Putting Government Programs To The Test

The Obama administration has launched a series of evidence-based initiatives that have the potential to revolutionize the way the federal government funds social programs and what program sponsors at the state and local level must do to win and retain federal dollars. Specifically, grantees must show they are spending their federal dollars on programs that have evidence from rigorous evaluations of producing positive impacts on children’s development or achievement as measured by outcomes such as teen pregnancy, educational achievement or graduation rates, performance at community colleges, employment and earnings as young adults, or reducing rates of incarceration. Second, they must evaluate their programs using scientific designs to ensure that they are continuing to have impacts and to reform the programs if they are not.

This strategy requires a pipeline of social programs that have been tested and shown to be effective by rigorous evaluations. However, experience shows that most social programs, including some of the most celebrated such as DARE and Head Start, produce modest or no impacts that last when subjected to rigorous evaluations. An important virtue of focusing on evidence is not simply that the public will have reliable information about whether programs work, but that the evidence places pressure on programs to change and improve when they are not working.

He lists five examples of programs that work. One is a promising early-education initiative:

Success for All is a comprehensive school-wide reform program, primarily for high-poverty elementary schools, with a strong emphasis on early detection and prevention of reading problems before they become serious. Key program elements include daily 90-minute reading classes, each of which is formed by grouping together students of various ages who read at the same performance level; a K-1 reading curriculum that focuses on language development (e.g., reading stories to students and having them re-tell), teaching students the distinct sounds that make up words (i.e. phonemic awareness), blending sounds to form words, and developing reading fluency; daily one-on-one tutoring (in addition to regular classes) for students needing extra help with reading; and cooperative learning activities (in which students work together in teams or pairs) starting in the grade 2 reading classes.

The impact:

On average, 2nd-graders at Success for All schools score approximately 25-30% of a grade level higher in reading ability than their counterparts at the control schools.