Do Different Textbooks Have Different Effects on Student Achievement?

The British comedy group Monty Python used to refer to “privileged glimpses into the perfectly obvious.”

And just last week, there they were. In a front-page article, the March 13 edition of Education Week reported that a six-state study of the achievement outcomes of different textbooks found . . . wait for it. . . near-zero relative effects on achievement measures (Sawchuck, 2019).

Really!

The study was led by Harvard’s Thomas Kane, a major proponent of the Common Core, who was particularly upset to find out that textbooks produced before and after the Common Core influenced textbook content had few if any differential effects on achievement.

I doubt that I am the only person who is profoundly unsurprised by these findings. For the past 12 years, I’ve been doing reviews of research on programs’ effects on achievement in rigorous research. Textbooks (or curricula) are usually one of the categories in my reviews. You can see the reviews at www.bestevidence.org. Here is a summary of the average effect sizes for textbooks or curricula:

Review No. of Studies Mean Effect Size
Elementary Reading

(Inns et al., 2019)

9 +0.03
Elementary Math

Pellegrini et al., 2018)

16 +0.06
Secondary Math

(Slavin et al., 2009)

40 +0.03
Secondary Science

(Cheung et al., 2016)

8 +0.10
Weighted Average 73 +0.04

None of these outcomes suggest that textbooks make much difference, and the study-weighted average of +0.04 is downright depressing.

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Beyond the data, it is easy to see why evaluations of the achievement outcomes of textbooks rarely find significant positive outcomes. Such studies compare one textbook to another textbook that is usually rather similar. The reason is that textbook publishers respond to the demands of the market, not to evidence of effectiveness. New and existing textbooks were shaped by similar market forces. When standards change, as in the case of the Common Core State Standards in recent years, all textbook companies generally are forced to make changes in the same direction. There may be a brief window of time when new textbooks designed to meet new standards have a temporary advantage, but large publishers are extremely sensitive to such changes, and if they are not up to date in terms of standards today, they soon will be. Still, as the Kane et al. study found, changes in standards do not in themselves improve achievement on a substantial scale. Changes in standards do change market demand, which changes the content of textbooks, but fundamentally, the changes are not enough to make a measurable difference in learning.

Kane was quoted by Education Week as drawing the lesson from the study that perhaps it isn’t the textbooks that matter, but rather how the textbooks are used:

“What levels of coaching or more-intensive professional development are required to help teachers use rigorous materials at higher levels of fidelity, and does that produce larger benefits?” (Sawchuk, 2019, p. 17).

This sounds logical, but recent research in elementary mathematics calls this approach into question. Pellegrini et al. (2018) examined a category of programs that provide teachers with extensive professional development focused on math content and pedagogy. The average effect size across 12 studies was only +0.04, or essentially zero. In contrast, what did work very well were one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring (mean effect size = +0.29) and professional development focused on classroom management and motivation (mean effect size = +0.25). In other words, programs focusing on helping teachers use standards-based materials added little if anything to the learning impact of textbooks. What mattered, beyond tutoring, were approaches that change classroom routines and relationships, such as cooperative learning or classroom management methods.

Changing textbooks matters little, and adding extensive professional development focused on standards adds even less. Instead, strategies that engage, excite, and accommodate individual needs of students are what we find to matter a great deal, across many subjects and grade levels.

This should be a privileged glimpse into the perfectly obvious. Everyone knows that textbooks make little difference. Walk through classrooms in any school, teaching any subject at any grade level. Some classes are exciting, noisy, fully engaged places in which students are eager to learn. Others are well, teaching the textbook. In which type of class did you learn best? In which type do you hope your own children will spend their time in school, or wish they had?

What is obvious from the experience of every teacher and everyone who has ever been a student is that changing textbooks and focusing on standards do not in themselves lead to classrooms that kindle the love of learning. Imagine that you, as an accomplished adult educator, took a class in tennis, or Italian, or underwater basket weaving. Would a teacher using better textbooks and more advanced standards make you love this activity and learn from it? Or would a teacher who expresses enthusiasm for the subject and for the students, who uses methods that engage students in active social activities in every lesson, obtain better outcomes of every kind? I hope this question answers itself.

I once saw a science teacher in Baltimore teaching anatomy by having students take apart steamed crabs (a major delicacy in Baltimore). The kids were working in groups, laughing at this absurd idea, but they were learning like crazy, and learning to love science. I would submit that this experience, these connections among students, this laughter are the standards our schools need to attain. It’s not about textbooks, nor professional development on textbooks.

Another Baltimore teacher I knew taught a terrific unit on ancient Egypt. The students made their own sarcophagi, taking into the afterlife the things most important to them. Then the class went on a field trip to a local museum with a mummy exhibit, and finally, students made sarcophagi representing what Egyptians would value in the afterlife.  That’s what effective teaching is about.

The great 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus took his students on walks into forests, fields, and lakes around Uppsala University. Whatever they found, they brought back held high singing and playing conch shell trumpets in triumph.  That’s what effective teaching is about.

In England, I saw a teacher teaching graph coordinates. She gave each student’s desk a coordinate, from 1, 1 to 5, 5, and put up signs labeled North, South, East, and West on the walls. She then made herself into a robot, and the students gave her directions to get from one coordinate to another. The students were laughing, but learning. That’s what effective teaching is about.

No textbook can compete with these examples of inspired teaching. Try to remember your favorite textbook, or your least favorite. I can’t think of a single one. They were all the same. I love to read and love to learn, and I’m sure anyone reading this blog is the same. But textbooks? Did a textbook ever inspire you to want to learn more or give you enthusiasm for any subject?

This is a privileged glimpse into the perfectly obvious to which we should devote our efforts in innovation and professional development. A textbook or standard never ignited a student’s passion or curiosity. Textbooks and standards may be necessary, but they will not transform our schools. Let’s use what we already know about how learning really happens, and then make certain that every teacher knows how to do the things that make learning engage students’ hearts and emotions, not just their minds.

References

Cheung, A., Slavin, R.E., Kim, E., & Lake, C. (2016). Effective secondary science programs: A best-evidence synthesis. Journal of Research on Science Teaching, 54 (1), 58-81. Doi: 10.1002/tea.21338

Inns, A., Lake, C. Byun, S., Shi, C., & Slavin, R. E. (2019). Effective Tier 1 reading instruction for elementary schools: A systematic review. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington, D.C.

Pellegrini, M., Inns, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. E. (2018). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Sawchuk, S. (2019, March 13). New texts failed to lift test scores in six-state study. Education Week, 38(25), 1, 17.

Slavin, R.E., Lake, C., & Groff, C. (2009). Effective programs in middle and high school mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 79 (2), 839-911.

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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What Works in Teaching Writing?

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”   -Maya Angelou

It’s not hard to make an argument that creative writing is the noblest of all school subjects. To test this, try replacing the word “write” in this beautiful quotation from Maya Angelou with “read” or “compute.” Students must be proficient in reading and mathematics and other subjects, of course, but in what other subject must learners study how to reach the emotions of their readers?

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Good writing is the mark of an educated person. Perhaps especially in the age of electronic communications, we know most of the people we know largely through their writing. Job applications depend on the ability of the applicant to make themselves interesting to someone they’ve never seen. Every subject–science, history, reading, and many more–requires its own exacting types of writing.

Given the obvious importance of writing in people’s lives, you’d naturally expect that writing would occupy a central place in instruction. But you’d be wrong. Before secondary school, writing plays third fiddle to the other two of the 3Rs, reading and ‘rithmetic, and in secondary school, writing is just one among many components of English. College professors, employers, and ordinary people complain incessantly about the poor writing skills of today’s youth. The fact is that writing is not attended to as much as it should be, and the results are apparent to all.

Not surprisingly, the inadequate focus on writing in U.S. schools extends to an inadequate focus on research on this topic as well. My colleagues and I recently carried out a review of research on secondary reading programs. We found 69 studies that met rigorous inclusion criteria (Baye, Lake, Inns, & Slavin, in press). Recently, our group completed a review of secondary writing using similar inclusion standards, under funding from the Education Endowment Foundation in England (Slavin, Lake, Inns, Baye, Dachet, & Haslam, 2019). Yet we found only 14 qualifying studies, of which 11 were in secondary schools (we searched down to third grade).

To be fair, our inclusion standards were pretty tough. We required that studies compare experimental groups to randomized or matched control groups on measures independent of the experimental treatment. Tests could not have been made up by teachers or researchers, and they could not be scored by the teachers who taught the classes. Experimental and control groups had to be well-matched at pretest and have nearly equal attrition (loss of subjects over time). Studies had to have a duration of at least 12 weeks. Studies could include students with IEPs, but they could not be in self-contained, special education settings.

We divided the studies into three categories. One was studies of writing process models, in which students worked together to plan, draft, revise, and edit compositions in many genres. A very similar category was cooperative learning models, most of which also used a plan-draft-revise-edit cycle, but placed a strong emphasis on use of cooperative learning teams. A third category was programs that balanced writing with reading instruction.

Remarkably, the average effect sizes of each of the three categories were virtually identical, with a mean effect size of +0.18. There was significant variation within categories, however. In the writing process category, the interesting story concerned a widely used U.S. program, Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD), evaluated in two qualifying studies in England. In one, the program was implemented in rural West Yorkshire and had huge impacts on struggling writers, the students for whom SRSD was designed. The effect size was +0.74. However, in a much larger study in urban Leeds and Lancashire, outcomes were not so positive (ES= +0.01), although effects were largest for struggling writers. There were many studies of SRSD in the U.S, but none of them qualified, due to a lack of control group, brief experiments, measures made up by researchers, and located in all-special education classrooms.

Three programs that emphasize cooperative learning had notably positive impacts. These were Writing Wings (ES = +0.13), Student Team Writing (ES = +0.38), and Expert 21 (ES = +0.58).

Among programs emphasizing reading and writing, two had a strong focus on English learners: Pathway (ES = +0.32) and ALIAS (ES = +0.18). Another two approaches had an explicit focus on preparing students for freshman English: College Ready Writers Program (ES = +0.18) and Expository Reading and Writing Course (ES = =0.13).

Looking across all categories, there were several factors common to successful programs that stood out:

  • Cooperative Learning. Cooperative learning usually aids learning in all subjects, but it makes particular sense in writing, as a writing team gives students opportunities to give and receive feedback on their compositions, facilitating their efforts to gain insight into how their peers think about writing, and giving them a sympathetic and ready audience for their writing.
  • Writing Process. Teaching students step-by-step procedures to work with others to plan, draft, revise, and edit compositions in various genres appears to be very beneficial. The first steps focus on helping students get their ideas down on paper without worrying about mechanics, while the later stages help students progressively improve the structure, organization, grammar, and punctuation of their compositions. These steps help students reluctant to write at all to take risks at the outset, confident that they will have help from peers and teachers to progressively improve their writing.
  • Motivation and Joy in Self-Expression. In the above quote, Maya Angelou talks about the importance in writing of “sliding through the brain to get to the heart.” But to the writer, this process must work the other way, too. Good writing starts in the heart, with an urge to say something of importance. The brain shapes writing to make it readable, but writing must start with a message that the writer cares about. This principle is demonstrated most obviously in writing process and cooperative learning models, where every effort is made to motivate students to find exciting and interesting topics to share with their peers. In programs balancing reading and writing, reading is used to help students have something important to write.
  • Extensive Professional Development. Learning to teach writing well is not easy. Teachers need opportunities to learn new strategies and to apply them in their own writing. All of the successful writing programs we identified in our review provided extensive, motivating, and cooperative professional development, often designed as much to help teachers catch the spirit of writing as to follow a set of procedures.

Our review of writing research found that there is considerable consensus in how to teach writing. There were more commonalities than differences across the categories. Effects were generally positive, however, because control teachers were not using these consensus strategies, or were not doing so with the skills imparted by the professional development characteristic of all of the successful approaches.

We cannot expect writing instruction to routinely produce Maya Angelous or Mark Twains. Great writers add genius to technique. However, we can create legions of good writers, and our students will surely benefit.

References

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

Slavin, R. E., Lake, C. Inns, A., Baye, A., Dachet, D., & Haslam, J. (2019). A quantitative synthesis of research on writing approaches in Key Stage 2 and secondary schools. London: Education Endowment Foundation.

Photo credit: Kyle Tsui from Washington, DC, USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

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.

Moneyball for Education

When I was a kid, growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, everyone I knew rooted for the hapless Washington Senators, one of the worst baseball teams ever. At that time, however, the Baltimore Orioles were one of the best teams in baseball, and every once in a while a classmate would snap. He (always “he”) would decide to become an Orioles fan. This would cause him to be shamed and ostracized for the rest of his life by all true Senators fans.

I’ve now lived in Baltimore for most of my life. I wonder if I came here in part because of my youthful impression of Baltimore as a winning franchise?

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Skipping forward in time to now, I recently saw in the New York Times an article about the collapse of the Baltimore Orioles. In 2018, they had the worst record of any team in history. Worse than even the Washington Senators ever were. Why did this happen? According to the NYT, the Orioles are one of the last teams to embrace analytics, which means using evidence to decide which players to recruit or drop, to put on the field or on the bench. Some teams have analytics departments of 15. The Orioles? Zero, although they have just started one.

It’s not as though the benefits of analytics are a secret. A 2003 book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball, explained how the underfunded Oakland As used analytics to turn themselves around. A hugely popular 2011 movie told the same story.

In case anyone missed the obvious linkage of analytics in baseball to analytics in education, Results for America (RfA), a group that promotes the use of evidence in government social programs, issued a 2015 book called, you guessed it, Moneyball for Government (Nussle & Orszag, 2015). This Moneyball focused on success stories and ideas from key thinkers and practitioners in government and education. RfA was instrumental in encouraging the U.S. Congress to include in ESSA definitions of strong, moderate, and promising evidence of effectiveness, and to specify a few areas of federal funding that require or incentivize use of proven programs.

The ESSA evidence standards are a giant leap forward in supporting the use of evidence in education. Yet, like the Baltimore Orioles, the once-admired U.S. education system has been less than swept away by the idea that using proven programs and practices could improve outcomes for children. Yes, the situation is better than it was, but things are going very slowly. I’m worried that because of this, the whole evidence movement in education will someday be dismissed: “Evidence? Yeah, we tried that. Didn’t work.”

There are still good reasons for hope. The amount of high-quality evidence continues to grow at an unprecedented pace. The ESSA evidence standards have at least encouraged federal, state, and local leaders to pay some attention to evidence, though moving to action based on this evidence is a big lift.

Perhaps I’m just impatient. It took the Baltimore Orioles a book, a movie, and 16 years to arrive at the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, it was time to use evidence, as winning teams have been doing for a long time. Education is much bigger, and its survival does not depend on its success (as baseball teams do). Education will require visionary leadership to embrace the use of evidence. But I am confident that when it does, we will be overwhelmed by visits from educators from Finland, Singapore, China, and other countries that currently clobber us in international comparisons. They’ll want to know how the U.S. education system became the best in the world. Perhaps we’ll have to write a book and a movie to explain it all.  I’d suggest we call it . . . “Learnball.”

References

Nussle, J., & Orszag, P. (2015). Moneyball for Government (2nd Ed.). Washington, DC: Disruption Books.

Photo credit: Keith Allison [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

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.

On Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

When I finished college, I had an Oregon teaching certificate to teach secondary social studies. However, since the only sport I could coach was chess, I took a job teaching in a self-contained school for children with intellectual disabilities. I happened to know what I was doing, because I’d taught such children in summer jobs throughout college, but I had a strong feeling that my teaching certificate, plus the ability to fog a mirror, was all my school required.

In mid-year, however, my school moved all of its children into local elementary schools. I refused to go. I had the lowest-functioning kids, and I had to change diapers. The school I was slated to go to could only offer the boys’ bathroom, whose only source of water was a fountain in the middle that gave out an unenthusiastic mist.

My principal agreed, so I was left with the only class still operating in my original school. The school phone was put in my classroom.

Answering the school phone gave me an unexpected insight into one aspect of schooling I had not known about. Every day, people would call to offer to donate things to the school. Things like used shoes or clothing, or old toys. Once someone offered fresh flowers. I accepted these, thinking they might be nice. But when hundreds of lilies appeared (they turned out to be from a funeral), my kids immediately pounced on them and started eating them.

In addition to useless stuff, I had regular visits from people sent by our county, such as an occupational therapist and a physical therapist. These were all very nice people, but I just met with them an hour or two each month only to discover, each time, that there was nothing they could do for my kids.

Skip forward many years, and I’m still astounded by how much of the time of principals is taken up nurse-maiding well-meaning people who want to help disadvantaged children. Recently, I heard from some Maryland principals that the State Department of Education sent them dozens of coaches and experts of all sorts. They were not there enough to provide any useful services, but each visit required valuable time from the principal or other staff. Further, they said these coaches never had the remotest idea what the other coaches were doing, and rarely if ever coordinated with them, so redundant or contradictory services were offered.

I remember being in a school in Memphis where a local men’s service club had some of its members reading to kids. These men were very nice, and the kids and teachers were glad to see them. But their presence in the building tied up the principal and much other staff just helping the men find classrooms and materials. Our staff were in the building to discuss specific, proven strategies for helping students learn to read, but this activity was greatly disrupted by these well-meaning men.

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Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing.

The well-meaning chaos I’ve observed many times speaks volumes about one of the structural reasons that schools for disadvantaged students have so much trouble making progress. Such schools are in communities that care deeply about them and want to help. Some of this help is helpful, but much of it interferes with the school’s core mission, which is to ensure that all children are succeeding in all academic subjects, especially reading and math.

In schools serving disadvantaged students, the mission is not just a way to improve school test scores. Success in reading and math is a survival skill for students whose only way out of poverty may be success in school. Principals should have the right, indeed the mandate, to decide (with their staff) which external services support their core mission, and which are unlikely to do so in any meaningful way. External services that provide frequent, targeted, reliable assistance that is well-aligned with the school’s efforts to advance its core mission, such as volunteer tutors who commit to substantial time working with children using methods and materials closely aligned with the school’s curriculum, can be a godsend. Occasional tutors who are unlikely to show up on all scheduled days or are unable or unwilling to use proven methods aligned with the school’s needs? Not so much.

Knowing when to encourage and even solicit help and when not to do so is an important part of school leadership. Principals and their staffs need to have clear goals and plans for how to achieve them. That has to be job one for the whole staff. External assistance that helps schools achieve their goals is great. And assistance to help achieve other valued goals, such as after school art or music or theater programs, may be fine if it does not interfere with job one. But external assistance that takes time and adds complexity? Maybe later.

Every superintendent, principal, and school staff has to have a laser focus on the core mission of their school. They have only so many hours in the day to accomplish this core mission. The government and private entities who support schools have to learn that schools must focus their energies on the main thing, academic achievement, and then help school staff to accomplish this goal if they can, and help schools keep the main thing the main thing.

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.