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Policy Recommendation: That Congress create, in statute, effective incentives for federal education program grantees to adopt practices or strategies meeting the highest standard of evidence of sizeable, sustained effects on important educational outcomes.

Resolution Adopted by the National Board for Education Sciences, May 24, 2007

The Problem: Federal education programs, set up to address important problems, often fall short by funding specific practices or strategies ("interventions") that are not effective.

When federally-funded educational interventions have been evaluated in scientifically-rigorous studies, the studies typically find many ineffective or marginally effective, and a few even harmful. Those interventions found in rigorous studies to produce meaningful, sustained effects on important outcomes— such as academic achievement, grade retention, dropout rates, post-secondary enrollment, and employment and earnings—tend to be the exception. This general pattern occurs in many diverse areas of education— such as dropout prevention, literacy programs, after-school programs, educational technology, school choice, and substance-abuse prevention—as well as other fields in which rigorous studies have been carried out (e.g., medicine, psychology, welfare and employment, crime and justice).

The Opportunity: Research has identified a few interventions meeting the "top tier" of evidence—i.e., well-designed randomized controlled trials showing sizeable, sustained effects on important outcomes.

Perhaps only about 10 such top-tier interventions now exist in the field of education, in areas such as dropout prevention, early reading, schoolwide reform, school-based substance-abuse prevention, and vocational and adult education.

Possible Incentive: Establishment of a modest-sized competitive grant program to replicate and scale up top-tier interventions, and leverage other funds to support such replication.

  1. This recommendation is patterned on the evidence-based nurse visitation initiative in the President's FY 08 budget request. That initiative provides $10 million for a new competitive grant program at the Department of Health and Human Services to fund nurse visitation activities that meet the top tier of evidence.
  2. The competitive grant program would award funds to organizations that:
    1. Implement a top-tier intervention in any area of education—where "top-tier" might be defined in statute as including interventions shown, in well-designed randomized controlled trials conducted in typical school or community settings, to produce sizeable, sustained improvements in important educational or life outcomes. (Such a showing could be based on a What Works Clearinghouse review or other evidence.)
    2. Adhere closely to the specific elements of the intervention.
    3. Obtain sizeable matching funds for their project from other federal or non-federal sources that can appropriately fund the intervention, such as federal Title I, Special Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools, Career and Technical Education, or Adult Education grants, or state or local funding sources. (Congress may need to make clear that funds from these larger federal programs can be used for this purpose.)

      The program would thus be designed to provide seed funding for the replication and scale-up of top-tier interventions—funding which would leverage money from the larger sources described above.
  3. The program would include rigorous evaluations of the funded projects, where appropriate, to ensure that the interventions remain effective when replicated on a large scale.

Another Possible Incentive: Give priority consideration, in competitive grant programs, to applicants that propose to implement a top-tier intervention (defined as above).

Specifically, in areas of education were top-tier interventions exist, Department programs that make competitive grant awards would give priority consideration (such as 10 additional points out of a possible 100) to grant applicants that propose to implement such an intervention, and ensure close replication of its specific elements.

Conclusion: Rigorous research has identified a few interventions that are very effective in preventing reading failure, substance abuse, dropping out of school, workforce failure, and other outcomes that damage millions of American lives each year. We recommend that Congress provide effective incentives to replicate such interventions, and put them into widespread use.