In education, programs and practices gain and lose popularity over time, with little regard to evidence. As a result, important decisions about educational programs are made primarily based on marketing, word of mouth, tradition, and politics. There is a movement in education, however, toward evidence-based reform. This brief gives an overview of the key aspects of evidence-based education reform, and outlines the steps necessary for evidence-based education reform to prevail.

What is Evidence-Based Education Reform?

Evidence-based education reform is a process of change that uses high-quality evidence from rigorous experiments to guide educational policies and practices. Proponents of evidence-based education reform hold that true progress will take place in education only when: (1) educators and policy makers have a broad set of programs and practices with strong evidence of effectiveness available; and (2) government policies support the use of well-evaluated programs, as well as the development and evaluation of new, promising programs.

Why is it important?

Evidence-based reform in any area creates a dynamic of progressive improvement, in which researchers and developers work to replace existing methods with even more effective solutions. To increase student achievement, programs and practices used by teachers at all levels need to be improved. This, in turn, requires a focus on research and development to create and rigorously evaluate new approaches capable of making a substantial difference in student outcomes. There is currently limited research evaluating specific educational programs, practices, and materials. As a result, evidence of what works is rarely consequential in educators’ decisions. This limitation not only fails to provide the best educational programs to children, but it also removes any incentive for developers to create programs that work better than current practices.

How do we know it will work?

Evidence-based education reform was founded based on the successful experience of evidence-based medicine, which changed the practice of medicine and the role of research and development within a generation. While evidence-based medicine has not reformed every aspect of medical practice, overall it has resulted in rapid progress on a broad front. In both medicine and education, there are aspects of policy and practice that will always be left up to practitioners’ judgment; however, evidence-based reform contributes to informed decision making to increase the likelihood of long-term success.

What is needed for it to work?

For evidence-based reform to work, the following conditions must exist:

  • There must be a broad range of proven programs in every area of education, every subject and grade level. Evidence-based policies will not work if demanding strong evidence requires educators to use just one or two proven programs, or if no programs have strong evidence.
  • Trusted, impartial, educator-friendly reviews of research must be available to enable educators and policy makers to know which specific programs and practices have been proven to work in rigorous evaluations.
  • There must be policies to promote use of proven programs. Government must provide incentives to schools to adopt proven programs.

How will it be sustainable?

When government polices favor programs with strong evidence, developers— including publishers, software developers, university researchers, and entrepreneurs of all kinds—will have an incentive to engage in serious development and evaluation efforts. Seeing the immediate impact of research and development, policy makers will likely provide substantially greater funding for these activities.

Who will benefit?

The winners in evidence-based education reform will be children, especially those who are least well served by the current system, teachers who yearn for more effective tools to help them do their job well, and society as a whole, which will come to expect progress in education as confidently as it currently expects progress in other fields.

Overcoming Obstacles to Adopting and Implementing Evidence-Based Practices

After you determine which evidence-based practices are a good fit for your school, how do you convince educators in your district to adopt them? Even more challenging, how do you ensure successful implementation? Adopting an educational program or practice almost seems easy in comparison to the hard work of sustained implementation. This brief describes types of barriers educators face in adopting and implementing evidence-based practices and tips for overcoming them.

Barriers to Adoption

Educators may face one or more barriers to adopting evidence-based practices in their schools. These include:

  • Money
  • Resistance to change
  • Buy-in
  • Red tape
  • Time
  • Egos
  • Insufficient professional development
  • Contracts
  • Union
  • Cost or availability of training for a program

The following strategies address some of the more common barriers you may encounter in your school.

Addressing the Money Barrier

Adopting a research-proven program may require first examining how money is being allocated in a school budget, and then making changes. Educators should ask themselves: what can be selectively abandoned in order to adopt the new program? Educators need to budget their money and time with the goal of increasing results. They need to identify what is important to achieving results, and allocate resources accordingly.

Handling Ego Resistance

Leaders proposing change may encounter ego resistance in the form of staff members who convey, “I know what I’m doing—I’ve been doing it for 20 years,” or “This is the way we do things around here.” An educator “maverick” may do things his or her own way, achieving good results, and also be resistant to change. In both cases, staff members’ egos interfere with ready adoption of change.

The education team of a school needs to operate in a process-based fashion—what’s good for the entire team—rather than in an individual-based fashion that depends on egos. In a process-based organization, if one person leaves—even if that person is a high performer—the team can still perform.

The effective leader striving for a process-based organization elicits the aid of naysayers to help all team members be high performers by implementing evidence-based practices across the board—as a team. The leader may propose that the naysayer give the change a chance for a period of time and see if student achievement improves overall. If the naysayer buys in to the process, that is great. If the naysayer does not, the leader needs to be willing to let go even a star performer in the interest of the team.

Barriers to Implementation

The best evidence-based practices still need implementation with great fidelity to achieve optimum results.

Implementing as a Whole

Implementation of a research-proven program often requires using all the pieces to replicate results achieved by other school systems. For example, a program may consist of curricula, instructional processes, and staff training. Purchasing only the curricula presents a barrier to successful implementation because the accompanying support structure (professional development and classroom approaches) is missing.

Managing “The Dip”

Continuing to implement a proven program past a dip usually results in a renewed upward trend.

The life cycle of positive change usually involves an initial upward trend of improvement, followed by a dip in progress. Without leadership commitment to change, the organization may get into a cycle of adopting and abandoning new approaches when the dip occurs, missing the opportunity to get on track again.

To get a team through the dip, a leader can use these management techniques: (1) provide technical support to staff: continuous coaching and other types of support; (2) provide emotional support: a “we’ll get through this” message; and, (3)”hold the line:” refrain from abandoning change at the first sign of set-back.

Part of emotional support may involve having staff members write down their concerns about the dip (e.g., new practice takes too much time; work is too hard for the kids). The leader then has the team talk through the concerns and develops strategies for working through challenges.

Ultimately, a school undertaking a move to evidence-based practices needs to accept that things will be messy for a while—but trust in themselves that faithful implementation will ultimately result in improved student achievement.

Is There A Way To Network With Other Educational Professionals About Evidence Based Practice?

Yes – maaps has a personal learning network for members focused on evidence based practice.  If you are staff at a member school, please feel free to send a join request to maaps at info@maaps.org.

Hord, Shirley M. et al. Taking Charge of Change. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1987.

Tichy, Noel M. and Eli B. Cohen. The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies Build Leaders at Every Level. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

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