019-20, substantially less than the $120 million in current annual funding.  Supporters hope that appropriators will maintain existing funding, but they are more immediately focused on keeping i3 intact until its replacement takes effect next October.

The new initiative is not the only item on the congressional education research agenda. A bill authorizing about $600 million per year for a variety of other research programs, including the Institute for Education Sciences, has also drawn bipartisan support. It almost passed Congress in late 2014 and could be enacted in the coming months.

Increased Use of Evidence in Federal Programs

The legislation also requires a variety of formula-funded and competitive grant programs for states and local school districts to be “evidence-based,” with a broad definition that spans the following four categories:

  • Strong Evidence:  The bill defines the highest level of evidence as that drawn from at least one well-designed and well-implemented experimental study, such as a randomized controlled trial;
  • Moderate Evidence:  The bill defines moderate evidence as that drawn from at least one well-designed and well-implemented quasi-experimental study;
  • Promising Evidence: The bill defines promising evidence as that drawn from at least one well-designed and well-implemented correlational study with statistical controls for selection bias; and
  • High-quality Research Findings: The bill reserves a final category for interventions that may not meet the above standards, but are based on high-quality research findings that suggest they are likely to improve student outcomes and that include ongoing efforts to track their effects.

The list of affected programs is long and amounts to over $2 billion in annual spending, according to an analysis by Results for America.  In some cases, the first three definitions are used. In others, all four. Either way, states and localities would be free to fall back on the least rigorous definitions.

Supporters admit the requirement is not very restrictive, but say it is a beginning.  “You need to start where people are,” said Michele McLaughlin, president of the Knowledge Alliance. “A lot of people aren’t even thinking about these things. This could really influence the field.”

With states and school districts playing a more dominant role, their capacity to understand and use evidence may become more of an issue.  Some say this may cause them to rely more on the Department of Education’s Regional Education Laboratories, which were created for this purpose.

Others say the new definitions constitute a win all by themselves. “This legislation equates strong evidence with an experimental study,” said Jon Baron, vice president at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. “That’s important and it could set a precedent for other legislation.”

Other Provisions

The bill also includes two other noteworthy evidence-related provisions:

  • Pay for Success: ESSA makes pay-for-success an allowable use of local funds in two program areas: delinquent, at-risk, or neglected youth (Title I, Part D) and safe and healthy students (Title IV). The bill does not include a similar pay-for-success proposal for teacher training, which passed the House earlier this year.
  • Evaluation Funding: According to the analysis by Results for America, the final bill also allows the Department of Education to pool nearly $5 million in evaluation funds from a variety of smaller programs, mirroring authority already in place at the Department of Labor. The authority is not entirely new, however, having been included in previous annual appropriations bills.

While the individual provisions are important, however, some see broader reason for optimism. “This was a bipartisan effort. That’s a big thing,” said Baron.

But was it unique?

“There were a lot of compromises on the bill – lots of push and pull between Democrats and Republicans – and that’s normal,” said Ayers. “But they were all pushing in the same direction on evidence.”


Disclosure: The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is a funder of the Social Innovation Research Center.

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