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.
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.