OMB to Government: Show Us the Evidence

The words “OMB” and “exciting” rarely go in the same sentence, much less “OMB” and “OMG!” Yet on May 18, Jeffrey Zients, Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), sent out a memo that could change history. In guidance to executive departments and agencies, the memo asks the entire Executive Branch to use every available means to promote the use of rigorous evidence in decision-making, program administration, and planning. Some of the specific strategies urged by OMB were as follows:

• Low-cost evaluations, using routinely collected data. For example, when grants are made to schools to use particular programs, districts could be asked to submit schools in pairs, knowing that one in each pair will be assigned at random to use the program and one to wait. Then routinely collected test scores could be used in the evaluations, to compare experimental and control groups. Such studies could be done for peanuts, greatly expanding the evidence base for all sorts of programs.

• Evaluations linked to waivers. Existing rules often inhibit experimentation with practices or policies that might be used in the future. Agencies can waive those rules specifically for the purpose of testing innovations.

• Expanding evaluation efforts within existing programs. Imagine, for example, encouraging systematic variations in uses of Title I funding to determine better ways to help Title I children succeed.

• Systemic measurement of costs and cost per outcome. If there are more cost-effective ways to achieve better outcomes, we should be finding them, and then allocating resources accordingly.

• Infusing evidence into grant-makingAgencies can increase the use of evidence-based practices in all sorts of grants. In competitive grants, applicants could be offered a few competitive preference points if they propose to implement programs with strong evidence of effectiveness. Investing in Innovation (i3), of course, provides different levels of grants depending on the existing evidence base for promising innovations.

There is much more in this far-reaching memo, but these are the elements most relevant to education.

I have no idea how the memo will play out in practice, but at a minimum it provides clear and detailed guidance to all federal agencies: show us the evidence. More importantly, show the American people your evidence. It says that government is not about who gets what, it is about conscious and informed stewardship of public funds to produce valued outcomes.

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

Once Upon a Math Problem: Stories and Learning

Once upon a time, there was a red-headed fourth grader named Ned. Ned was bored in school, and he didn’t get good grades. His mom was mad at him, his teacher pleaded with him, and Ned wanted to please them, but he just couldn’t get interested enough in school to put in enough effort to really succeed.

I’ll come back to red-headed Ned in a moment, but stop for a moment and ask yourself: Aren’t you interested in Ned? Isn’t focusing on a particular student, even if he’s fictional, a lot more interesting than my usual blogs that begin with dilemma of policy and practice?

Kids (like adults) love stories. They live in a social world, where talking about each other, other friends and family, teachers, rock stars, and movie stars is a full-time activity. Every creator of TV or movie content knows this, of course, because effective storytelling is their stock in trade.

How can schools take advantage of children’s interest in stories? Cooperative learning has been proven to help, because it engages students’ own social worlds with their learning.

With the support of Old Dominion University’s federal Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) scale up award, Success for All is now experimenting with adding stories to teachers’ instruction and cooperative learning activities. We’ve created brief videos with puppets, appealing characters, and animations to supplement teaching. We have evidence that this improves learning in reading and are studying a similar strategy in math in England. Brief video vignettes are shown on interactive whiteboards at designated points in teachers’ lessons.

Watching students and teachers using these embedded videos is exciting. Kids resonate to the videos and teachers use them as a point of reference in their lessons. We believe that this particular approach in math is making a difference, but we are continuing to study the method to be sure. In the meantime, it is clear that it certainly is engaging the kids, modeling cooperative learning and problem solving, and adding the magic of storytelling to math instruction.

So aren’t you wondering what happened to Ned? Luckily, Ned’s teacher adopted a program that uses embedded videos and research proven cooperative learning, and Ned is now excited about school, engaged with his peers, and feeling successful. If you’re like most kids, you’ll now remember the story of red-headed Ned a lot longer than you’ll remember the rest of this blog. There has to be a way to use stories in just this way to help all the Neds out there who are more likely to learn if we embed learning in stories.

Editor’s Note: Robert Slavin is Chairman of the Board of the Success for All Foundation

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Senator Lugar Will Be Missed in Education, Too

People of all political persuasions all over the world have reason to mourn Senator Richard Lugar’s loss to a Tea-Party candidate in the recent Indiana Republican primary. Senator Lugar is the ranking minority member on the Foreign Relations Committee, where he has long put principle and practicality above partisanship. Yet his defeat matters in education, too.

Even though Senator Lugar has never served on an education committee, he has always been interested in education. Before he was elected to the Senate, he was Mayor of Indianapolis and before that, Chairman of the Indianapolis School Board. But beyond this history, I think he just cares about the future of our country, and sees education as central to that vision.

Based on a long-ago article in The Wall Street Journal, Senator Lugar got interested in our Success for All program, and we visited an SFA school near Indianapolis together. From then on, he found many ways to support evidence-based reform in education broadly. In doing this, he routinely collaborated with Democrats. His guiding principle was always, “what’s good for the children” and “what’s good for the country.” What is so disturbing is that his defeat in the primary was largely due to his commitment to bipartisan solutions to national problems.

Evidence-based reform is not a Democratic or Republican issue, and there are many from both parties who support it. For it to prevail, however, our political leaders will have to feel able to be seen in public hand in hand with their colleagues across the aisle. The defeat of Senator Lugar, a model of pragmatic leadership, is a great loss to the Senate and to the idea that in education legislation, children must come first.

Editor’s Note: Robert Slavin is Chairman of the Board of the Success for All Foundation

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

Classrooms Need More Pizzazz

On a recent trip to London, I visited Cayley Primary School, a high-poverty elementary school that has been using our Success for All* whole-school reform approach for several years. The principal, Lissa Samuel, has been at this same school for many years before and after it adopted Success for All. She is proud of the achievement gains, which include a jump from 30% to 80% of students passing sixth-grade reading assessments. During our conversation, though, she talked more about how disciplinary problems, fights, and stealing had completely disappeared. Success for All has very good approaches to classroom management and social-emotional learning, and Ms. Samuel thought these had helped. But even more powerful, she thought, was the effect of success itself. Kids who feel confident, engaged, and motivated to learn do not act out.

The importance of this observation, which I’ve heard in many, many schools, is profound. Especially at the policy level, I often encounter a belief that the path to improving outcomes on a broad scale is to use test-based accountability that force teachers to align their instruction with desired outcomes. If students are bored or resistant, then teachers should use effective classroom management methods that keep them in control.

Teachers do need a deep understanding of classroom management methods designed to prevent behavior problems, and then they need to be ready with effective responses if students misbehave despite good preventive efforts. Yet using classroom management methods to get students to attend to boring lessons is shoveling against the tide. The key ingredient in effective lessons isn’t alignment, it’s pizzazz: excitement, engagement, challenge.

How do you create pizzazz? Well-structured cooperative learning helps to engage students with each other in jointly learning context. Stimulating video content can add to excitement and understanding. Hands-on experimentation helps a lot when appropriate, as does competition between teams or against the clock.

Cayley Primary was full of pizzazz. Its mostly Bangladeshi students worked eagerly in four-member teams. They took turns reading to each other and helping each other with difficult words. Their teachers called on “random reporters” to represent their teams, and teammates prepared each other, not knowing which of them might be randomly chosen to play this role. Brief, humorous videos introduced letter sounds and sound-blending strategies to first graders. Throughout the school, students were invariably kind and helpful to each other. An observer who did not know the history might think that classroom management was not necessary in such a school, but it was proactive use of pizzazz that got it to where it is, and makes it all look easy.

Classroom management strategies matter, of course, but pizzazz matters more. Motivated, engaged, challenged, and successful students are well-behaved, not because they’ve been threatened but because they are too busy engaged in learning to misbehave. The goal of classroom management is not quiet classrooms, it’s productive students. Using pizzazz to motivate and engage kids in learning valued content is the way to manage classrooms toward accomplishing the real goals of education.

*Robert Slavin is Chairman of the Board of the Success for All Foundation

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