Schools and Districts Should Invest in What Works...but What if We Don't Know What Works?

July 27, 2017

Pity today’s school principals and superintendents. State and national leaders are urging them to focus their time and money on programs with very strong evidence that they work. That’s very sound advice, but it’s not easy to follow when such programs are few and far between. Fortunately, there are ways to help them school leaders navigate through a world where clear direction can be hard to come by.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a school superintendent whose mandates include beefing up computer science and engineering in your schools, a priority in your new state science standards. You head over to the two major websites that showcase education programs that meet the highest standards of evidence and find…nothing.

No offense to those two websites, The What Works Clearinghouse and Evidence for ESSA. Both provide invaluable information about programs that have proven their impact, and both should be required reading for school leaders everywhere. Yet of the literally thousands of STEM education programs in our schools in our schools today, both websites together feature only a few dozen, overwhelmingly in math.

Unfortunately, very few STEM programs have ironclad evidence that they work. That doesn’t have to mean programs that lack evidence don’t work. Many lack strong data on their outcomes for a host of good reasons. For example, their goals may be hard to measure with conventional metrics, or they cannot ethically create control groups without excluding students they need to serve. Most often, they simply lack the money for rigorous evaluations.

So what is a hapless school leader to do? She could choose the program with the slickest sales brochures, or she could choose from curated lists of programs that are likely to make a difference, even if data on impact are still hard to find. Change the Equation currently works with leaders in seven states and counting to create such lists. Our rigorous STEMworks review process helps state leaders review programs to find those that have strong theories of action rooted in research on what works. In Iowa, for example, schools and communities can apply for state funding to support STEM programs that have made it through the STEMworks review process.

STEMworks doesn't solve the problem that evidence of impact is so scarce, but others are on the case. Initiatives like Results for America and Project Evident are gearing up to help states, schools, and their nonprofit partners evaluate their efforts more rigorously and, in the process, build the base of evidence for what works. These efforts won't fill the evidence gap overnight, but we can imagine a future where clear evidence of impact can light the way forward for school leaders.

In the meantime, STEMworks offers state and local leaders a handy compass.

Tags: STEMworks