Don’t Just Do Something. Do Something Effective.

I recently visited York, England, where my wife and I worked part-time for about 8 years. York is world famous for its huge cathedral, intact medieval walls, medieval churches, and other medieval sights. But on this trip we had some time for local touring, and chose to visit a more modern place, but one far ghastlier than a ton of dungeons.

The place is the York Cold War Bunker. Built in 1961 and operated to 1991, it was intended to monitor the results of a nuclear attack on Britain. Volunteers, mostly women, were trained to detect the locations, sizes, and radiation levels of nuclear bombs dropped on Britain. This was a command bunker that collected its own data, with a staff of 60, but also monitored dozens of three-man bunkers all over the North of England, all collecting similar data. The idea was that a national network of these bunkers would determine where in the country it was safe to go after a nuclear war. The bunker had air, water, and food for 30 days, after which the volunteers had to leave. And most likely die of radiation poisoning.

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The very interesting docent informed us of one astounding fact. When the bunker network was planned in 1957, the largest nuclear weapons were like those used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, less than one megaton in yield. By 1961, when the bunkers started operation, the largest bombs were 50-megaton behemoths.

The day the Soviet Union successfully tested its 50-megaton bomb, the bunkers were instantly obsolete. Not only would a single bomb create fatal levels of radiation all over Britain, but it would also likely destroy the telephone and radio systems on which the bunkers depended.

Yet for 30 years, this utterly useless system was maintained, with extensive training, monitoring, and support.

There must have been thousands of military leaders, politicians, scientists, and ordinary readers of Popular Science, who knew full well that the bunkers were useless from the day they opened. The existence of the bunkers was not a secret, and in fact it was publicized. Why were they maintained? And what does this have to do with educational research?

The Cold War Bunkers illustrate an aspect of human nature that is important in understanding all sorts of behavior. When a catastrophe is impending, people find it comforting to do something, even if that something is known (by some at least) to be useless or even counterproductive. The British government could simply not say to its citizens that in case of a nuclear war, everyone was toast. Full stop. Instead, they had to offer hope, however slim. Around the same time the (doomed) bunkers were going into operation in Britain, my entire generation of students was learning to crawl under our desks for protection in case of nuclear attack. I suppose it made some people think that, well, at least something was being done. It scared the bejabbers out of us kids, but no one asked us.

In education, we face many very difficult, often terrifying problems. Every one of them has one or more widespread solutions. But do these solutions work?

Consider DARE, for Drug Awareness and Resistance Education, a well-researched example of what might be called “do-something-itis.” Research on DARE has never found positive effects on drug or alcohol abuse, and sometimes finds negative effects. In the case of DARE, there are many alternative drug and alcohol prevention programs that have been proven effective. Yet DARE continues, giving concerned educators and parents a comforting sense that something is being done to prevent drug and alcohol abuse among their teenagers.

Another good example of “do-something-itis” is benchmark assessments, where students take brief versions of their state tests 4-5 times a year, to give teachers and principals early warnings about areas in which students might be lagging or need additional, targeted assistance. This sounds like a simple, obvious strategy to improve test scores. However, in our reviews of research on studies of elementary and secondary reading and elementary mathematics, the effects of using benchmark assessments average an effect size close to 0.00. Yet I’m sure that schools will still be using benchmark assessments for many years, because with all the importance placed on state tests, educators will always feel better doing something focused on the problem. Of course, they should do something, actually quite a lot, but why not use “somethings” proven to work instead of benchmark assessments proven not to work?

In education, there are many very serious problems, and, in response, each one is given a solution that seems to address it. Often, the solutions are unresearched, or researched and found to be ineffective. A unifying attribute of these solutions is that they are simple and easy to understand, so most people are satisfied that at least something is being done. One example is the many states that threaten to retain third graders if they are not reading adequately (typically, at “proficient” levels on state tests) to address the serious gaps in literacy in the high school. Yet in most states, the programs used to improve student reading in grades K-3 are not proven to be effective. Often, the solution provided is a single reading teacher to provide one-to-one tutoring to students in K-3. One-to-one tutoring is very effective for the students who get it, but an average U.S. school has 280 students in grades K-3, about half of whom (on average) are unlikely to score proficient at third grade. Obviously, one tutor working one-to-one cannot do much for 140 students. Again, there are effective and cost-effective alternatives, such as proven one-to-small group tutoring by teaching assistants, but few states or schools use proven strategies of this kind.

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. School systems can be seen as a huge network of dedicated people working very hard to accomplish crucial goals. Sort of like Cold War Bunkers. Yet many of their resources, talents, and efforts are underutilized, because most school systems insist on using programs and practices that appear to be doing something to prevent or solve major problems, but that have not been proven to do so.

It is time for our field to begin to focus the efforts and abilities of its talented, hard-working teachers and principals on solutions that are not just doing something, but are doing something effective. Every year, research identifies more and more effective programs known to work from rigorous experiments. This research progressively undermines the argument that doing something is at least better than doing nothing in the face of serious problems. In most areas of education, doing nothing is not the relevant option. If we do know how to solve these problems, then the alternative to doing something (of unknown value) is not doing nothing. Instead, the cure for do-something-itis is doing something that works.

Photo credit: Nilfanion [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

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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