Programs Versus Practices: What’s the “What” in What Works?

Ruth Neild of the American Youth Policy Forum recently provided advice on what types of interventions educators should be looking for when they strive to meet the ESSA evidence standards. Her explanation encompasses programs, models, policies, practices, and products. Excerpts of her piece appear below:

“Invest in what works, and stop doing what doesn’t!” This, in a nutshell, is the call to base policy and funding decisions on scientific research rather than anecdote, belief, or supposition. This commitment also underlies the evidence requirements in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which outlines a hierarchy of causal evidence and, in some titles, requires use of “activities, strategies, and interventions” backed by more rigorous evidence.

But what does this mean in practice? To comply with ESSA, should schools plan a shopping trip for a new textbook series if their current materials do not have evidence of better outcomes compared to an alternative? Should they contract with a provider for a new program or two? Or could they use the resources they already have in a new way, such as by focusing on classroom instructional strategies supported by rigorous evidence?

Some people imagine the “what” in “what works” as standalone programs or program models intended to accomplish specific things. But in education, the choices that schools and districts make encompass not only programs and models but also products, policies, and even instructional strategies for teaching very specific content.

Below are four tips to help you get started.

If you’re considering a branded intervention, such as a curriculum, program, or product, start by looking for evidence on that particular intervention. Most of the interventions summarized in the Find What Works feature of the WWC are branded. Find What Works provides assessments from the WWC’s systematic reviews, which involve a comprehensive search for all of the literature on an intervention and a summary of evidence from effectiveness studies that meet WWC standards.

If there is no evidence on a particular branded intervention, seek evidence on the general approach.  The branded intervention may be part of a general class about which there is evidence. The U.S. Department of Education has clarified that the “label or brand attached to a program or intervention…is less important than the activities, strategies, and practices that constitute that program or intervention.”

You don’t necessarily have to buy stuff to meet ESSA requirements!  Consider classroom practices supported by rigorous evidence. Find What Works is not the only place on the WWC website to learn about effective interventions. The most popular WWC products are practice guides, which are developed by panels of researchers and education practitioners and use a rigorous rating system to characterize the research evidence for each recommendation. Implementing the practice guide recommendations does not depend on having access to particular branded products.

To plan for the future, assess current and potential instructional materials against strategies recommended in the WWC’s practice guides. It’s ideal to have rigorous evidence on whether a particular set of instructional materials improves student outcomes more than another reasonable alternative. But, lacking this evidence, educators can use the recommendations in the WWC practice guides to assess materials they are using or considering.

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