New Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins Will Promote Evidence in Education

Not so long ago, it was awfully lonely advocating for enhancing the role of evidence in educational policy. I’m delighted to see that this is changing, and new allies are taking up the cause. I’ve written before about Results for America, the new efforts supported by the Arnold Foundation, and other developments that are moving forward evidence-based education, including support from OMB and from the Knowledge Alliance.

Now there is yet another force for evidence-based policy in education, and it is from my own university, Johns Hopkins. The Johns Hopkins University School of Education has just announced a new policy center, to be led by David Steiner, who previously was the dean at the School of Education at Hunter College and, before that, Commissioner of Education for the state of New York. David is joined by a Hunter colleague, Ashley Berner. They hope to create a policy center that is non-partisan and committed to supporting evidence in education. Because of his background, David is particularly interested in mobilizing state superintendents and other education leaders beyond the one-mile radius of Congress and the White House, where evidence-based reform has had its main impact so far.

The union of David and Ashley with the Johns Hopkins School of Education has extraordinary potential. They bring deep experience in educational leadership and policy to a School of Education that already has a lot going in in that arena. Beyond our own efforts at the Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE), there is Bob Balfanz and his colleagues at the Center for Social Organization of Schools. Our dean, David Andrews, is very committed to making an impact in national policy. Besides, we are in Baltimore, a one-hour train trip from Capitol Hill that costs $7 each way.

There is a lot to do to move education policy toward a strong evidence base, and the movement, such as it is, needs all the help it can get. ESEA is up for reauthorization, and maybe this time we can get evidence to be central to competitive programs and perhaps even formula programs, such as Title I. This is an exciting time for evidence-based policy, and all of us involved in it should welcome David and Ashley to our ranks!

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Happy 50th Birthday, Head Start!

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Head Start! Children, please look up from your sand tables and dress-up corners and finger-painting tables and sing “Happy Birthday”! Gloria, I’m watching you. Do not even think of putting finger paint in Michael’s hair! Is everyone ready?

Of all the Great Society programs, Head Start is perhaps the most popular. It provides center-based services to millions of very cute 3- and 4-year-olds, mostly children from disadvantaged families. If members of the public, educators, and policy makers know a single conclusion from educational research, it is that early-childhood programs have substantial and long-term positive impacts. As one consequence of this understanding, President Obama and his administration have pushed hard to expand Head Start and other early-childhood programs to serve many more children.

Does Head Start work? Well, it all depends on what you mean by “Head Start” and what you mean by “work.” Some highly enriched early-childhood models, such as the famous Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian program, do have evidence of long-term gains in important life outcomes not enjoyed by similar children who did not attend preschool at all. However, longitudinal evaluations of run-of-the-mill Head Start programs find limited impacts into kindergarten and few detectable differences afterwards. As a result of these evaluations, early-childhood experts are now careful to say that “high-quality” early-childhood or Head Start programs work, leaving undefined exactly what they mean by “high-quality.”

As more children enroll in Head Start and other early-childhood programs, the question has moved from “Does it help disadvantaged children attend early-childhood programs?” to “What kinds of early-childhood programs should be provided to disadvantaged children?” Here there is ferocious debate. On one side are traditionalists who insist that early-childhood programs emphasize play, imagination, listening to stories, singing, and crafts, for example, but not phonemic awareness or other pre-reading skills. Such “developmental” programs are designed to ease children into the school in a home-like setting and build children’s language, school skills, and general orientation toward learning.

On the other side there are some educators who believe that disadvantaged children in pre-kindergarten need to be taught like first graders to ingrain the school readiness, literacy, and math skills necessary to succeed in school. In the middle are “balanced” programs, advocated by those who believe that in addition to play, exploration, imagination, and language, it is beneficial to expose children to phonemic awareness, phonics, and other pre-reading as well as early math skills, on the principle that it is important to give disadvantaged preschoolers a, well, “head start” on the skills that will soon determine their success in school. Preschool should not look like third grade, with kids in rows answering questions and doing worksheets. (In fact, third grade should not look like this, either.) Phonemic awareness and phonics in balanced programs are typically introduced in preschool using rhymes, games, songs, and exploratory activities to learn the sounds and shapes of letters. As phonics and math have definitively pushed their way into kindergarten, traditionalists hold onto preschool as the last bastion of child-centered education, while advocates of balanced programs argue that children need to be prepared for the settings in which they will soon find themselves.

My colleagues and I are carrying out a review of research on the literacy and language outcomes of different approaches to early-childhood education. (Watch for it in the Best Evidence Encyclopedia in the next month or so.) Our findings are very interesting. We focused on studies that compared children in “developmental” programs with those in “balanced” programs, which are ones that include most elements of developmental programs but also include direct teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics. Not surprisingly, both in preschool and on kindergarten follow-up measures, children who participated in balanced programs performed much better on assessments of early reading skills. Perhaps more surprisingly, these children also performed better than those in the developmental programs on measures of language, in preschool and on kindergarten follow-up.

What our findings suggest is that teaching phonics and phonemic awareness in preschool is beneficial for reading and, far from undermining children’s language development, also enhances performance in this arena.

It is probably unrealistic to expect that one year of quality early childhood will turn around a child’s life forever, but seen as the beginning of a progression from high-quality preschool into high-quality kindergarten into high-quality elementary and secondary school, preschool is very important. Our review supports the idea that a portion of the precious time preschool teachers have with young children can be devoted to building pre-reading skills without harming language development, and in fact contributing to overall performance.

And that’s a head start worth celebrating!

Reading and Vision

A few years ago, I was touring a ruined abbey in Scotland. In a small museum containing objects found in excavations of the site were a pair of eyeglasses worn by monks in the 13th century.

The relationship between vision and reading is not exactly news. Since most adults eventually need reading glasses, most people reading this blog probably have personal experience with the transformational impact they can have.

Along with colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Wilmer Eye Clinic and the Johns Hopkins School of Education, we are doing a study of the relationship between vision and reading in inner-city schools in Baltimore. Our project is not finished, so I can’t report on all aspects of our findings. But what we have found so far is profoundly disturbing.

We are giving comprehensive vision tests to second- and third-graders in some of the most impoverished schools in the city. We are finding high rates of visual impairment, which can be corrected by eyeglasses. Yet only 1 to 3 percent of the children have glasses in school.

The state of Maryland requires vision screening in first grade, and many of these children were found to need glasses previously. Yet a hundred things go wrong in getting glasses on kids’ faces in inner-city schools. Some kids are missed in the screening. Those who are identified get a letter sent to the parents, who may or may not follow up. Some cannot afford glasses, while others qualify for assistance to purchase glasses but do not know how to go through the procedures to get them. Glasses frequently get broken or lost or stolen, and there are no procedures to replace them. As a result, few kids who need them have glasses in school, even just one year after the screening year.

A key factor in all of this is that vision is seen as a health problem, not the school’s problem. Schools do not have resources for eyeglasses, so even though they are accountable for children’s reading, and even though school leaders and teachers know full well that a lot of their kids just need glasses, they feel helpless in solving this simple problem. Title I funds, for example, cannot be used for glasses. The result is that many children are receiving very expensive remedial services, tutoring, or special education, when a $20 pair of glasses would actually solve the problem.

In our project, we are testing kids, and, for those who need them, we are providing two pairs of glasses, one for home and one for school. Teachers are given craft boxes to hold the glasses and facilitate distributing them each day. If glasses are broken, they are replaced. Eyeglasses are in these days, and the kids are very proud of their glasses. Compared with other interventions for struggling readers, the cost of a few pairs of glasses is trivial. Not every struggling reader is struggling due to poor eyesight, but imagine if 20 or 10 or even 5 percent of children in high-poverty schools are struggling in reading or other subjects due to vision problems that are easily remediated with ordinary eyeglasses.

I’m always reluctant to get ahead of the data, but imagine for a moment what it would mean if we do find that significant numbers of inner-city kids are failing year after year just because they lack glasses. Hopefully, this finding would lead to government and private programs throughout the U.S. providing eyeglasses in schools and giving teachers and administrators responsibility to see that children receive and use their glasses. This could make a huge difference in one easily recognizable subgroup of struggling readers.

At a larger level, think what such a finding might say about poverty and education. Educators naturally seek educational solutions to educational problems in high-poverty schools, reasoning that they cannot solve problems of housing, crime, unemployment, and so on. Yet there may be some non-educational interventions that they could use to improve student outcomes. What matters is the outcomes, and it is crucial that proven solutions be allowed to cross traditional boundaries if they require it.

At a larger level still, consider how families get into poverty in the first place. How many kids with poor eyesight fail in school, lose motivation, and ultimately lose access to positive futures? How many impoverished parents were once children with poor eyesight, or other easily solved health difficulties? How many inner-city communities suffer from having many young people who perceive no hope due to reading difficulties that could have been prevented?

Eyeglasses are not new, and they are not magic. Yet they may well be part of a solution to fundamental and persistent problems of education.

The Message From Baltimore

Why Baltimore?

The tragic events of recent weeks could have happened in any big city in America. Rough treatment of minorities by police is hardly unique to Baltimore. Serious injuries and deaths are an all-too-common result. This is not to disparage individual law enforcement officers, who have to negotiate a complex and often hostile set of relationships that are not of their making. But again, this is not unique to Baltimore. After Ferguson, and New York, and North Charleston, a spark was bound to ignite somewhere, and that place happened to be Baltimore.

I have lived in Baltimore for more than 40 years. My wife and I have raised three children adopted from South America. One of them identifies himself as black. For years, he has told us stories of police harassment, being pulled over for “driving while black,” and being suspected of crimes he could not have committed. This is reality. I do not think there is any parent of a black child who does not understand this to be true, and who does not fear that an innocent act, a taunting remark, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time could end up with real harm at the hands of the police.

But this reality exists in every big city. Why was Baltimore the flashpoint?

One reason, ironically, is that Baltimore has been getting better. A down-at-the-heels port city in the 1970s, it is now improving economically, socially, and physically. Also, almost the entire power structure of the city is African-American. This includes the mayor, police chief, state’s attorney, and other leaders. An African-American middle class is growing rapidly but moving to the suburbs. Other middle-class people are moving into city neighborhoods and adding vitality and new businesses.

However, the people left in the inner city are not benefitting from all of this change. Many are unemployed or underemployed. Too many are dropouts or have such poor basic skills that they can only qualify for low-level jobs.

The anger and frustration of many Baltimoreans is understandable. They see people all around them, including people who look like them, entering the middle class. But from their point of view, the American dream remains unattainable.

My colleagues and I work in the schools that serve the very communities affected by the recent disturbances. The children who come to these schools start off bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of enthusiasm and confidence, like children everywhere. But then all too many of them experience failure. And all that motivation drains away. The majority of fourth graders read below the “basic” level on NAEP Reading. Poor reading skills make it almost impossible for children to grow up with confidence, graduate from high school, and go on to college or high-paying jobs.

None of this is surprising to any educator. But here is what should be infuriating: School failure is preventable. With every passing year we gain increasing evidence that virtually all children can learn to read and to succeed in other subjects. Using EDGAR standards, I count 28 elementary reading programs ready for use today that have at least moderate evidence of effectiveness. Yet none of these is used broadly enough to solve the reading problem in high-poverty schools. There is no reason that every Title I school in America should not be using proven programs.

The smoke rising over Baltimore in recent days is a signal to the whole country. Until we make opportunities available to all and treat everyone with respect and dignity, we can expect the frustrations of those who are shut out to boil over. Many things need to change, but one of the most fundamental is also among the easiest: Make sure that every child, whatever his or her background, learns to become a successful and confident reader. We know how to do it. Now let’s do it.