Most states have programs that serve the needs of children and families. Some of these programs are more effective than others, and some are so effective that their methods bear replication across the nation. However, policymakers must invest significant time researching which programs have good, measurable outcomes.
Family health organizations in California, Colorado, Georgia, and Missouri hoped to improve the performance of their programs serving families and children, but none had easy access to information about what had worked elsewhere, and how to measure the results. In fact, representatives from these states discovered that they had all commissioned the same research.
In 1998, the state organizations agreed to band together to produce a comprehensive brief, but soon realized that their cooperation was hard to sustain without an outside party. RAND, a think-tank committed to promoting evidence-based policymaking, joined the team in 2001 to create a website called the Promising Practices Network, or PPN.
The PPN website provides information about two different types of programs, categorized by the types of evidence used to measure their success. "Proven programs" demonstrate substantial, statistically significant improvements in at least one outcome, as measured by trials with random controls and sample sizes of 30 or more.
PPN also provides information about "Promising Programs," or programs that do not have enough evidence to be proven performers, but show definite potential for positive change. Significant outcomes must be demonstrated for these programs as well, but their samples may have some weaknesses or studies may have sample sizes of ten or more.
In addition to allowing state decision-makers access to information about programs that have been evaluated as effective, PPN's evaluation system also provides insight into programs that address family needs that are not well studied, like learning disabilities and disorders caused by frequent moving. Policymakers, thus, have access to information that can help them replicate successful programs, as well as innovate and embroider on others that have shown potential.
RAND customizes each state's page of the website to give prominence to programs that meet individual state's policy objectives. For instance, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's enthusiasm for after-school programs prompted RAND to highlight effective after-school programs on California's page. The site offers a place for practitioners to discuss how they use the material. Weekly newsletters inform subscribers about new studies.
The group's efforts to create a compelling website that reaches a broad audience of governmental officials have been extremely successful. PPN's evaluations are available to states and other governments that are not members. Between RAND's entrance into the partnership in 2001 and 2005, the average number of unique visitors per month to the site grew more than sevenfold, from 964 to 6929.