A Sleeper Study for Education Reform?

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.

In the movie Sleepers, Woody Allen awakens in the year 2173 to find out that health food is bad for you and that deep fat, steak, cream pies, and hot fudge are all healthy. A character in the movie notes that Allen’s beliefs are “precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.” The scene ends with a scientist offering Allen a cigarette, because it is “one of the healthiest things for your body.” This scene gives rise to the question: What if all our beliefs about what it takes to improve the nation’s schools turn out to be wrong?

A recent article by Carrie R. Leana, a professor of organization and management at the University of Pittsburgh, argues that the current “ideology of school reform,” based on a belief in the “power of teacher human capital, the value of outsiders, and the centrality of the principal in instructional decision practice [is] rooted more in conventional wisdom and political sloganeering than in strong empirical research.” Based on her own studies, Leana presents a reform approach characterized by the collective engagement of staff, the establishment of trust and “meaningful” communications among teachers, and the work of principals who spend their time supporting teacher efforts by building external relations. For a teacher’s take on the article see the EdWeek blog Teaching Now.

Also on the “human capital” front, a recent post by Bob Sutton, a Stanford professor and frequent author on evidence-based management, writes in relation to New York City halting its teacher bonus experiment, “Are you surprised? I am not, and if the people running the New York City school system had actually read a large body of existing research, they would never have wasted all this money in the first place.”

I am not arguing for or against the policies described above. After all, it turns out chocolate is good for you! I just think that “look before you leap” is good advice taken too infrequently in education policy making.

Retention Costs More, Accomplishes Less

Earlier this week, John Wilson put the spotlight on a national embarrassment in his Education Week blog post entitled Flunking 3rd Graders Is Not An Intervention. His central point is worth repeating here:

“Flunking 3rd graders is costly to the taxpayers and devastating to the students. Do the math. It costs $10,000 to educate a student every year or $20,000 annually for a special needs student. Is it better to fail a student and create an extra year of that cost or to create a “bridge” program for students who have not mastered reading by the end of the third grade? It is better to provide an intensive intervention in literacy while covering a fourth grade curriculum and eventually place the students in the fourth grade classroom when they will be successful there.”

Wilson’s assessment could not be more devastatingly true. Clearly, retention is a fiscally irresponsible option. Even worse, it sets children back an entire year in their education by repeating the course of action that set them behind in the first place. Yet schools continue to opt against adopting more effective proven interventions because they are deemed “too expensive,” and legislators in several states are considering mandatory retention for low-performing third graders.

The Doing What Works initiative at the Center for American Progress takes one step forward in addressing this issue by educating school leaders on cost-effective, proven options that are available. School leaders can also refer directly to the government-funded What Works Clearinghouse, the Top Tier Evidence Initiative at the Coalition for Evidence Based Policy, and the Best Evidence Encyclopedia from Johns Hopkins School of Education to find out what works for struggling readers. All of these sites provide comprehensive information about the strength of the evidence supporting a variety of education programs.

Wilson ends his post with the question: “What are your best interventions to help children read?” With all the resources that exist, we cannot simply throw up our hands when faced with this question. If the well-meaning legislators talking about mandatory retentions were aware of the evidence, they would see that retention is far from being the only solution to the problem of school failure.

For the latest on evidence-based education, follow me on twitter: @RobertSlavin

Disclosure Note: Robert Slavin is the Director of the Best Evidence Encyclopedia project at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

Reforming 100,000 Schools, One at a Time

I was at a meeting in London recently, and got into a friendly argument with a colleague about strategies for scaling up proven programs. I was arguing that teachers should have an opportunity to collectively learn about a variety of proven programs appropriate to their school and then vote to adopt one or more of them, or none at all. This way, I argued, teachers would feel committed to whatever they had chosen and implement it with spirit and care.

My colleague was appalled. She thought my way was too slow and would abandon kids who happened to be in schools that voted “No” to terrible fates. She gave as a positive example England’s National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, implemented by Tony Blair’s government starting in the late 1990s. The NLS/NNS was imposed across every one of England’s 25,000 schools. Scores on a new set of tests went up for a few years, but then flattened out, as happens in every U.S. state that adopts a new test.

My colleague’s impatience was understandable. How long must struggling schools and children wait? But the consequence of impatience is all too often the boom-and-bust pendulum cycle of education reform. This is what happened to the NLS/NNS; teachers hated it, because of its meddlesome intrusion into professionalism. And the new conservative government is abandoning it.

I think a more gradual approach might be more likely to stick. If Title I schools had encouragement and funding to adopt proven programs, I think most of them would do so, and then the choice would have been their own professional judgment, not something imposed from above. Further, a more gradual expansion of proven programs would enable schools to find out what really works, and what it takes to make proven programs work at scale. It would allow providers of proven programs to scale up their operations in a planful, progressive way, and for research and development to identify new strategies and improve existing ones. As schools that originally voted “No” see schools around them happily and successfully using proven programs, they are likely to rethink their decisions.

Beyond the certainty of even further alienating teachers, who have already had it just about up to here, sweeping, mandatory prescriptions can’t demand anything very complex, both because such approaches would take a lot of PD all at once and because the teachers wouldn’t stand for it. So sweeping reforms sweep in and then get swept out, while kids get no benefits and the system gets no smarter.

I do share my English colleague’s impatience. In the U.S. there are 100,000 schools and 40 million kids. Can we really reform it all one school at a time?

I think we can. In five to ten years, for example, I’m certain that proven programs could be introduced in every one of the roughly 20,000 Title I schoolwide elementary schools. Getting these schools right would make a huge difference in reducing achievement gaps and getting disadvantaged kids off to a great start.

As the old riddle goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” One bite at a time may not be fast, but no one wants that elephant stuffed down his throat.

Kiss Your Textbook Goodbye

When I was a kid, I loved my textbooks. I loved their heft, their musty smell, and the long list of names of previous users in the back. I loved the confident, definitive prose that led into new worlds of thought and experience. When I grew up, I even wrote some textbooks myself.

So it is with mixed emotions that I’m witnessing the demise of the textbook as we know it. Apple recently announced that it will be partnering with major publishers to create online textbooks, and the Obama Administration set the goal of having e-textbooks in the hands of every student by 2017, It’s only a matter of time before the textbook goes the way of the slide rule, the typewriter, and the chalkboard.

The end of the paper textbook will lessen the weight in students’ backpacks and perhaps reduce schools’ costs, but will it be beneficial to students’ learning? It’s our job to make it so. If electronic textbooks are just like paper ones, there is little reason to expect them to be more effective. But e-texts offer many possibilities for innovation. Electronic texts can be linked to videos, including tutoring or alternative and more in-depth explanations. They can provide study aids, such as outlines, summaries, self-assessments, and embedded definitions. They can connect students in online study groups to jointly prepare each other for assessments. They can continuously assess students’ understanding and prescribe either remedial work to fill gaps or offer extensions for students willing and able to go beyond the ordinary. Digital textbooks may be linked to content shown by teachers on interactive whiteboards, tablets, or other electronic devices used in classrooms to supplement teachers’ instruction. They may communicate to teachers students’ current levels of knowledge and skill so that teachers can adapt their class lessons to meet the needs of their class and identify individual students who need additional assistance.

Using video, games, online study groups, and other means, electronic homework might actually become something students want to do, perhaps even replacing some of the vast wasteland of mindless television and shoot-’em-up video gaming that currently occupy a huge proportion of children’s days.

The move toward electronic textbooks will soon require that every student has secure, reliable access to technology at home that connects to school-approved networks. When teachers can count on the idea that every student (and parent) has access to technology, the possibilities for home-school collaboration will be limitless.

Of course, all of these possibilities are just that – possibilities. When electronic textbooks become the norm, it will also be possible to rigorously evaluate each of hundreds of variations in how they are used. Even if electronic textbooks are no better than paper ones at first, e-textbooks can be rapidly and continuously improved in a way that paper textbooks never could. A hundred years ago, cars were not much better than horses, as they were expensive, difficult to maintain, and prone to breakdowns. However, it was easy to see that eventually, the car would prevail. Horses had reached their limit, while cars could be progressively improved.

Electronic textbooks will provide opportunities for researchers and developers to create exciting, astonishingly effective learning opportunities for students. They will also provide opportunities to create “killer apps” that turn out to be ineffective or even harmful. As we cross this digital bridge, the onus is on us to test the numerous applications and know which are beneficial and which are not, not just which are popular.

I, for one, will miss the old-fashioned textbook, but I welcome the great potential of its electronic successor. Now let’s make sure that this potential is realized.