Evidence, Standards, and Chicken Feathers

In 1509, John Damian, an alchemist in the court of James IV of Scotland proclaimed that he had developed a way for humans to fly. He made himself some wings from chicken feathers and jumped from the battlements of Stirling Castle, the Scottish royal residence at the time. His flight was brief but not fatal.  He landed in a pile of manure, and only broke his thigh.  Afterward, he explained that the problem was that he used the wrong kind of feathers.  If only he had used eagle feathers, he could have flown, he asserted.  Fortunately for him, he never tried flying again, with any kind of feathers.

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The story of John Damian’s downfall is humorous, and in fact the only record of it is a contemporary poem making fun of it. Yet there are important analogies to educational policy today from this incident in Scottish history. These are as follows:

  1. Damian proclaimed the success of his plan for human flight before he or anyone else had tried it and found it effective.
  2. After his flight ended in the manure pile, he proclaimed (again without evidence) that if only he’d used eagle feathers, he would have succeeded. This makes sense, of course, because eagles are much better flyers than chickens.
  3. He was careful never to actually try flying with eagle feathers.

All of this is more or less what we do all the time in educational policy, with one big exception.  In education, based on Damian’s experience, we might have put forward policies stating that from now on human powered flight must only be done with eagle feathers, not chicken feathers.

What I am referring to in education is our obsession with standards as a basis for selecting textbooks, software, and professional development, and the relative lack of interest in evidence. Whole states and districts spend a lot of time devising standards and then reviewing materials and services to be sure that they align with these standards. In contrast, the idea of checking to see that texts, software, and PD have actually been evaluated and found to be effective in real classrooms with real teachers and students has been a hard slog.

Shouldn’t textbooks and programs that meet modern standards also produce higher student performance on tests closely aligned with those standards? This cannot be assumed. Not long ago, my colleagues and I examined every reading and math program rated “meets expectations” (the highest level) on EdReports, a website that rates programs in terms of their alignment with college- and career-ready standards.  A not so grand total of two programs had any evidence of effectiveness on any measure not made by the publishers. Most programs rated “meets expectations” had no evidence at all, and a smaller number had been evaluated and found to make no difference.

I am not in any way criticizing EdReports.  They perform a very valuable service in helping schools and districts know which programs meet current standards. It makes no sense for every state and district to do this for themselves, especially in the cases where there are very few or no proven programs. It is useful to at least know about programs aligned with standards.

There is a reason that so few products favorably reviewed on EdReports have any positive outcomes in rigorous research. Most are textbooks, and very few textbooks have evidence of effectiveness. Why? The fact is that standards or no standards, EdReports or no EdReports, textbooks do not differ very much from each other in aspects that matter for student learning. Textbooks differ (somewhat) in content, but if there is anything we have learned from our many reviews of research on what works in education, what matters is pedagogy, not content. Yet since decisions about textbooks and software depend on standards and content, decision makers almost invariably select textbooks and software that have never been successfully evaluated.

Even crazy John Damian did better than we do. Yes, he claimed success in flying before actually trying it, but at last he did try it. He concluded that his flying plan would have worked if he’d used eagle feathers, but he never imposed this untested standard on anyone.

Untested textbooks and software probably don’t hurt anyone, but millions of students desperately need higher achievement, and focusing resources on untested or ineffective textbooks, software, and PD does not move them forward. The goal of education is to help all students succeed, not to see that they use aligned materials. If a program has been proven to improve learning, isn’t that a lot more important than proving that it aligns with standards? Ideally, we’d want schools and districts to use programs that are both proven effective and aligned with standards, but if no programs meet both criteria, shouldn’t those that are proven effective be preferred? Without evidence, aren’t we just giving students and teachers eagle feathers and asking them to take a leap of faith?

Photo credit: Humorous portrayal of a man who flies with wings attached to his tunic, Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

 

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How Tutor/Health Mentors Could Help Ensure Success for All Students

I’d like to introduce you to Janelle Wilson, a tutor/health mentor (THM) at a Baltimore elementary school.  She provides computer-assisted tutoring to groups of four to six second and third graders at a time, in seven daily forty-minute sessions. Another tutor/health monitor does similar work with grades k-1, and another, grades 4-5. But that’s not all they do.

As Ms. Wilson walks through the intermediate wing of the school, you notice something immediately.  She knows every kid, every teacher, and every parent she encounters. And they know and respect her.  As she walks down the hall; she greets kids by name, celebrating their successes in tutoring and gently teasing them.  But listen in on her conversation.  “Hey, Terrell! Super job on your math!  But wait a minute, where are your glasses?”  Terrell looks for them.  “Sorry, Ms. W.!” he says, “I left them in class.” “Well, go get them” says Ms. Wilson, “You can’t become the superstar I know you can be without your glasses!”

What Ms. Wilson does, beyond her role as a tutor, is to make sure that all students who need glasses, hearing aids, asthma medication, or other specialized accommodations, are consistently using them. She also keeps parents up-to-date to help them help their children succeed.

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Ms. Wilson is not a teacher, not a school nurse, not a health aide, not a parent liaison, but she has aspects of all these roles.  A year ago, she was finishing her B.A. in theater at a local university.  But today, after intensive training and mentoring for her role, she is responsible for the unique educational and health needs of 140 students in grades 2-3, in partnership with their teachers, their parents, medical professionals, and others who care about the same kids she works with.  On any given day, she is tutoring about 35 of those students, but over time she will tutor or otherwise interact with many more.

Ms. Wilson is hard to catch, but finally you get a word with her. “What’s the difference between what you do and what teachers do?” you ask. Ms. Wilson smiles. “My job is to try to make sure that each child’s unique needs is being met. Teachers do a great job, but there are only so many hours in the day. I try to be an extra right arm for all of the teachers in grade 2 and 3, focused on making sure all students succeed at reading.  That is the most crucial task in the early grades. It is hard for a teacher with 25 or 30 students to make sure that every struggling reader is getting tutoring or wearing their eyeglasses or taking their medicine. I can help make sure that each child gets what he or she needs to be a successful reader. That means educational needs, especially tutoring, but also glasses, hearing aids, even asthma medication. If there is anything a child needs to succeed beyond classroom teaching, that’s my job!”

Ms. Wilson does not exist, and as far as I know, few if any educators anywhere do what I am describing. If Ms. Wilson’s role did exist, combining the use of proven tutoring approaches with a structured role in maintaining children’s health and well-being, she could make an enormous difference in increasing the achievement of struggling learners, and putting them on the path to success in school and beyond.

Beyond Tutoring

Constant readers may have noticed that I’ve been writing a lot in recent blogs about tutoring: One-to-one and one-to-small group, by teachers and by paraprofessionals.  This got started because I have been working with colleagues on quantitative syntheses of research on effective programs for students struggling with elementary reading (Inns et al., 2018), secondary reading (Baye et al., in press, 2018), and elementary math (Pellegrini et al., 2018). In every case, outcomes for tutoring, including tutoring by paraprofessionals and tutoring to groups of two to six students, produced achievement outcomes far larger than anything else.  Since then, I’ve been writing about ways to enhance the cost-effectiveness and practicality of tutoring.  I even described a state-wide plan to use cost-effective tutoring to substantially reduce gaps and accelerate achievement.

I’ve also written a lot about the importance of ensuring that all students in high-poverty schools receive, wear, and maintain eyeglasses, if they need them.  We have been working in Baltimore and Chicago on plans to do this.  What we have found is that it is not enough to give children glasses.  The key is getting students to wear them every day, to take care of them, and to replace them if they are lost or broken.  All of this requires that someone keep track of who needs glasses and who is wearing them (or not). Today, only teachers can do this, because they are the only people who see every child every day. But it is not reasonable to add one more task on top of everything else teachers have to do.

What if schools recruited paraprofessionals and trained them to be responsible not only for tutoring small groups of students, but also for making sure that those who need glasses get them, wear them, and take care of them? A teacher/health mentor (THM) could work with parents to get necessary permissions to receive vision testing, for example, and support and then work with the children they tutor to make sure they have and wear glasses. They might also attend to children who have hearing aids, or have to take medications, such as asthma inhalers.  These are not medical tasks, but just require good organization skills and most importantly, good relationships with children, parents, and teachers. Medical professionals would, of course, be needed to assess students’ vision, hearing, and medical needs to prescribe treatment, but for problems with vision, hearing, or asthma, for example, the medical solutions are inexpensive and straightforward, but ensuring that the solutions actually solve the problems takes 180 days a year of monitoring and coordinating. Who better to do this than someone like Ms. Wilson, who tutors many students, knows them and their parents well, and has the dedicated time to make sure that students are using their glasses or taking their medication, if that is what they need?

Tutor/heath mentors like Ms. Wilson could take responsibility for ensuring that students’ routine medical needs are being met as part of their work in the school, especially during times (such as the beginning and end of the school day) when tutoring is impractical.

THMs could not and should not replace either teachers or school nurses. Instead, their job would be to make sure that students receive and then actually utilize educational and medical services tailored to their needs that are most critical for reading success, to make sure that teachers’ educational efforts are not undermined by an inability to meet the specific idiosyncratic needs of individual children.

A THM providing computer-assisted tutoring to groups of 4 to 6 for 40 minutes a day should be able to teach 7 groups of 28 to 42 children a day. A school of 500 students could, therefore, tutor 20% of its students (100 students) on any given day with three THMs. These staff members would still have time to check on students who need health mentoring. Knowing the educational impact of tutoring, that’s very important work on its own terms, but adding simple health mentoring tasks to ensure the effectiveness of medical services adds a crucial dimension to the tutoring role.

I’m sure a lot of details and legalities would have to be worked out, but it seems possible to make effective use of inexpensive resources to ensure the educational and visual, auditory, and other health well-being of disadvantaged students. It certainly seems worth trying!

References

Baye, A., Lake, C., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (in press). Effective reading programs for secondary students. Reading Research Quarterly.

Inns, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2018). Effective programs for struggling readers: A best-evidence synthesis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Socieity for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington, DC.

Pellegrini, M., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (2018). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington, DC.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Miss Evers’ Boys (And Girls)

Most people who have ever been involved with human subjects’ rights know about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. This was a study of untreated syphilis, in which 622 poor, African American sharecroppers, some with syphilis and some without, were evaluated over 40 years.

The study, funded and overseen by the U.S. Public Health Service, started in 1932. In 1940, researchers elsewhere discovered that penicillin cured syphilis. By 1947, penicillin was “standard of care” for syphilis, meaning that patients with syphilis received penicillin as a matter of course, anywhere in the U.S.

But not in Tuskegee. Not in 1940. Not in 1947. Not until 1972, when a whistle-blower made the press aware of what was happening. In the meantime, many of the men died of syphilis, 40 of their wives contracted the disease, and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis. The men had never even been told the nature of the study, they were not informed in 1940 or 1947 that there was now a cure, and they were not offered that cure. Leaders of the U.S. Public Health Service were well aware that there was a cure for syphilis, but for various reasons, they did not stop the study. Not in 1940, not in 1947, not even when whistle-blowers told them what was going on. They stopped it only when the press found out.

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In 1997 a movie on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was released. It was called Miss Evers’ Boys. Miss Evers (actually, Eunice Rivers) was the African-American public health nurse who was the main point of contact for the men over the whole 40 years. She deeply believed that she, and the study, were doing good for the men and their community, and she formed close relationships with them. She believed in the USPHS leadership, and thought they would never harm her “boys.”

The Tuskegee study was such a crime and scandal that it utterly changed procedures for medical research in the U.S. and most of the world. Today, participants in research with any level of risk, or their parents if they are children, must give informed consent for participation in research, and even if they are in a control group, they must receive at least “standard of care”: currently accepted, evidence-based practices.

If you’ve read my blogs, you’ll know where I’m going with this. Failure to use proven educational treatments, unlike medical ones, is rarely fatal, at least not in the short term. But otherwise, our profession carries out Tuskegee crimes all the time. It condemns failing students to ineffective programs and practices when effective ones are known. It fails to even inform parents or children, much less teachers and principals, that proven programs exist: Proven, practical, replicable solutions for the problems they face every day.

Like Miss Rivers, front-line educators care deeply about their charges. Most work very hard and give their absolute best to help all of their children to succeed. Teaching is too much hard work and too little money for anyone to do it for any reason but for the love of children.

But somewhere up the line, where the big decisions are made, where the people are who know or who should know which programs and practices are proven to work and which are not, this information just does not matter. There are exceptions, real heroes, but in general, educational leaders who believe that schools should use proven programs have to fight hard for this position. The problem is that the vast majority of educational expenditures—textbooks, software, professional development, and so on—lack even a shred of evidence. Not a scintilla. Some have evidence that they do not work. Yet advocates for those expenditures (such as sales reps and educators who like the programs) argue strenuously for programs with no evidence, and it’s just easier to go along. Whole states frequently adopt or require textbooks, software, and services of no known value in terms of improving student achievement. The ESSA evidence standards were intended to focus educators on evidence and incentivize use of proven programs, at least for the lowest-achieving 5% of schools in each state, but so far it’s been slow going.

Yet there are proven alternatives. Evidence for ESSA (www.evidenceforessa.org) lists more than 100 PK-12 reading and math programs that meet the top three ESSA evidence standards. The majority meet the top level, “Strong.” And most of the programs were researched with struggling students. Yet I am not perceiving a rush to find out about proven programs. I am hearing a lot of new interest in evidence, but my suspicion, growing every day, is that many educational leaders do not really care about the evidence, but are instead just trying to find a way to keep using the programs and providers they already have and already like, and are looking for evidence to justify keeping things as they are.

Every school has some number of struggling students. If these children are provided with the same approaches that have not worked with them or with millions like them, it is highly likely that most will fail, with all the consequences that flow from school failure: Retention. Assignment to special education. Frustration. Low expectations. Dropout. Limited futures. Poverty. Unemployment. There are 50 million children in grades PK to 12 in the U.S. This is the grinding reality for perhaps 10 to 20 million of them. Solutions are readily available, but not known or used by caring and skilled front-line educators.

In what way is this situation unlike Tuskegee in 1940?

 Photo credit: By National Archives Atlanta, GA (U.S. government) ([1], originally from National Archives) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.