Make No Small Plans

In recent years, an interest has developed in very low-cost interventions that produce small but statistically significant effects on achievement. The argument for their importance is that their costs are so low that their impacts are obtained very cost-effectively. For example, there is evidence that a brief self-affirmation exercise can produce a small but significant effect on achievement, and that a brief intervention to reduce “social identity threat” can do the same. A study in England found that a system to send 50 text messages over the course of a school year, announcing upcoming tests and homework assignments, feedback on grades, test results, and attendance, and updates on topics being studied in school, improved math achievement slightly but significantly, at a cost of about $5 a year.

There is nothing wrong with these mini-interventions, and perhaps all schools should use them. Why not? Yet I find myself a bit disturbed by this type of approach.

Step back from the small-cost/small-but-significant outcome and consider the larger picture, the task in which all who read this blog are jointly engaged. We face an educational system that is deeply dysfunctional. Disadvantaged students remain far, far behind middle-class students in educational outcomes, and the gap has not narrowed very much over decades. The U.S. remains well behind peer nations in achievement and is not catching up. Dropout rates in the U.S. are diminishing, but skill levels of American high school graduates from disadvantaged schools are appalling.

For schools with limited budgets to spend on reform, it may be all they can do to adopt a low-cost/low-but-significant outcome intervention on the basis that it’s better than nothing. But again, step back to look at the larger situation. The average American student is educated at a cost of more than $11,000 per year. There are whole-school reform approaches, such as our own Success for All in elementary and middle schools and BARR in secondary schools, that cost around $100 per student per year, and have been found to make substantial differences in student achievement. Contrast this to a low-cost program that costs, say, $5 per student per year.

$100 is less than 1% of the ordinary cost of educating a student, on average. $5 is less than .05%, of course. But in the larger scheme of things, who cares? Using a proven whole-school reform model might perhaps increase the per-student cost from $11,000 to $11,100. Adding the $5 low-cost intervention could increase per-student costs from $11,000 to $11,005. From the perspective of a principal who has a fixed budget, and simply does not have $100 per student to spend, the whole-school approach may be infeasible. But from the system perspective, the difference between $11,000 and $11,100 (or $11,005) is meaningless if it truly increases student achievement. Our goal must be to make meaningful progress in reducing gaps and increasing national achievement, not make a small difference that happens to be very inexpensive.

I once saw a film in England on the vital role of carrier pigeons in the English army in World War II. I’m sure those pigeons played their part in the victory, and they were very cost-effective. But ultimately, it was expensive tanks and planes and ships and other weapons, and courageous men and women, who won the war, not pigeons, and piling up small (even if effective) interventions was just not going to do it.

We should be in a war against inequality, disadvantage, and mediocre outcomes in education. Winning it will require identification and deployment of whole-school, whole-district, and whole-state approaches that can be reliably replicated and intelligently applied to ensure positive, widespread improvements. If we just throw pigeon-sized solutions at huge and tenacious problems, our difficulties are sure to come home to roost.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

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