A “Called Shot” for Educational Research and Impact

In the 1932 World Series, Babe Ruth stepped up to the plate and pointed to the center field fence. Everyone there understood: He was promising to hit the next pitch over the fence.

And then he did.

That one home run established Babe Ruth as the greatest baseball player ever. Even though several others have long since beaten his record of 60 home runs, no one else ever promised to hit a home run and then did it.

Educational research needs to execute a “called shot” of its own. We need to identify a clear problem, one that must be solved with some urgency, one that every citizen understands and cares about, one that government is willing and able to spend serious money to solve. And then we need to solve it, in a way that is obvious to all. I think the clear need for intensive services for students whose educations have suffered due to Covid-19 school closures provides an opportunity for our own “called shot.”

In my recent Open Letter to President-Elect Biden, I described a plan to provide up to 300,000 well-trained college-graduate tutors to work with up to 12 million students whose learning has been devastated by the Covid-19 school closures, or who are far below grade level for any reason. There are excellent reasons to do this, including making a rapid difference in the reading and mathematics achievement of vulnerable children, providing jobs to hundreds of thousands of college graduates who may otherwise be unemployed, and starting the best of these non-certified tutors on a path to teacher certification. These reasons more than justify the effort. But in today’s blog, I wanted to explain a fourth rationale, one that in the long run may be the most important of all.

A major tutoring enterprise, entirely focusing on high-quality implementation of proven programs, could be the “called shot” evidence-based education needs to establish its value to the American public.

Of course, the response to the Covid-19 pandemic is already supporting a “called shot” in medicine, the rush to produce a vaccine. At this time we do not know what the outcome will be, but throughout the world, people are closely following the progress of dozens of prominent attempts to create a safe and effective vaccine to prevent Covid-19. If this works as hoped, this will provide enormous benefits for entire populations and economies worldwide. But it could also raise the possibility that we can solve many crucial medical problems much faster than we have in the past, without compromising on strict research standards. The funding of many promising alternatives, and rigorous testing of each before they are disseminated, is very similar to what I and my colleagues have proposed for various approaches to tutoring. In both the medical case and the educational case, the size of the problem justifies this intensive, all-in approach. If all goes well with the vaccines, that will be a “called shot” for medicine, but medicine has long since proven its capability to use science to solve big problems. Curing polio, eliminating smallpox, and preventing measles come to mind as examples. In education, we need to earn this confidence, with a “called shot” of our own.

Think of it. Education researchers and leaders who support them would describe a detailed and plausible plan to solve a pressing problem of education. Then we announce that given X amount of money and Y amount of time, we will demonstrate that struggling students can perform substantially better than they would have without tutoring.

We’d know this would work, because part of the process would be identifying a) programs already proven to be effective, b) programs that already exist at some scale that would be successfully evaluated, and c) newly-designed programs that would successfully be evaluated. In each case, programs would have to meet rigorous evaluation standards before qualifying for substantial scale-up. In addition, in order to obtain funding to hire tutors, schools would have to agree to ensure that tutors use the programs with an amount and quality of training, coaching, and support at least as good as what was provided in the successful studies.

Researchers and policy makers who believe in evidence-based reform could confidently predict substantial gains, and then make good on their promises. No intervention in all of education is as effective as tutoring. Tutoring can be expensive, but it does not require a lengthy, uncertain transformation of the entire school. No sensible researcher or reformer would think that tutoring is all schools should do to improve student outcomes, but tutoring should be one element of any comprehensive plan to improve schools, and it happens to respond to the needs of post-Covid education for something that can have a dramatic, relatively quick, and relatively reliable impact.

If all went well in a large-scale tutoring intervention, the entire field of research could gain new respect, a belief among educators and the public that outcomes could be made much better than they are now by systematic applications of research, development, evaluation, and dissemination.

It is important to note that in order to be perceived to work, the tutoring “called shot” need not be proven effective across the board. By my count, there are 18 elementary reading tutoring programs with positive outcomes in randomized evaluations (see below). Let’s say 12 of them are ready for prime time and are put to the test, and 5 of those work very well at scale. That would be a tremendous success, because if we know which five approaches worked, we could make substantial progress on the problem of elementary reading failure. Just as with Covid-19 vaccines, we shouldn’t care how many vaccines failed. All that matters is that one or more of them succeeds, and can then be widely replicated.

I think it is time to do something bold to capture people’s imaginations. Let’s (figuratively) point to the center field fence, and (figuratively) hit the next pitch over it. The conditions today for such an effort are as good as they will ever be, because of universal understanding that the Covid-19 school closures deserve extraordinary investments in proven strategies. Researchers working closely with educators and political leaders can make a huge difference. We just have to make our case and insist on nothing less than whatever it takes. If a “called shot” works for tutoring, perhaps we could use similar approaches to solve other enduring problems of education.

It worked for the Babe. It should work for us, too, with much greater consequences for our children and our society than a mere home run.

*  *  *

Note: A reader of my previous blog asked what specific tutoring programs are proven effective, according to our standards. I’ve listed below reading and math tutoring programs that meet our standards of evidence. I cannot guarantee that all of these programs would be able to go to scale. We are communicating with program providers to try to assess each program’s capacity and interest in going to scale. But these programs are a good place to start in understanding where things stand today.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

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