On Reviews of Research in Education

Not so long ago, every middle class home had at least one encyclopedia. Encyclopedias were prominently displayed, a statement to all that this was a house that valued learning. People consulted the encyclopedia to find out about things of interest to them. Those who did not own encyclopedias found them in the local library, where they were heavily used. As a kid, I loved everything about encyclopedias. I loved to read them, but also loved their musty small, their weight, and their beautiful maps and photos.

There were two important advantages of an encyclopedia. First, it was encyclopedic, so users could be reasonably certain that whatever information they wanted was in there somewhere. Second, they were authoritative. Whatever it said in the encyclopedia was likely to be true, or at least carefully vetted by experts.

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In educational research, and all scientific fields, we have our own kinds of encyclopedias. One consists of articles in journals that publish reviews of research. In our field, the Review of Educational Research plays a pre-eminent role in this, but there are many others. Reviews are hugely popular. Invariably, review journals have a much higher citation count than even the most esteemed journals focusing on empirical research. In addition to journals, reviews appear I edited volumes, in online compendia, in technical reports, and other sources. At Johns Hopkins, we produce a bi-weekly newsletter, Best Evidence in Brief (BEiB; https://beibindex.wordpress.com/) that summarizes recent research in education. Two years ago we looked at analytics to find out the favorite articles from BEiB. Although BEiB mostly summarizes individual studies, almost all of its favorite articles were summaries of the findings of recent reviews.

Over time, RER and other review journals become “encyclopedias” of a sort.  However, they are not encyclopedic. No journal tries to ensure that key topics will all be covered over time. Instead, journal reviewers and editors evaluate each review sent to them on its own merits. I’m not criticizing this, but it is the way the system works.

Are reviews in journals authoritative? They are in one sense, because reviews accepted for publication have been carefully evaluated by distinguished experts on the topic at hand. However, review methods vary widely and reviews are written for many purposes. Some are written primarily for theory development, and some are really just essays with citations. In contrast, one category of reviews, meta-analyses, go to great lengths to locate and systematically include all relevant citations. These are not pure types, and most meta-analyses have at least some focus on theory building and discussion of current policy or research issues, even if their main purpose is to systematically review a well-defined set of studies.

Given the state of the art of research reviews in education, how could we create an “encyclopedia” of evidence from all sources on the effectiveness of programs and practices designed to improve student outcomes? The goal of such an activity would be to provide readers with something both encyclopedic and authoritative.

My colleagues and I created two websites that are intended to serve as a sort of encyclopedia of PK-12 instructional programs. The Best Evidence Encyclopedia (BEE; www.bestevidence.org) consists of meta-analyses written by our staff and students, all of which use similar inclusion criteria and review methods. These are used by a wide variety of readers, especially but not only researchers. The BEE has meta-analyses on elementary and secondary reading, reading for struggling readers, writing programs, programs for English learners, elementary and secondary mathematics, elementary and secondary science, early childhood programs, and other topics, so at least as far as achievement outcomes are concerned, it is reasonably encyclopedic. Our second website is Evidence for ESSA, designed more for educators. It seeks to include every program currently in existence, and therefore is truly encyclopedic in reading and mathematics. Sections on social emotional learning, attendance, and science are in progress.

Are the BEE and Evidence for ESSA authoritative as well as encyclopedic? You’ll have to judge for yourself. One important indicator of authoritativeness for the BEE is that all of the meta-analyses are eventually published, so the reviewers for those journals could be considered to be lending authority.

The What Works Clearinghouse (https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/) could be considered authoritative, as it is a carefully monitored online publication of the U.S. Department of Education. But is it encyclopedic? Probably not, for two reasons. One is that the WWC has difficulty keeping up with new research. Secondly, the WWC does not list programs that do not have any studies that meet its standards. As a result of both of these, a reader who types in the name of a current program may find nothing at all on it. Is this because the program did not meet WWC standards, or because the WWC has not yet reviewed it? There is no way to tell. Still, the WWC makes important contributions in the areas it has reviewed.

Beyond the websites focused on achievement, the most encyclopedic and authoritative source is Blueprints (www.blueprintsprograms.org). Blueprints focuses on drug and alcohol abuse, violence, bullying, social emotional learning, and other topics not extensively covered in other review sources.

In order to provide readers with easy access to all of the reviews meeting a specified level of quality on a given topic, it would be useful to have a source that briefly describes various reviews, regardless of where they appear. For example, a reader might want to know about all of the meta-analyses that focus on elementary mathematics, or dropout prevention, or attendance. These would include review articles published in scientific journals, technical reports, websites, edited volumes, and so on. To be cited in detail, the reviews should have to meet agreed-upon criteria, including a restriction to experimental-control comparison, a broad and well-documented search for eligible studies, documented efforts to include all studies (published or unpublished) that fall within well-specified parameters (e.g., subjects, grade levels, and start and end dates of studies included). Reviews that meet these standards might be highlighted, though others, including less systematic reviews, should be listed as well, as supplementary resources.

Creating such a virtual encyclopedia would be a difficult but straightforward task. At the end, the collection of rigorous reviews would offer readers encyclopedic, authoritative information on the topics of their interest, as well as providing something more important that no paper encyclopedias ever included: contrasting viewpoints from well-informed experts on each topic.

My imagined encyclopedia wouldn’t have the hypnotic musty smell, the impressive heft, or the beautiful maps and photos of the old paper encyclopedias. However, it would give readers access to up-to-date, curated, authoritative, quantitative reviews of key topics in education, with readable and appealing summaries of what was concluded in qualifying reviews.

Also, did I mention that unlike the encyclopedias of old, it would have to be free?

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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Do School Districts Really Have Difficulty Meeting ESSA Evidence Standards?

The Center for Educational Policy recently released a report on how school districts are responding to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requirement that schools seeking school improvement grants select programs that meet ESSA’s strong, moderate, or promising standards of evidence. Education Week ran a story on the CEP report.

The report noted that many states, districts, and schools are taking the evidence requirements seriously, and are looking at websites and consulting with researchers to help them identify programs that meet the standards. This is all to the good.

However, the report also notes continuing problems districts and schools are having finding out “what works.” Two particular problems were cited. One was that districts and schools were not equipped to review research to find out what works. The other was that rural districts and schools found few programs proven effective in rural schools.

I find these concerns astounding. The same concerns were expressed when ESSA was first passed, in 2015. But that was almost four years ago. Since 2015, the What Works Clearinghouse has added information to help schools identify programs that meet the top two ESSA evidence categories, strong and moderate. Our own Evidence for ESSA, launched in February, 2017, has up-to-date information on virtually all PK-12 reading and math programs currently in dissemination. Among hundreds of programs examined, 113 meet ESSA standards for strong, moderate, or promising evidence of effectiveness. WWC, Evidence for ESSA, and other sources are available online at no cost. The contents of the entire Evidence for ESSA website were imported into Ohio’s own website on this topic, and dozens of states, perhaps all of them, have informed their districts and schools about these sources.

The idea that districts and schools could not find information on proven programs if they wanted to do so is difficult to believe, especially among schools eligible for school improvement grants. Such schools, and the districts in which they are located, write a lot of grant proposals for federal and state funding. The application forms for school improvement grants always explain the evidence requirements, because that is the law. Someone in every state involved with federal funding knows about the WWC and Evidence for ESSA websites. More than 90,000 unique users have used Evidence for ESSA, and more than 800 more sign on each week.

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As to rural schools, it is true that many studies of educational programs have taken place in urban areas. However, 47 of the 113 programs qualified by Evidence for ESSA were validated in at least one rural study, or a study including a large enough rural sample to enable researchers to separately report program impacts for rural students. Also, almost all widely disseminated programs have been used in many rural schools. So rural districts and schools that care about evidence can find programs that have been evaluated in rural locations, or at least that were evaluated in urban or suburban schools but widely disseminated in rural schools.

Also, it is important to note that if a program was successfully evaluated only in urban or suburban schools, the program still meets the ESSA evidence standards. If no studies of a given outcome were done in rural locations, a rural school in need of better outcomes could, in effect, be asked to choose between a program proven to work somewhere and probably used in dissemination in rural schools, or they could choose a program not proven to work anywhere. Every school and district has to make the best choices for their kids, but if I were a rural superintendent or principal, I’d read up on proven programs, and then go visit some rural schools using that program nearby. Wouldn’t you?

I have no reason to suspect that the CEP survey is incorrect. There are many indications that district and school leaders often do feel that the ESSA evidence rules are too difficult to meet. So what is really going on?

My guess is that there are many district and school leaders who do not want to know about evidence on proven programs. For example, they may have longstanding, positive relationships with representatives of publishers or software developers, or they may be comfortable and happy with the materials and services they are already using, evidence-proven or not. If they do not have evidence of effectiveness that would pass muster with WWC or Evidence for ESSA, the publishers and software developers may push hard on state and district officials, put forward dubious claims for evidence (such as studies with no control groups), and do their best to get by in a system that increasingly demands evidence that they lack. In my experience, district and state officials often complain about having inadequate staff to review evidence of effectiveness, but their concern may be less often finding out what works as it is defending themselves from publishers, software developers, or current district or school users of programs, who maintain that they have been unfairly rated by WWC, Evidence for ESSA, or other reviews. State and district leaders who stand up to this pressure may have to spend a lot of time reviewing evidence or hearing arguments.

On the plus side, at the same time that publishers and software producers may be seeking recognition for their current products, many are also sponsoring evaluations of some of their products that they feel are mostly likely to perform well in rigorous evaluations. Some may be creating new programs that resemble programs that have met evidence standards. If the federal ESSA law continues to demand evidence for certain federal funding purposes, or even to expand this requirement to additional parts of federal grant-making, then over time the ESSA law will have its desired effect, rewarding the creation and evaluation of programs that do meet standards by making it easier to disseminate such programs. The difficulties the evidence movement is experiencing are likely to diminish over time as more proven programs appear, and as federal, state, district, and school leaders get comfortable with evidence.

Evidence-based reform was always going to be difficult, because of the amount of change it entails and the stakes involved. But sooner or later, it is the right thing to do, and leaders who insist on evidence will see increasing levels of learning among their students, at minimal cost beyond what they already spend on untested or ineffective approaches. Medicine went through a similar transition in 1962, when the U.S. Congress first required that medicines be rigorously evaluated for effectiveness and safety. At first, many leaders in the medical profession resisted the changes, but after a while, they came to insist on them. The key is political leadership willing to support the evidence requirement strongly and permanently, so that educators and vendors alike will see that the best way forward is to embrace evidence and make it work for kids.

Photo 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.

Proven Programs Can’t Replicate, Just Like Bees Can’t Fly

In the 1930’s, scientists in France announced that based on principles of aerodynamics, bees could not fly. The only evidence to the contrary was observational, atheoretical, quasi-scientific reports that bees do in fact fly.

The widely known story about bees’ ability to fly came up in a discussion about the dissemination of proven programs in education. Many education researchers and policy makers maintain that the research-development-evaluation-dissemination sequence relied upon for decades to create better ways to educate children has failed. Many observers note that few practitioners seek out research when they consider selection of programs intended to improve student learning or other important outcomes. Research Practice Partnerships, in which researchers work in partnership with local educators to solve problems of importance to the educators, is largely based on the idea that educators are unlikely to use programs or practices unless they personally were involved in creating them. Opponents of evidence-based education policies invariably complain that because schools are so diverse, they are unlikely to adopt programs developed and researched elsewhere, and this is why few research-based programs are widely disseminated.

Dissemination of proven programs is in fact difficult, and there is little evidence of how proven programs might be best disseminated. Recognizing these and many other problems, however, it is important to note one small fact in all this doom and gloom: Proven programs are disseminated. Among the 113 reading and mathematics programs that have met the stringent standards of Evidence for ESSA (www.evidenceforessa.org), most have been disseminated to dozens, hundreds, or thousands of schools. In fact, we do not accept programs that are not in active dissemination (because it is not terribly useful for educators, our target audience, to find out that a proven program is no longer available, or never was). Some (generally newer) programs may only operate in a few schools, but they intend to grow. But most programs, supported by non-profit or commercial organizations, are widely disseminated.

Examples of elementary reading programs with strong, moderate, or promising evidence of effectiveness (by ESSA standards) and wide dissemination include Reading Recovery, Success for All, Sound Partners, Lindamood, Targeted Reading Intervention, QuickReads, SMART, Reading Plus, Spell Read, Acuity, Corrective Reading, Reading Rescue, SuperKids, and REACH. For middle/high, effective and disseminated reading programs include SIM, Read180, Reading Apprenticeship, Comprehension Circuit Training, BARR, ITSS, Passport Reading Journeys, Expository Reading and Writing Course, Talent Development, Collaborative Strategic Reading, Every Classroom Every Day, and Word Generation.

In elementary math, effective and disseminated programs include Math in Focus, Math Expressions, Acuity, FocusMath, Math Recovery, Time to Know, Jump Math, ST Math, and Saxon Math. Middle/high school programs include ASSISTments, Every Classroom Every Day, eMINTS, Carnegie Learning, Core-Plus, and Larson Pre-Algebra.

These are programs that I know have strong, moderate, or promising evidence and are widely disseminated. There may be others I do not know about.

I hope this list convinces any doubters that proven programs can be disseminated. In light of this list, how can it be that so many educators, researchers, and policy makers think that proven educational programs cannot be disseminated?

One answer may be that dissemination of educational programs and practices almost never happens the way many educational researchers wish it did. Researchers put enormous energy into doing research and publishing their results in top journals. Then they are disappointed to find out that publishing in a research journal usually has no impact whatever on practice. They then often try to make their findings more accessible by writing them in plain English in more practitioner-oriented journals. Still, this usually has little or no impact on dissemination.

But writing in journals is rarely how serious dissemination happens. The way it does happen is that the developer or an expert partner (such as a publisher or software company) takes the research ideas and makes them into a program, one that solves a problem that is important to educators, is attractive, professional, and complete, and is not too expensive. Effective programs almost always provide extensive professional development, materials, and software. Programs that provide excellent, appealing, effective professional development, materials, and software become likely candidates for dissemination. I’d guess that virtually every one of the programs I listed earlier took a great idea and made it into an appealing program.

A depressing part of this process is that programs that have no evidence of effectiveness, or even have evidence of ineffectiveness, follow the same dissemination process as do proven programs. Until the 2015 ESSA evidence standards appeared, evidence had a very limited role in the whole development-dissemination process. So far, ESSA has pointed more of a spotlight on evidence of effectiveness, but it is still the case that having strong evidence of effectiveness does not provide a program with a decisive advantage over programs lacking positive evidence. Regardless of their actual evidence bases, most programs today make claims that their programs are “evidence-based” or at least “evidence-informed,” so users can easily be fooled.

However, this situation is changing. First, the government itself is identifying programs with evidence of effectiveness, and may publicize them. Government initiatives such as Investing in Innovation (i3; now called EIR) actually provide funding to proven programs to enable them to begin to scale up their programs. The What Works Clearinghouse (https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/), Evidence for ESSA (www.evidenceforessa.org), and other sources provide easy access to information on proven programs. In other words, government is starting to intervene to nudge the longstanding dissemination process toward programs proven to work.

blog_10-3-19_Bee_art_500x444Back to the bees, the 1930 conclusion that bees should not be able to fly was overturned in 2005, when American researchers observed what bees actually do when they fly, and discovered that bees do not flap their wings like birds. Instead, they push air forward and back with their wings, creating a low pressure zone above them. This pressure keeps them in the air.

In the same way, educational researchers might stop theorizing about how disseminating proven programs is impossible, but instead, observe several programs that have actually done it. Then we can design government policies to further assist proven programs to build the capital and the organizational capacity to effectively disseminate, and to provide incentives and assistance to help schools in need of proven programs to learn about and adopt them.

Perhaps we could call this Plan Bee.

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.