What Would the Founding Fathers Say About Evidence-Based Reform?

In honor of Independence Day, I was thinking about how America’s founders would think about evidence-based education reform if they were around today. George Washington would certainly be a big fan. He was always interested in disseminating the latest technology, agricultural techniques, and other innovations. If he’d been around today, he’d surely want education to use proven programs and practices and for government to invest in creating better methods. Though never realized, his greatest desire at the end of his life was to found a university in the nations’ capital to add to knowledge and disseminate it among future leaders.

Benjamin Franklin was equally intent on the advancement and diffusion of practical knowledge in every field, and was a founder of the University of Pennsylvania for this purpose. Of course he’d favor research as a basis for educational practice.

Thomas Jefferson? Same story. He wrote about advances in agriculture, architecture, and many other fields, and actively promoted the dissemination of practical knowledge. His lasting achievement is the University of Virginia, founded for just this purpose.

In fact, whatever their differences, the founders shared an Enlightment belief in the perfectibility of mankind, and the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and other writings clearly reflect this. So how did it happen that 236 years later, we have come to accept flat-line growth in educational outcomes, and we still emphasize educational solutions designed to manage the system, rather than transform it using evidence of what works?

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Summer: The Missing Link in Education Reform

By Gary Huggins, Chief Executive Officer, National Summer Learning Association

Research has long documented the phenomenon of summer learning loss. Over the three-month summer vacation, children forget some of what they have learned during the previous school year. It’s an unfortunate, unintended consequence of the ideal of a lazy, fun-filled summer.

Most youth lose about two months in grade equivalents in math computational skills over the summer. Low-income youth lose more than two months in reading achievement while their middle-income peers make slight gains.

Worse, these losses are cumulative, contributing to a widening achievement gap. A study by Johns Hopkins University’s Karl Alexander found that summer learning loss in the elementary school years results in low-income students being as much as 2.5 years behind their higher-income peers by the end of 5th grade. It also leads to placement in less rigorous high school courses, higher high school dropout rates, and lower college attendance. Further, when students lose hard-won skills over the summer, teachers waste time re-teaching at the beginning of every school year.

The learning losses, and the wasted time, are preventable.

There is evidence that students who attend high-quality summer programs can avoid summer losses, but what makes a high-quality program? Not surprisingly, such programs offer strong, individualized instruction, have parents who are involved, and feature small class sizes and engaging activities, according to the RAND Corporation’s 2011 report Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning. They’re typically full-day programs that run from five to six weeks.

There are examples of successful summer learning programs in school districts and communities throughout the country. These high-quality programs effectively blend academics and enrichment activities to help students avoid learning losses, and even experience gains. These have nothing in common with the punitive summer schools I recall from my childhood. Rather, this new vision for summer school has kids reading in the morning and visiting museums in the afternoon. Math lessons are followed by art and music – subjects often squeezed out of the strained school day.

Outcomes are impressive. As part of the Smarter Summers initiative the National Summer Learning Association launched in 10 cities last year with support from the Walmart Foundation, middle school students attending Summer Advantage USA in Chicago and Indianapolis gained an average of 2.1 months in grade equivalents in literacy and math skills.

In Oakland, Calif., more than half of 1,000 elementary students who attended a summer program were found by the district to be performing at or above the benchmark in English/language arts scores after the program, compared with 36 percent in the spring. In Baltimore’s expanded summer learning program, elementary school students registered double-digit percentage-point gains in language arts and math tests from spring to fall 2010. Recently, Baltimore City Schools CEO Andres Alonso said that summer school is no longer just for children who are failing, but an important part of his strategy for helping all students to succeed.

Research is now underway on wide scale implementation and on sustained gains. The reality is that if we ever hope to close the persistent academic achievement gap, districts need to consider summer learning as part of their school improvement strategies. Summer school shouldn’t be seen as punitive, and shouldn’t be the first sacrifice in a tight budget year. It’s a link in the chain that’s been broken for far too long.

Render Politics Unto Politicians, But Practice Unto Evidence

I recently heard a thought-provoking speech by Baroness Estelle Morris, former Secretary of State for Education in England. She was talking about the spheres of activity in which evidence is most and least likely to make a difference in education policy. Her argument was that in questions of values, such as school governance, standards, and curriculum, it is appropriate for the political process to argue alternative visions of the future, and come to decisions that are inherently political. Evidence may be taken into account, but many issues are just not questions of “what works,” they are questions of “what kind of society do we want.”

In contrast, she argued, questions of pedagogy are “what works” questions, and should be based on evidence, not just values. In medicine, politicians certainly have and should have strong opinions about funding of health care, access to care, and so on, but they yield to evidence on optimal treatments for heart disease. So it should be in education, where politicians should yield to evidence on programs and practices used to improve student outcomes. Yet in fact, politicians feel free to weigh in on methods of teaching, but fund far too little research on what works in pedagogy.

Baroness Morris noted that everyone involved in education wants the best for children, and that it’s appropriate to argue about values and desired outcomes. But when we want to improve children’s learning (on whatever outcomes we’ve agreed to be important), we should look to the evidence, not to the political process.

Note: Baroness Morris is a Labour member of the House of Lords and chair of the Executive Board of the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York, where I am a part-time professor.

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Seeds, Bricks, and Sand: Stages of School-Reform Readiness

Every school, no matter how effective at improving student outcomes, could probably be even more effective, and some schools have a particularly long way to go. Various proven reform models for whole schools, particular subjects, or specific purposes stand ready to help all of these schools improve. Yet schools vary a great deal in terms of readiness for particular approaches to reform.

A metaphor for three types of schools in terms of readiness for reform is seeds, bricks, sand. The “seeds” metaphor implies an environment so conducive to reform that anything can grow there. The staff and leadership of the school are capable, aware of research, participating in professional development, well-coordinated, cohesive, and unafraid of change. Such a school can create and evaluate its own reform methods and sustain and improve them over time, perhaps with general advice from consultants. “Bricks” schools are also positively oriented toward change, but are unlikely to invent effective reforms themselves. Such schools have committed and hard-working teachers and leaders who have not had the time or resources to become reform experts themselves, but are welcoming to proven models. The “bricks” metaphor implies that if someone brings the bricks and a set of plans to the site, a durable edifice can be built and maintained.

A “sand” school, on the other hand, is one that is not ready for reform, and building on this site is like building a sand castle, which will wash away with the next tide. In such schools the staff and leadership may be at odds with each other, may not believe that children can learn any more than they do now, or may have experienced failure with previous reforms. These schools may need serious restructuring.

The usefulness of the “seeds-bricks-sand” categories is in understanding how to help schools adopt and sustain proven programs. The great majority of Title I schools, in my experience, are “bricks” schools, ready, willing, and able to implement well-defined, research-proven programs, but unlikely to have the inclination to invent their own school-wide approach. Others are clearly in the “sand” category. Yet Title I schools in trouble are frequently given “seeds” advice. For example, schools receiving substantial funding under the current School Improvement Grants (SIG) are routinely given consultants to help them work out their own school-wide reform designs, rather than being helped to adopt proven programs. There are “seed” schools that can benefit from such strategies, but they are rarely the ones that are persistently low achieving, as all SIG schools are.

Whole-school reform is difficult and expensive, and when it fails, the consequences for children as well as educators can be dire and long-lasting. We need to get smarter about targeting interventions to specific types of schools to increase the likelihood that all will benefit.

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Shouldn’t Government Be Accountable, Too?

For many years, the main focus of educational policy in the U.S. has been on accountability for students, for school and district leaders, and, increasingly, for teachers. Perhaps the most important form of accountability, however, is accountability of federal, state, and local governments to see that schools have the wherewithal to ensure maximum achievement. But what are governments doing to set up students, teachers, and school leaders up for success?

Beyond basic financial accountability for salaries, buildings, books, and busses, government has the responsibility to see that educators have access to effective programs, professional development, and materials. At the very least, government should evaluate programs and materials and make the outcomes widely known. Government is right for this role because no other entity is likely to support rigorous evaluations of promising programs, comparing outcomes for students who experience particular interventions to those who do not. And no entity other than the government can set a high standard for the effectiveness of programs that are adopted.

No matter how effective a program may be, there will still be a range of performance among educators implementing the program, and there will always be individual schools or teachers who do a very poor job with their children no matter which program they use. For this reason, there will always be a need to have some form of school-level accountability.

However, it is only fair for government to hold itself accountable for enabling educators to leverage their best efforts, so that educators doing their best work make ever-increasing impacts on their students’ achievement. A key part of this accountability should be to provide educators with a range of effective programs as well as reliable information on their outcomes. The military, for example, is always working to improve the weapons and tactics provided to soldiers. Various arms of the government provide vast funding to develop and evaluate medical treatments to leverage the effectiveness of physicians and hospitals. Why should government not do the same in education, to leverage the effectiveness of educators by supporting the creation, evaluation, and effective implementation of programs and materials proven to improve achievement?