Replication

The holy grail of science is replication. If a finding cannot be repeated, then it did not happen in the first place. There is a reason that the humor journal in the hard sciences is called the Journal of Irreproducible Results. For scientists, results that are irreproducible are inherently laughable, therefore funny. In many hard science experiments, replication is pretty much guaranteed. If you heat an iron bar, it gets longer. If you cross parents with the same recessive gene, one quarter of their progeny will express the recessive trait (think blue eyes).

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In educational research, we care about replication just as much as our colleagues in the lab coats across campus. However, when we’re talking about evaluating instructional programs and practices, replication is a lot harder, because students and schools differ. Positive outcomes obtained in one experiment may or may not replicate in a second trial. Sometimes this is true because the first experiment had features known to contribute to bias: small sample sizes, brief study durations, extraordinary amounts of resources or expert time to help the experimental schools or classes, use of measures made by the developers or researchers or otherwise overaligned with the experimental group (but not the control group), or use of matched rather than randomized assignment to conditions, can all contribute to successful-appearing outcomes in a first experiment. Second or third experiments are more likely to be larger, longer, and more stringent than the first study, and therefore may not replicate. Even when the first study has none of these problems, it may not replicate because of differences in the samples of schools, teachers, or students, or for other, perhaps unknowable problems. A change in the conditions of education may cause a failure to replicate. Our Success for All whole-school reform model has been found to be effective many times, mostly by third party evaluators. However, Success for All has always specified a full-time facilitator and at least one tutor for each school. An MDRC i3 evaluation happened to fall in the middle of the recession, and schools, which were struggling to afford classroom teachers, could not afford facilitators or tutors. The results were still positive on some measures, especially for low achievers, but the effect sizes were less than half of what others had found in many studies. Stuff happens.

Replication has taken on more importance recently because the ESSA evidence standards only require a single positive study. To meet the strong, moderate, or promising standards, programs must have at least one “well-designed and well-implemented” study using randomized (strong), matched (moderate), or correlational (promising) designs and finding significantly positive outcomes. Based on the “well-designed and well-implemented” language, our Evidence for ESSA website requires features of experiments similar to those also required by the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). These requirements make it difficult to be approved, but they remove many of the experimental design features that typically cause first studies to greatly overstate program impacts: small size, brief durations, overinvolved experimenters, and developer-made measures. They put (less rigorous) matched and correlational studies in lower categories. So one study that meets ESSA or Evidence for ESSA requirements is at least likely to be a very good study. But many researchers have expressed discomfort with the idea that a single study could qualify a program for one of the top ESSA categories, especially if (as sometimes happens) there is one study with a positive outcomes and many with zero or at least nonsignificant outcomes.

The pragmatic problem is that if ESSA had required even two studies showing positive outcomes, this would wipe out a very large proportion of current programs. If research continues to identify effective programs, it should only be a matter of time before ESSA (or its successors) requires more than one study with a positive outcomes.

However, in the current circumstance, there is a way researchers and educators might at least estimate the replicability of given programs when they have only a single study with a significant positive outcomes. This would involve looking at the findings for entire genres of programs. The logic here is that if a program has only one ESSA-qualifying study, but it closely resembles other programs that also have positive outcomes, that program should be taken a lot more seriously than a program that obtained a positive outcome that differs considerably from outcomes of very similar programs.

As one example, there is much evidence from many studies by many researchers indicating positive effects of one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring, in reading and mathematics. If a tutoring program has only one study, but this one study has significant positive findings, I’d say thumbs up. I’d say the same about cooperative learning approaches, classroom management strategies using behavioral principles, and many others, where a whole category of programs has had positive outcomes.

In contrast, if a program has a single positive outcome and there are few if any similar approaches that obtained positive outcomes, I’d be much more cautious. An example might be textbooks in mathematics, which rarely make any difference because control groups are also likely to be using textbooks, and textbooks considerably resemble each other. In our recent elementary mathematics review (Pellegrini, Lake, Inns, & Slavin, 2018), only one textbook program available in the U.S. had positive outcomes (out of 16 studies). As another example, there have been several large randomized evaluations of the use of interim assessments. Only one of them found positive outcomes. I’d be very cautious about putting much faith in benchmark assessments based on this single anomalous finding.

Looking for findings from similar studies is facilitated by looking at reviews we make available at www.bestevidence.org. These consist of reviews of research organized by categories of programs. Looking for findings from similar programs won’t help with the ESSA law, which often determines its ratings based on the findings of a single study, regardless of other findings on the same program or similar programs. However, for educators and researchers who really want to find out what works, I think checking similar programs is not quite as good as finding direct replication of positive findings on the same programs, but perhaps, as we like to say, close enough for social science.

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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