School Boards Should Ask Better Questions and Make Incremental Investments

School boards should adjust their organizational investment strategy.  Boards should move from investing in ideas based on the perceived potential to solve problems, to incremental investment in ideas that can be tested locally for their potential to solve local problems.  Boards should hold district and school leaders accountable for demonstrating success of a solution before releasing money to further scale an idea. 

School boards are known for their thoughtful deliberation of proposals aimed at solving difficult problems.  Boards will ask several of these questions when evaluating whether to invest in an idea: Is there any evidence this idea has worked in other settings?  What is the likely outcome for our students?  How much will it cost?  These are important questions, but they are difficult to answer and rarely reduce the risk sufficiently when considering the size of investment boards make when they fund a new program.  As an example, when we review the literature on potential interventions, we invariably find positive results in some cases and no or negative impact in other cases.  When researchers use a technique like meta-analysis they summarize the results of numerous studies, which masks the fact that the intervention may not work under many circumstances. 

Instead of asking these traditional questions are difficult to answer and don’t effectively reduce risk, boards should ask the following questions when they are considering a new program to solve a difficult problem:

  • What assumptions are you making for this idea to work? 

  • Which assumptions are most critical for this solution to work?

  • How might you test your most critical assumptions?  What if we gave you $1,000, how would you test your idea?

  • What would you consider validation of this assumptions? 

One byproduct of a school board that encourages small experiments is that they increase probability for success in solving the problem.  In addition, it costs less money and time to make small investments in many experiments versus scaling up the idea that you think is most likely to succeed.  Many of the interventions and programs that we implement in our schools do not achieve the results we had hoped for, so boards should be cautious about selecting and scaling ideas.  If school boards demanded small experiments to test assumptions and the viability of a solution, they would save money by recognizing earlier on that the idea isn’t going to work.