Guest Post: Proven Programs are the Exception, not the Rule

This is a guest post from David Anderson, Assistant Director at the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, the group responsible for the Evidenced-based Programs website. Mr. Anderson’s responsibilities include reviewing studies of effectiveness and looking for proven programs. He’s worked at the Coalition since 2004. The views expressed below are solely those of the writer.

The holiday season often heightens our desire for “feel good” stories. Rigorous research has shown that it can fulfill this desire by identifying, in a scientifically rigorous way, a few social programs and services that are capable of producing important, positive effects on people’s lives.

For example, the Nurse Family Partnership – a nurse home visitation program for women who are poor, mostly single, and pregnant with their first child (recommended by GiveWell here) – has been shown in three rigorous randomized studies to produce long-term, 40-70% reductions in child abuse and neglect, as well as important improvements in cognitive and academic outcomes for the most at-risk children served by the program. The very existence of research-proven programs like the Nurse Family Partnership, suggests that a concerted effort to build the number of these programs through rigorous research, and to spur their widespread use, could fundamentally improve the lives of millions of people.

However, what’s not often recognized is how rare—and therefore, valuable—such examples of proven effectiveness are. Their scarcity stems from two main factors: 1) the vast majority of social programs and services have not yet been rigorously evaluated, and 2) of those that have been rigorously evaluated, most (perhaps 75% or more), including those backed by expert opinion and less-rigorous studies, turn out to produce small or no effects, and, in some cases negative effects. These are factors we’ve identified through our reviews of hundreds of studies that federal agencies, Congress, and philanthropic organizations have asked us to look at.

The following are just a few illustrative examples of this general pattern of many good ideas turning out not to work when tested in a rigorous way:

  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers—a rigorous randomized study of after school programs at 26 elementary schools, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, found that, on average, they had no effect on students’ academic achievement and had negative effects on their behavior (i.e. increased rates of school suspensions and other disciplinary problems compared to control group students). (See note 1 below)
  • Many leading educational software products—a rigorous randomized study of 16 leading educational software products for teaching reading and math – including many award-winning products – found, on average, no difference in reading or math achievement between students who used them in their classrooms, and those who were taught through usual methods. (See note 2 below)
  • Even Start—a rigorous randomized evaluation of 18 Even Start family literacy programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education found that, on average, children and adults served by the programs scored no higher on reading tests than their control group counterparts. (See note 3 below)
  • New Chance Demonstration—a rigorous randomized evaluation of 16 schools and organizations funded by the U.S. Department of Labor to provide comprehensive case management to teenage mothers, designed to improve their employment outcomes, found that, on average, these programs had no effect on their employment or earnings. (See note 4 below)

Importantly, these findings do not mean that all after-school programs, educational software, family literacy programs, and case management services are ineffective– just that many widely used approaches in these areas don’t work, and additional research is needed to identify those that do. While such findings are disheartening, they illustrate the importance of targeting government funding, as well as individual donations, on the relatively few programs and practices that have been shown in rigorous evaluations to be highly effective. Doing so will increase the likelihood that public and private dollars are truly going to help improve people’s lives in important ways—and that’s something to feel good about this holiday season.


  1. James-Burdumy et al. “When Schools Stay Open Late: The National Evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program Final Report.” U.S. Department of Education/Institute of Education Sciences National Center for Evaluation and Regional Assistance. April 2005.
  2. Dynarski, et. al. “Effectiveness of Reading and Mathematics Software Products: Findings From the First Student Cohort: Report to Congress.” U.S. Department of Education/Institute of Education Sciences National Center for Evaluation and Regional Assistance. March 2007.
  3. St. Pierre et. al. “Third National Even Start Evaluation: Program Impacts and Implications for Improvement.” U.S. Department of Education’s Planning and Evaluation Service. 2003.
  4. Quint et al. “New Chance: Final Report on a Comprehensive Program for Young Mothers in Poverty and Their Children.” MDRC. 1997

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