“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood, and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram, once recorded, will never die…”
-Daniel Burnham, American architect, 1910
More than 100 years ago, architect Daniel Burnham expressed an important insight. “Make no little plans,” he said. Many people have said that, one way or another. But Burnham’s insight was that big plans matter because they “have magic to stir men’s blood.” Small plans do not, and for this reason may never even be implemented. Burnham believed that even if big plans fail, they have influence into the future, as little plans do not.
In education, we sometimes have big plans. Examples include comprehensive school reform in the 1990s, charter schools in the 2000s, and evidence-based reform today. None of these have yet produced revolutionary positive outcomes, but all of them have captured the public imagination. Even if you are not an advocate of any of these, you cannot ignore them, as they take on a life of their own. When conditions are right, they will return many times, in many forms, and may eventually lead to substantial impacts. In medicine, it was demonstrated in the mid-1800s that germs caused disease and that medicine could advance through rigorous experimentation (think Lister and Pasteur, for example). Yet sterile procedures in operations and disciplined research on practical treatments took 100 years to prevail. The medical profession resisted sterile procedures and evidence-based medicine for many years. Sterile procedures and evidence-based medicine were big ideas. It took a long time for them to take hold, but they did prevail, and remained big ideas through all that time.
Big Plans in Education
In education, as in medicine long ago, we have thousands of important problems, and good work continues (and needs to continue) on most of them. However, at least in American education, there is one crucial problem that dwarfs all others and lends itself to truly big plans. This is the achievement gap between students from middle class backgrounds and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. As noted in my April 25 blog, the achievement gap between students who qualify for free lunch and those who do not, between African American and White students, and between Hispanic students and non-Hispanic White students, all average an effect size of about 0.50. This presents a serious challenge. However, as I pointed out in that blog, there are several programs in existence today capable of adding an effect size of +0.50 to the reading or math achievement of students at risk. All programs that can do this involve one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring. Tutoring is expensive, but recent research has found that well-trained and well-supervised tutors with BAs, but not necessarily teaching certificates, can obtain the same outcomes as certified teachers do, at half the cost. Using our own Success for All program with six tutors per school (K-5), high-poverty African American elementary schools in Baltimore obtained effect sizes averaging +0.50 for all students and +0.75 for students in the lowest 25% of their grades (Madden et al., 1993). A follow-up to eighth grade found that achievement outcomes maintained and both retentions and special education placements were cut in half (Borman & Hewes, 2003). We have not had the opportunity to once again implement Success for All with so much tutoring included, but even with fewer tutors, Success for All has had substantial impacts. Cheung et al. (2019) found an average effect size of +0.27 across 28 randomized and matched studies, a more than respectable outcome for a whole-school intervention. For the lowest-achieving students, the average was +0.56.
Knowing that Success for All can achieve these outcomes is important in itself, but it is also an indication that substantial positive effects can be achieved for whole schools, and with sufficient tutors, can equal the entire achievement gaps according to socio-economic status and race. If one program can do this, why not many others?
Imagine that the federal government or other large funders decided to support the development and evaluation of several different ideas. Funders might establish a goal of increasing reading achievement by an effect size of +0.50, or as close as possible to this level, working with high-poverty schools. Funders would seek organizations that have already demonstrated success at an impressive level, but not yet +0.50, who could describe a compelling strategy to increase their impact to +0.50 or more. Depending on the programs’ accomplishments and needs, they might be funded to experiment with enhancements to their promising model. For example, they might add staff, add time (e.g., continue for multiple years), or add additional program components likely to strengthen the overall model. Once programs could demonstrate substantial outcomes in pilots, they might be funded to do a cluster randomized trial. If this experiment shows positive effects approaching +0.50 or more, the developers might receive funding for scale-up. If the outcomes are substantially positive but significantly less than +0.50, the funders might decide to help the developers make changes leading up to a second randomized experiment.
There are many details to be worked out, but the core idea could capture the imagination and energy of educators and public-spirited citizens alike. This time, we are not looking for marginal changes that can be implemented cheaply. This time, we will not quit until we have many proven, replicable programs, each of which is so powerful that it can, over a period of years, remedy the entire achievement gap. This time, we are not making changes in policy or governance and hoping for the best. This time, we are going directly to the schools where the disadvantaged kids are, and we are not declaring victory until we can guarantee such students gains that will give them the same outcomes as those of the middle class kids in the suburbs.
Perhaps the biggest idea of all is the idea that we need big ideas with big outcomes!
Anyway, this is my big plan. What’s yours?
Note: Just as I was starting on this blog, I got an email from Ulrich Boser at the Center for American Progress. CAP and the Thomas Fordham Foundation are jointly sponsoring an “Education Moonshot,” including a competition with a grand prize of $10,000 for a “moonshot idea that will revolutionize schooling and dramatically improve student outcomes.” For more on this, please visit the announcement site. Submissions are due August 1st at this online portal and involve telling them in 500 words your, well, big plan.
Borman, G., & Hewes, G. (2003). Long-term effects and cost effectiveness of Success for All. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24 (2), 243-266.
Cheung, A., Xie, C., Zhuang, T., & Slavin, R. E. (2019). Success for All: A quantitative synthesis of evaluations. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Madden, N.A., Slavin, R.E., Karweit, N.L., Dolan, L.J., & Wasik, B.A. (1993). Success for All: Longitudinal effects of a restructuring program for inner-city elementary schools. American Educational Research Journal, 30, 123-148.
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.