Making Evidence Primary for Secondary Readers

In the wonderful movie Awakenings, Robin Williams plays a research neuroscientist who has run out of grants and therefore applies for a clinical job at a mental hospital. In the interview, the hospital’s director asks him about his research.

“I was trying to extract myelin from millions of earthworms,” he explains.

“But that’s impossible!” says the director.

“Yes, but now we know it’s impossible,” says Robin Williams’ character.

I recently had an opportunity to recall this scene. I was traveling back to Baltimore from Europe. Whenever I make this trip, I use the eight or so uninterrupted hours to do a lot of work. This time I was reading a giant stack of Striving Readers reports, because I am working with colleagues to update a review of research on secondary reading programs.

Striving Readers, part of Reading First, was a richly funded initiative of the George W. Bush administration that gave money to states to help them adopt intensive solutions for below-level readers in middle and high schools. The states implemented a range of programs, almost all of them commercial programs designed for secondary readers. To their credit, the framers of Striving Readers required rigorous third-party evaluations of whatever the states implemented, and those were the reports I was reading. Unfortunately, it apparently did not occur to anyone to suggest that the programs have their own evidence of effectiveness prior to being implemented and evaluated as part of Striving Readers.

As you might guess from the fact that I started off this blog post with the earthworm story, the outcomes are pretty dismal. A few of the studies found statistically significant impacts, but even those found very small effect sizes, and only on some but not other measures or subgroups.

I’m sure I and others will learn more as we get further into these reports, which are very high-quality evaluations with rich measures of implementation as well as outcomes. But I wanted to make one observation at this point.

Striving Readers was a serious, well-meaning attempt to solve a very important problem faced by far too many secondary students: difficulties with reading. I’m glad the Department of Education was willing to make such an investment. But next time anyone thinks of doing something on the scale of Striving Readers, I hope they will provide preference points in the application process for applicants who propose to use approaches with solid evidence of effectiveness. I also hope government will continue to fund development and evaluation of programs to address enduring problems of education, so that when they do start providing incentives for using proven programs, there will be many to choose from.

Just like the earthworm research in Awakenings, finding out conclusively what doesn’t work is a contribution to science. But in education, how many times do we have to learn what doesn’t work before we start supporting programs that we know do work? It’s time to recognize on a broad scale that programs proven to work in rigorous evaluations are more likely than other approaches to work again if implemented well in similar settings. Even earthworms learn from experience. Shouldn’t we do the same?

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