Every day we see strategies that are working and delivering results in a rapidly changing world. This Evidence in Action blog series highlights the voices of social innovation organizations advancing effective interventions in communities across the country, elevates the results-driven solutions being advanced to help solve our most pressing social problems, and describes the evidence-based federal programs that are critical to developing and scaling effective human and social services. Today we will hear from Social Policy Research Associates (SPR) about tiered-evidence grant programs that provide opportunities for practitioners and evaluators to understand what works in social policy.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Workforce Innovation Fund (WIF) was one of several tiered-evidence initiatives introduced by the Obama administration—including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Social Innovation Fund and the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) fund—all of which supported the refinement, scaling and evaluation of promising approaches to improve the social, education and economic outcomes for low-income Americans. Through three rounds of competitive grants, WIF enabled State and local agencies to implement evidence-based approaches to improve both service delivery and system integration in the public workforce development system and required grantees to procure an independent third-party evaluator to conduct a rigorous evaluation. Social Policy Research Associates (SPR) was selected as the third-party evaluator for five WIF projects, and in conducting these evaluations we’ve seen how the resulting evidence can shape the implementation of public policy.
Tiered-evidence grant programs like WIF provide a critical opportunity for practitioners and evaluators to understand what works and why in education, workforce development and other areas of social policy. As shown below, funding both local innovation and rigorous evaluations (which incorporate both an impact study and an implementation study) enables policymakers to learn whether a particular innovation works, for whom, and, critically, how and why.
The findings from WIF evaluations are of particular importance given shifts in workforce development policy during the evaluation period. The first WIF grants—and evaluation contracts—were awarded in 2012, and workforce development policy changed substantially partway through these multi-year evaluations with the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) in 2014, which replaced the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). WIOA itself places a heightened focus on the use of evidence-based programming in workforce development policy, and the legislation also prioritizes and encourages approaches tested under WIF and evaluated by SPR:
- SPR’s impact study of the Accelerated Training for Illinois Manufacturing (ATIM) program, for example, found that a WIF project offering accelerated career pathways training increased employment rates and quarterly earnings for program participants relative to a control group. WIOA emphasizes both career pathways and sector strategies in the delivery of workforce system services, yielding strong interest in how to operationalize and implement these concepts at the state and local level.
- SPR also conducted an impact study of the Los Angeles Reconnections Career Academy (LARCA) program, a WIF grant for a system-level partnership to re-engage out-of-school youth in education, training and employment, and found that LARCA improved participants’ secondary and postsecondary outcomes. Because WIOA requires workforce system providers to spend no less than 70 percent of youth funding on out-of-school youth (up from 30 percent under WIA), LARCA’s evaluation results offer an important example of what such programming can look like, as well as what practitioners need to know about the realities of serving this population.
In both cases, the opportunity afforded by WIF increased local readiness for WIOA implementation; testing these strategies through WIF enabled local stakeholders to experiment with new approaches before they were required. More broadly, the evaluations required under WIF created an evidence base that offered a valuable resource to states and local areas considering how to plan their implementation of WIOA. LARCA and ATIM not only had attempted the recommended strategies, but also had rigorous evaluations detailing what worked, for whom, how, and why—in particular, both evaluations detailed the necessary partnerships for implementing systems-level change, as well as the challenges to and best practices for developing and sustaining innovative programming within the local workforce system.
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