Why Not the Best?

In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the first practical lightbulb. The main problem he faced was in finding a filament that would glow, but not burn out too quickly. To find it, he tried more than 6000 different substances that had some promise as filaments. The one he found was carbonized cotton, which worked far better than all the others (tungsten, which we use now, came much later).

Of course, the incandescent light changed the world. It replaced far more expensive gas lighting systems, and was much more versatile. The lightbulb captured the evening and nighttime hours for every kind of human activity.

blog_9-19-19_lightbulb_500x347Yet if the lightbulb had been an educational innovation, it probably would have been proclaimed a dismal failure. Skeptics would have noted that only one out of six thousand filaments worked. Meta-analysts would have averaged the effect sizes for all 6000 experiments and concluded that the average effect size across the 6000 filaments was only +0.000000001. Hardly worthwhile. If Edison’s experiments were funded by government, politicians would have complained that 5,999 of Edison’s filaments were a total waste of taxpayers’ money. Economists would have computed benefit-cost ratios and concluded that even if Edison’s light worked, the cost of making the first one was astronomical, not to mention the untold cost of setting up electrical generation and wiring systems.

This is all ridiculous, you must be saying. But in the world of evidence-based education, comparable things happen all the time. In 2003, Borman et al. did a meta-analysis of 300 studies of 29 comprehensive (whole-school) reform designs. They identified three as having solid evidence of effectiveness. Rather than celebrating and disseminating those three (and continuing research and development to identify more of them), the U.S. Congress ended its funding for dissemination of comprehensive school reform programs. Turn out the light before you leave, Mr. Edison!

Another common practice in education is to do meta-analyses averaging outcomes across an entire category of programs or policies, and ignoring the fact that some distinctively different and far more effective programs are swallowed up in the averages. A good example is charter schools. Large-scale meta-analyses by Stanford’s CREDO (2013) found that the average effect sizes for charter schools are effectively zero. A 2015 analysis found better, but still very small effect sizes in urban districts (ES = +0.04 in reading, +0.05 in math). The What Works Clearinghouse published a 2010 review that found slight negative effects of middle school charters. These findings are useful in disabusing us of the idea that charter schools are magic, and get positive outcomes just because they are charter schools. However, they do nothing to tell us about extraordinary charter schools using methods that other schools (perhaps including non-charters) could also use. There is more positive evidence relating to “no-excuses” schools, such as KIPP and Success Academies, but among the thousands of charters that now exist, is this the only type of charter worth replicating? There must be some bright lights among all these bulbs.

As a third example, there are now many tutoring programs used in elementary reading and math with struggling learners. The average effect sizes for all forms of tutoring average about +0.30, in both reading and math. But there are reading tutoring approaches with effect sizes of +0.50 or more. If these programs are readily available, why would schools adopt programs less effective than the best? The average is useful for research purposes, and there are always considerations of costs and availability, but I would think any school would want to ignore the average for all types of programs and look into the ones that can do the most for their kids, at a reasonable cost.

I’ve often heard teachers and principals point out that “parents send us the best kids they have.” Yes they do, and for this reason it is our responsibility as educators to give those kids the best programs we can. We often describe educating students as enlightening them, or lifting the lamp of learning, or fiat lux. Perhaps the best way to fiat a little more lux is to take a page from Edison, the great luxmeister: Experiment tirelessly until we find what works. Then use the best we have.

Reference

Borman, G.D., Hewes, G. M., Overman, L.T., & Brown, S. (2003). Comprehensive school reform and achievement: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 73(2), 125-230.

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 Kinds of Teacher Knowledge Matter Most?

James Herriott was a veterinarian who wrote very popular books about his experiences in a small town in Yorkshire, England. In his first book he described his veterinary education at the University of Edinburgh, in the 1930s. One day, he came out of class and saw an old, sway-backed horse hitched to a cart. Proud of all he was learning in his program, he decided to check out the horse. He located all of its major muscle groups, identified some old injuries, and thought what he might recommend if he were the horse’s vet. In the midst of his happy explorations and daydreaming, however, the horse unexpectedly whipped around and grabbed him by the shoulder, hoisting him two feet off the ground. Herriott was completely helpless, flailing around ineffectually to try to get free. He was also mortified by this comical predicament, which drew a crowd. Finally, the horse’s owner came running up, cursed out Herriott for disturbing his horse, and finally commanded the horse to put him down, which he did.

James Herriott learned an important lesson that day. There is a big difference between knowing things and knowing how to do things. Herriott could know absolutely everything about every aspect of equine anatomy and function. But none of this was of much help unless he also know how to manage horses in real life, not in books.

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I was reminded of this story when I read an article in Education Week about a recent report, “What Teachers Know About the Science of Learning,” by my friend Ulrich Boser of The Learning Agency. The main point of the report was that teachers believe in a lot of long-debunked ideas, such as the concept that there are “left brain” (e.g., good at math) and “right brain” (e.g., good at art) learners. The report focused on a survey of 200 educators about these and other mistaken but widely held ideas.

If you want to be appalled, there was plenty in the report that was appalling. 77% of educators believed that “right brained” and “left brained” people exist, and that they learn differently. A whopping 97% believe that students can be categorized by their learning styles (e.g., auditory, visual, and kinesthetic), which has been soundly debunked for decades.

Because of these kinds of misconceptions, a substantial enterprise has grown up around debunking them. In many universities, it is possible to take a whole course in “neuromyths.” However, I have to admit, I have trouble getting too excited. For teachers, I wonder how much it really matters whether or not they believe in right/left brain or learning styles. Every teacher is aware of the fact that students learn differently, and have various learning strengths and difficulties. As long as teachers believe that these learning differences in no way limit student learning, then how much does it matter if they believe in right- or left-brained people? As long as teachers do not try to match their instruction with students’ supposed “learning styles,” who cares if they think learning styles exist? Whether or not you believe in learning styles, it is surely beneficial to teach using visual, auditory, and tactile methods, to all students, whatever their supposed learning styles.

Imagine for a moment that every teacher disavowed every neuromyth, and learned how brains truly functioned. Learning the truth is always a good thing. But would their students actually learn more?

What really matters is what teachers do. Give me a teacher who knows how to make content exciting and comprehensible, one who knows how to manage diverse classrooms so that students are eager to learn, self-motivated, productive, and able to work effectively with peers. Give me a teacher who models curiosity, kindness, and flexibility, one who accepts and builds on student errors, one who helps all students believe in themselves and their potential, whatever their backgrounds. If a teacher can do all of these things, do we really care if they think there are learning styles? All of the attributes of this ideal teacher can be taught, practiced, observed, and learned by ordinary teachers. Given a fixed amount of time and money to provide professional development and coaching, should we be worrying about the language teachers use to describe student diversity, or should we be working to enable teachers to use proven approaches to enhance their effectiveness?

What James Herriott learned hanging from the jaws of a draft horse is that he wished that in addition to all his science courses, someone had thought it worthwhile to teach him how to manage horse behavior. Children are a lot more forgiving than draft horses, but to succeed with them, teachers must know how to create effective environments for children and respond to their behavior in productive ways. Learning this takes outstanding, ongoing professional development and a whole career of practice. Do we truly have time for neuromyths, or even for their correction?

Reference

Boser, U. (2019). What do teachers know about the science of learning? Retrieved September 9, 2019 from https://www.the-learning-agency.com/insights/what-do-teachers-know-about-the-science-of-learning

Picture by Henry Walter, 1822 via Wellcome Library [CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/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.

The Gap

Recently, Maryland released its 2019 state PARCC scores.  I read an article about the scores in the Baltimore Sun.  The pattern of scores was the same as usual, some up, some down. Baltimore City was in last place, as usual.  The Sun helpfully noted that this was probably due to high levels of poverty in Baltimore.  Then the article noted that there was a serious statewide gap between African American and White students, followed by the usual shocked but resolute statements about closing the gap from local superintendents.

Some of the superintendents said that in order to combat the gap, they were going to take a careful look at the curriculum.  There is nothing wrong with looking at curriculum.  All students should receive the best curriculum we can provide them.  However, as a means of reducing the gap, changing the curriculum is not likely to make much difference.

First, there is plentiful evidence from rigorous studies showing that changing from one curriculum to another, or one textbook to another, or one set of standards to another, makes little difference in student achievement.  Some curricula have more interesting or up to date content than others. Some meet currently popular standards better than others. But actual meaningful increases in achievement compared to a control group using the old curriculum?  This hardly ever happens. We once examined all of the textbooks rated “green” (the top ranking on EdReports, which reviews textbooks for alignment with college- and career-ready standards). Out of dozens of reading and math texts with this top rating,  two had small positive impacts on learning, compared to control groups.  In contrast, we have found more than 100 reading and math programs that are not textbooks or curricula that have been found to significantly increase student achievement more than control groups using current methods (see www.evidenceforessa.org).

But remember that at the moment, I am talking about reducing gaps, not increasing achievement overall.  I am unaware of any curriculum, textbook, or set of standards that is proven to reduce gaps. Why should they?  By definition, a curriculum or set of standards is for all students.  In the rare cases when a curriculum does improve achievement overall, there is little reason to expect it to increase performance for one  specific group or another.

The way to actually reduce gaps is to provide something extremely effective for struggling students. For example, the Sun article on the PARCC scores highlighted Lakeland Elementary/Middle, a Baltimore City school that gained 20 points on PARCC since 2015. How did they do it? The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) sent groups of undergraduate education majors to Lakeland to provide tutoring and mentoring.  The Lakeland kids were very excited, and apparently learned a lot. I can’t provide rigorous evidence for the UMBC program, but there is quite a lot of evidence for similar programs, in which capable and motivated tutors without teaching certificates work with small groups of students in reading or math.

Tutoring programs and other initiatives that focus on the specific kids who are struggling have an obvious link to reducing gaps, because they go straight to where the problem is rather than doing something less targeted and less intensive.

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Serious gap-reduction approaches can be used with any curriculum or set of standards. Districts focused on standards-based reform may also provide tutoring or other proven gap-reduction approaches along with new textbooks to students who need them.  The combination can be powerful. But the tutoring would most likely have worked with the old curriculum, too.

If all struggling students received programs effective enough to bring all of them to current national averages, the U.S. would be the highest-performing national school system in the world.  Social problems due to inequality, frustration, and inadequate skills would disappear. Schools would be happier places for kids and teachers alike.

The gap is a problem we can solve, if we decide to do so.  Given the stakes involved for our economy, society, and future, how could we not?

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.