Twilight of Science?

NOTE: This is a guest post by Steve Fleischman, deputy executive officer at Education Northwest, a nonprofit headquartered in Portland, Ore., that conducts research, evaluation, technical assistance, training, and strategic communications activities to promote evidence-informed education policy and practice.
Our family vacation this past summer included a visit to the Hoh Rain Forest on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. If you haven’t been, go. But, expect to pass through the Twilight zone. More precisely, you will likely drive through the town of Forks, where the Twilight series takes place. Before you go be sure to consult the Forks Chamber of Commerce website so you don’t miss points of interest such as the gas station/subway shop that is “Home of the Twilight Sandwich,” the drive-in that is “Home of the Bella Burger” (make mine well done, thank you), and nearly a dozen Twilight-themed souvenir shops.

If you’re not up on popular culture you should know that the Twilight saga, recounting young vampire love, has sold more than 100 million books and that the related series of four movies have so far grossed nearly $2 billion worldwide. The latest in the series, Breaking Dawn, has brought in more than $200 million since it opened earlier this month.

It’s not just Twilight. True Blood, the HBO series about vampires, is in its fourth season and averages more than 12.5 million viewers per episode. More vampire shows are on the way.

What’s the fascination with vampires and the supernatural? As I thought about this, I wondered how the viewership for vampire shows compares to the one for the final launch of the Space Shuttle. Is our nation becoming increasingly uninterested in science and perhaps even anti-scientific? Maybe not, a recent study finds American adults scoring higher on an index of scientific literacy than they did two decades ago. Or, maybe yes, since a 2009 national survey reports, for example, that “only 53 percent of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.” (Duh. About a year?)

It will be hard to build a culture that supports research and innovation as the way forward in education until we value science as a guide to improvement. With that in mind, it’s worth repeating some fundamental premises of science laid out by Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. In the mid-1960s he talked about the bedrock principles of science:

The first is the matter of judging evidence–well, the first thing really is, before you begin you must not know the answer. . . The question of doubt and uncertainty is what is necessary to begin; for if you already know the answer there is no need to gather any evidence about it. Well, being uncertain, the next thing is to look for evidence, and the scientific method is to begin with trials. But another way . . . is to put together ideas to try to enforce a logical consistency among various things that you know. . . After we look for evidence we have to judge the evidence. There are the usual rules about judging evidence; it’s not right to pick only what you like, but to take all of the evidence, to try to maintain some objectivity . . . As long as it’s possible, we should disregard authority whenever the observations disagree with it. And finally, the recording of results should . . . not [be] reported in such a way as to try to influence the reader into an idea that’s different than what the evidence indicates. (Source: Feyman, R.P. (1999). The pleasure of finding things out. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books. (pp. 103-104).

These are simple, but powerful, principles. If we follow them consistently in making and carrying out educational policy and practice we will get much closer to achieving the improvements we desire.

Photo Source:

Building a Better System of Special Education

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Sputnik 26 Trains 11_16_11.JPGOnce upon a time, there was a train company that was experiencing a lot of accidents. The company commissioned an investigation which revealed that when accidents happened, damage was usually sustained to the last car in the train. As a result, the company sent out a memo to all station masters: Before each train left the station, the last car was to be removed.

The point of this old story, of course, is that the problem was not the last cars, it was the whole train system that allowed the accidents. In education, children with serious difficulties are the “last car”; their problems indicate something wrong with the whole system.

Ever since the first iteration of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, the U.S. special education system has primarily been built to make certain that children with very serious and unusual problems receive high-quality educational services and are as integrated as possible in general education. Yet the great majority of the roughly 12 percent of U. S. children ages 3-21 who have IEPs have milder difficulties. These are children with specific learning disabilities (49 percent of all those with IEPs), speech or language impairments (19 percent), or emotional disturbance (8 percent).

The problems these “high incidence” children experience are quite different from those of “low incidence” children with more pervasive problems, such as children with serious mental retardation, visual and auditory impairments, and orthopedic disabilities. Children with high-incidence disabilities have problems that can be prevented or solved using well-established interventions. For example, most children with reading difficulties just need effective classroom teaching supplemented by proven small-group or one-to-one tutoring. Most children who have emotional difficulties just need effective classroom management and proven behavioral strategies.

Policies for high-incidence special education are heading in a better direction. Currently popular “response to intervention” (RTI) strategies emphasize prevention and intensive intervention before assigning struggling students to special education. Yet RTI remains more of a concept than an actuality, as there are few proven and cost-effective interventions in wide use.

There are many elements that could be used in RTI models, such as proven small-group, one-to-one, and computer-assisted tutoring in reading and math, and proven classroom management strategies. Yet we still need proven, replicable approaches to make initial teaching much more effective, integrated, and personalized to the needs of particular children. This requires a serious focus on research and development to solve a broad range of problems. Yet, the overwhelming focus in special education has been on laws, regulations, and policies, rather than the nitty gritty of how to help teachers ensure success in the first place. New technologies offer hope not in replacing teachers but in helping them diagnose, teach, and assess progress with all sorts of children.

A system of schooling capable of solving learning and behavior problems far more effectively for children at risk would be much better than a system focused on where children sit. We know a lot about how to create such a system, and are capable of learning a great deal more. Of course we can build much more effective strategies for the most at-risk children, and if we do, education will be better for all children. This is the meaning of the train parable. The only way to reduce damage to the last car in the train is to build a better train system, which ensures that all cars make it to their destination successfully.

No More Excuses: We Can Get All Children Reading

Everyone reading this blog knows how important it is that every child become a confident, skilled, and motivated reader. The latest NAEP results, released this month, remind us that there are far too many children who do not read well, that disadvantaged and minority children are overrepresented among poor readers, and that the inequalities in academic outcomes by race and class–our most serious social as well as educational problem–begins with reading inequalities in the early grades. Everyone knows that children who don’t read well will incur huge expenses over time in remediation, special education, repeated grades, and ultimately delinquency, dropout, and unemployment.

Everyone reading this blog also knows that we know how to ensure success for virtually every first grader. Imagine that your job were to ensure the reading success of every child in a Title I school by the end of first grade, and you had flexible resources to do it. You’d make sure kids had language-rich preschool and kindergarten experiences, learned phonemic awareness and letter sounds in kindergarten, and were taught using proven kindergarten- and first-grade reading programs that emphasized systematic phonics, comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary. Recognizing that even with the best of teaching not every child will succeed, you’d provide tutoring for kids who are struggling in first grade. You would test children’s vision and make sure they had eyeglasses if they needed them. You’d check their hearing and general health, and would make sure that all of these problems are solved as well.

You’d help teachers use effective strategies such as cooperative learning to motivate and engage kids with reading and effective classroom management methods to further build motivation and make effective use of time. You’d use technology, such as embedded multimedia, to add motivation, build skills, and individualize for students’ needs. You’d constantly assess children’s progress in reading and respond right away if they are found to be falling behind in any way.

Understanding that parents are a key partner, you’d encourage and help them read with their kids, build vocabulary, and develop a love of reading. You’d also work with parents to help ensure that all children attend school every day, and are healthy, well nourished, and have enough sleep.

You’d provide your staff with extensive professional development, give them regular opportunities to share ideas and solve problems with each other, and constantly monitor the quality of every part of your strategy. And, when your staff runs into problems that are not being solved with current approaches, you’d experiment with alternative solutions.

Each element of this strategy has substantial evidence of effectiveness in increasing reading performance.

If you did all of these things, and if the entire school system were focused on making sure that they were done in every elementary school, could anyone doubt that reading failure would be greatly reduced, if not eliminated?

Yet this rather obvious set of actions is far from what actually happens in most Title I schools. Title I elementary schools have funding for precisely this kind of work, and because they receive a lot of federal money, these schools are particularly responsive to federal policy. This is an area in which federal policy could make a substantial difference. Federal policies sometimes focus on aspects of reading, but do not facilitate the comprehensive approach needed to get every child to succeed.

Many problems of education are very complex, and the right solutions are not immediately apparent. In contrast, reading for every child is dead simple. Solutions are known. Wouldn’t it make sense to focus attention on this critical, solvable problem?

What We Can and Cannot Learn From International Comparisons

In education reform circles, people often express deep concerns about the mediocre performance of American students on international assessments such as PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS. There is good reason to be concerned that U.S. students score behind peer nations such as Finland, Netherlands, and Canada, and the international comparisons do provide a useful benchmark to tell us how our students are doing overall. However, while we can learn from the practices of other countries with high scores, we also need to maintain perspective.

First, there is great variation within our own country; representative samples of students in Massachusetts and Minnesota were given the PISA test, for example, and scored near the top, above most countries on most scales. Do these findings indicate that we should be studying Massachusetts and Minnesota as others are studying high-scoring Finland? Perhaps, but again, we should not get our knickers in a twist. Each of these states and countries has very different social and political contexts, and it is impossible to know which particular policy or practice contributes to the outcomes.

For example, a striking observation about Finland is that teachers are very highly respected there and only top students go into teaching. The teachers are not paid all that well, but for whatever reason, teaching is deeply valued. That’s useful to know, but is it the main reason Finns do so well? Perhaps it’s the long, cold winters with nothing else to do, the saunas, the completely phonetic language, the flatbread, the smoked fish. Who can say? And if the status of teachers were the key, what would we have to do in the US to get the top university graduates to go into teaching?

International comparisons are intriguing, but never tell us what to do. American students will start outperforming Finnish ones when we start implementing more effective programs and practices, proven in research in our schools. We may get good ideas from other countries worth testing out in U.S. schools, but we cannot assume that because a given high-scoring country uses a particular practice, that practice is what causes their high scores or is good for us.

Stop the Pendulum, I Want to Get Off

The best argument for emphasizing evidence in educational policy and practice is what happens when evidence plays no role: Practice and policy swing like a pendulum from one enthusiasm to the opposite, and then back again, but no progress is made.
This is typical in fashion, where hemlines rise and fall and ties get wider or narrower just because people get tired of the previously prevailing hemline or tie width, or whatever. Similar swings are common in any field where taste, rather than evidence, is what drives change: Art, architecture, cooking, and so on. There are also fads and fashions in evidence-based fields, such as medicine and agriculture, but in those fields a given solution ultimately wins out based on evidence, and the field ultimately moves forward, not sideways.

The education pendulum is frustrating not only because it puts our field in such evidence-free company, but also because the pendulum makes irrelevant a lot of the research that does take place. A huge proportion of research funding in education goes to evaluating government policies, for example. Because research takes time, it is quite often the case that by the time the findings appear, the policy is already gone. For example, evaluations of various components of No Child Left Behind are now appearing, long after anyone cares. Politicians always support the doing of such studies, because they need to appear to be accountable, but they rarely read the reports, as things have invariably shifted (politically) since the evaluation began.

The solution to the pendulum problem is to have a wide array of research going on at all times that is creating and evaluating promising solutions to longstanding problems, including teaching methods as well as policy options. Then both practice and policy can begin to learn from the evidence and move forward together toward a better future for children.

NAEP Scores Flat, Sun Rises Again

Yesterday’s release of the NAEP scores revealed that, as a nation, we have made little progress in the past 20 years in helping our 4th graders read on grade level. Now, writing about flat NAEP scores is like writing about the sun rising. There is nothing new or exciting about this news. We can predict the cycles of the sun, plan for it, react to it, but we cannot impact whether the sun will rise every day. We can impact reading outcomes for 4th graders, as a nation, we have so far failed to do so.

Recent research from Don Hernandez shows that for students not reading on grade level by 3rd grade, one in six did not graduate from high school on time. This rate is four times greater than that for proficient readers. If this doesn’t sound an alarm, I don’t know what will. Reading well is a fundamental necessity for learning in all other subjects from math to history, even art. Children who are not reading on grade level simply cannot reach their full potential in any other subject. Economically, this leads to immeasurable loss in untapped potential of our future workforce.

Instead of the “keep on keepin’ on” mentality that has yielded predictably flat results for two decades, it is time to do something dramatically different in reading instruction: Use what works.

There are pockets of success across the country, and four states –Arizona, New Hampshire, New York, and Pennsylvania have even made progress in closing gaps between low and high income 4th grade students in the past eight years. It is time we focus intensely on scaling up evidence-based successful practices. Our kids deserve, and our economy needs, a laser focus on changing these sadly predictable outcomes.