Building Back Better

Yesterday, President Joe Biden took his oath of office. He is taking office at one of the lowest points in all of American history. Every American, whatever their political beliefs, should be wishing him well, because his success is essential for the recovery of our nation.

In education, most schools remain closed or partially open, and students are struggling with remote learning. My oldest granddaughter is in kindergarten. Every school day, she receives instruction from a teacher she has never met. She has never seen the inside of “her school.” She is lucky, of course, because she has educators as grandparents (us), but it is easy to imagine the millions of kindergartners who do not even have access to computers, or do not have help in learning to read and learning mathematics. These children will enter first grade with very little of the background they need, in language and school skills as well as in content.

Of course, the problem is not just kindergarten. All students have missed a lot of school, and they will vary widely in their experiences during that time. Think of second graders who essentially missed first grade. Students who missed the year when they are taught biology. Students who missed the fundamentals of creative writing. Students who should be in Algebra 2, except that they missed Algebra 1.

Hopefully, providing vaccines as quickly as possible to school staffs will enable most schools to open this spring. But we have a long, long way to go to get back to normal, especially with disadvantaged students. We cannot just ask students on their first day back to open their math books to the page they were on in March, 2020, when school closed.

Students need to be assessed when they return, and if they are far behind in reading or math, given daily tutoring, one-to-one or one-to-small group. If you follow this blog, you’ve heard me carry on at length about this.

Tutoring services, using tutoring programs proven to be effective, will be of enormous help to students who are far behind grade level (here, here, here). But the recovery from Covid-19 school closures should not be limited to repairing the losses. Instead, I hope the Covid-19 crisis can be an opportunity to reconsider how to rebuild our school system to enhance the school success of all students.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that schooling in America was ailing long before Covid-19. It wasn’t doing so badly for middle class children, but it was failing disadvantaged students. These very same students have suffered disproportionately from Covid-19. So in the process of bringing these children back into school, let’s not stop with getting back to normal. Let’s figure out how to create schools that use the knowledge we have gained over the past 20 years, and knowledge we can develop in the coming years, to transform learning for our most vulnerable children.

Building Back Better

Obviously, the first thing we have to do this spring is reopen schools and make them as healthy, happy, welcoming, and upbeat as possible. We need to make sure that schools are fully staffed and fully equipped. We do need to “build back” before we can “build back better.” But we cannot stop there. Below, I discuss several things that would greatly transform education for disadvantaged students.

1.  Tutoring

Yes, tutoring is the first thing we have to do to build better. Every child who is significantly below grade level needs daily one-to-small group or one-to-one tutoring, until they reach a pre-established level of performance, depending on grade level, in reading and math.

However, I am not talking about just any tutoring. Not all tutoring works. But there are many programs that have been proven to work, many times. These are the tutoring programs we need to start with as soon as possible, with adequate training resources to ensure student success.

Implementing proven tutoring programs on a massive scale is an excellent “build back” strategy, the most effective and cost-effective strategy we have. However, tutoring should also be the basis for a key “build better” strategy

2.  Establishing success as a birthright and ensuring it using proven programs of all kinds.

We need to establish adequate reading and mathematics achievement as the birthright of every child. We can debate about what that level might be, but we must hold ourselves accountable for the success of every child. And we need to accomplish this not just by using accountability assessments and hoping for the best, but by providing proven programs to all students who need them for as long as they need them.

As I’ve pointed out in many blogs (here, here, here), we now have many programs proven effective in rigorous experiments and known to improve student achievement (see www.evidenceforessa.org). Every child who is performing below level, and every school serving many children below grade level, should have resources and knowledge to adopt proven programs. Teachers and tutors need to be guaranteed sufficient professional development and in-class coaching to enable them to successfully implement proven programs. Years ago, we did not have sufficient proven programs, so policy makers kept coming up with evidence-free policies, which have just not worked as intended. But now, we have many programs ready for widespread dissemination. To build better, we have to use these tools, not return to near universal use of instructional strategies, materials, and technology that have never been successfully evaluated. Instead, we need to use what works, and to facilitate adoption and effective implementation of proven programs.

3.  Invest in development and evaluation of promising programs.

How is it that in a remarkably short time, scientists were able to develop vaccines for Covid-19, vaccines that promise to save millions of lives? Simple. We invested billions in research, development, and evaluations of alternative vaccines. Effective vaccines are very difficult to make, and the great majority failed.  But at this writing, two U.S. vaccines have succeeded, and this is a mighty good start. Now, government is investing massively in rigorous dissemination of these vaccines.

Total spending on all of education research dedicated to creating and evaluating educational innovations is a tiny fraction of what has been spent and will be spent on vaccines. But can you imagine that it is impossible to improve reading, math, science, and other outcomes, with clear goals and serious resources? Of course it could be done. A key element of “building better” could be to substantially scale up use of proven programs we have now, and to invest in new development and evaluation to make today’s best obsolete, replaced by better and better approaches. The research and evaluation of tutoring proves this could happen, and perhaps a successful rollout of tutoring will demonstrate what proven programs can do in education.

4.  Commit to Success

Education goes from fad to fad, mandate to mandate, without making much progress. In order to “build better,” we all need to commit to finding what works, disseminating it broadly, and then finding even better solutions, until all children are succeeding. This must be a long-term commitment, but if we are investing adequately and see that we are improving outcomes each year, then it is clear we can do it.            

With a change of administrations, we are going to hear a lot about hope. Hope is a good start, but it is not a plan. Let’s plan to build back better, and then for the first time in the history of education, make sure our solutions work, for all of our children.

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

Tutoring Could Change Everything

Starting in the 1990s, futurists and technology fans began to say, “The Internet changes everything.” And eventually, it did. The Internet has certainly changed education, although it is unclear whether these changes have improved educational effectiveness.

Unlike the Internet, tutoring has been around since hunters and gatherers taught their children to hunt and gather. Yet ancient as it is, making one-to-one or small group tutoring widely available in Title I schools could have profound impacts on the most nettlesome problems of education.

            If the National Tutoring Corps proposal I’ve been discussing in recent blogs (here , here, and here) is widely implemented and successful, it could have both obvious and not-so-obvious impacts on many critical aspects of educational policy and practice. In this blog, I’ll discuss these revolutionary and far-reaching impacts.

Direct and Most Likely Impacts

Struggling Students

            Most obviously, if the National Tutoring Corps is successful, it will be because it has had an important positive impact on the achievement of students who are struggling in reading and/or mathematics. At 100,000 tutors, we expect as many as four million low-achieving students in Title I schools will benefit, about 10% of all U.S. students in grades 1-9, but, say, 50% of the students in the lowest 20% of their grades.

Title I

            In a December 20 tweet, former Houston superintendent Terry Grier suggested: “Schools should utilize all or most of their Title I money to implement tutoring programs…to help K-2 students catch up on lost literacy skills.”

            I’d agree, except that I’d include later grades and math as well as reading if there is sufficient funding. The purpose of Title I is to accelerate the achievement of low-achieving, disadvantaged students. If schools were experienced with implementing proven tutoring programs, and knew them from their own experience to be effective and feasible, why would such programs not become the main focus of Title I funding, as Grier suggests?

Special Education

            Students with specific learning disabilities and other “high-incidence” disabilities (about half of all students in special education) are likely to benefit from structured tutoring in reading or math. If we had proven, reliable, replicable tutoring models, with which many schools will have had experience, then schools might be able to greatly reduce the need for special education for students whose only problem is difficulty in learning reading or mathematics. For students already in special education, their special education teachers may adopt proven tutoring methods themselves, and may enable students with specific learning disabilities to succeed in reading and math, and hopefully to exit special education.

Increasing the Effectiveness of Other Tutoring and Supportive Services

            Schools already have various tutoring programs, including volunteer programs. In schools involved in the National Tutoring Corps, we recommend that tutoring by paid, well-trained tutors go to the lowest achievers in each grade. If schools also have other tutoring resources, they should be concentrated on students who are below grade level, but not struggling as much as the lowest achievers. These additional tutors might use the proven effective programs provided by the National Tutoring Corps, offering a consistent and effective approach to all students who need tutoring. The same might apply to other supportive services offered by the school.

Less Obvious But Critical Impacts

A Model for Evidence-to-Practice

            The success of evidence-based tutoring could contribute to the growth of evidence-based reform more broadly. If the National Tutoring Corps is seen to be effective because of its use of already-proven instructional approaches, this same idea could be used in every part of education in which robust evidence exists. For example, education leaders might reason that if use of evidence-based tutoring approaches had a big effect on students struggling in reading and math, perhaps similar outcomes could be achieved in algebra, or creative writing, or science, or programs for English learners.

Increasing the Amount and Quality of Development and Research on Replicable Solutions to Key Problems in Education

            If the widespread application of proven tutoring models broadly improves student outcomes, then it seems likely that government, private foundations, and perhaps creators of educational materials and software might invest far more in development and research than they do now, to discover new, more effective educational programs.

Reductions in Achievement Gaps

            If it were widely accepted that there were proven and practical means of significantly improving the achievement of low achievers, then there is no excuse for allowing achievement gaps to continue. Any student performing below the mean could be given proven tutoring and should gain in achievement, reducing gaps between low and high achievers.

Improvements in Behavior and Attendance

            Many of the students who engage in disruptive behavior are those who struggle academically, and therefore see little value in appropriate behavior. The same is true of students who skip school. Tutoring may help prevent behavior and attendance problems, not just by increasing the achievement of struggling students, but also by giving them caring, personalized teaching with a tutor who forms positive relationships with them and encourages attendance and good behavior.

Enhancing the Learning Environment for Students Who Do Not Need Tutoring

            It is likely that a highly successful tutoring initiative for struggling students could enhance the learning environment for the schoolmates of these students who do not need tutoring. This would happen if the tutored students were better behaved and more at peace with themselves, and if teachers did not have to struggle to accommodate a great deal of diversity in achievement levels within each class.

            Of course, all of these predictions depend on Congress funding a national tutoring plan based on the use of proven programs, and on implementation at scale actually producing the positive impacts that they have so often shown in research. But I hope these predictions will help policy makers and educational leaders realize the potential positive impacts a tutoring initiative could have, and then do what they can to make sure that the tutoring programs are effectively implemented and produce their desired impact. Then, and only then, will tutoring truly change everything.

Clarification:

Last week’s blog, on the affordability of tutoring, stated that a study of Saga Math, in which there was a per-pupil cost of $3,600, was intended as a demonstration, and was not intended to be broadly replicable.  However, all I meant to say is that Saga was never intended to be replicated AT THAT PRICE PER STUDENT.  In fact, a much lower-cost version of Saga Math is currently being replicated.  I apologize if I caused any confusion.

Photo credit: Deeper Learning 4 All, (CC BY-NC 4.0)

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

Is a National Tutoring Corps Affordable?

Tutoring is certainly in the news these days. The December 30 Washington Post asked its journalists to predict what the top policy issues will be for the coming year. In education, Laura Meckler focused her entire prediction on just one issue: Tutoring. In an NPR interview (Kelly, 2020) with John King, U. S. Secretary of Education at the end of the Obama Administration and now President of Education Trust, the topic was how to overcome the losses students are certain to have sustained due to Covid-19 school closures. Dr. King emphasized tutoring, based on its strong evidence base. McKinsey (Dorn et al., 2020) did a report on early information on how much students have lost due to the school closures and what to do about it. “What to do” primarily boiled down to tutoring. Earlier articles in Education Week (e.g., Sawchuk, 2020) have also emphasized tutoring as the leading solution. Two bills introduced in the Senate by Senator Coons (D-Delaware) proposed a major expansion of AmeriCorps, mostly to provide tutoring and school health aides to schools suffering from Covid-19 school closures.

            All of this is heartening, but many of these same sources are warning that all this tutoring is going to be horrifically expensive and may not happen because we cannot afford it. However, most of these estimates are based on a single, highly atypical example. A Chicago study (Cook et al., 2015) of a Saga (or Match Education) math tutoring program for ninth graders estimated a per-pupil cost of one-to-two tutoring all year of $3,600 per student, with an estimate that at scale, the costs could be as low as $2,500 per student. Yet these estimates are unique to this single program in this single study. The McKinsey report applied the lower figure ($2,500 per student) to cost out tutoring for half of all 55 million students in grades k-12. They estimated an annual cost of $66 billion, just for math tutoring!

            Our estimate is that the cost of a robust national tutoring plan would be more like $7.0 billion in 2021-2022. How could these estimates be so different?  First, the Saga study was designed as a one-off demonstration that disadvantaged students in high school could still succeed in math. No one expected that Saga Math could be replicated at a per-pupil cost of $3,600 (or $2,500). In fact, a much less expensive form of Saga Math is currently being disseminated. In fact, there are dozens of cost-effective tutoring programs widely used and evaluated since the 1980s in elementary reading and math. One is our own Tutoring With the Lightning Squad (Madden & Slavin, 2017), which provides tutors in reading for groups of four students and costs about $700 per student per year. There are many proven small-group tutoring programs known to make a substantial difference in reading or math performance, (see Neitzel et al., in press; Nickow et al., 2020; Pellegrini et al., in press). These programs, most of which use teaching assistants as tutors, cost more like $1,500 per student, on average, based on the average cost of five tutoring programs used in Baltimore elementary schools (Tutoring With the Lightning Squad, Reading Partners, mClass Tutoring, Literacy Lab, and Springboard).

            Further, it is preposterous to expect to serve 27.5 million students (half of all students in k-12) all in one year. At 40 students per tutor, this would require hiring 687,500 tutors!

            Our proposal (Slavin et al., 2020) for a National Tutoring Corps proposes hiring 100,000 tutors by September, 2021, to provide proven one-to-one or (mostly) one-to-small group tutoring programs to about 4 million grade 1 to 9 students in Title I schools. This number of tutors would serve about 21% of Title I students in these grades in 2021-2022, at a cost of roughly $7.0 billion (including administrative costs, development, evaluation, and so on). This is less than what the government of England is spending right now on a national tutoring program, a total of £1 billion, which translates to $7.8 billion (accounting for the differences in population).

            Our plan would gradually increase the numbers of tutors over time, so in later years costs could grow, but they would never surpass $10 billion, much less $66 billion just for math, as estimated by McKinsey.

            In fact, even with all the money in the world, it would not be possible to hire, train, and deploy 687,500 tutors any time soon, at least not tutors using programs proven to work. The task before us is not to just throw tutors into schools to serve lots of kids. Instead, it should be to provide carefully selected tutors with extensive professional development and coaching to enable them to implement tutoring programs that have been proven to be effective in rigorous, usually randomized experiments. No purpose is served by deploying tutors in such large numbers so quickly that we’d have to make serious compromises with the amount and quality of training. Poorly-implemented tutoring would have minimal outcomes, at best.

            I think anyone would agree that insisting on high quality at substantial scale, and then growing from success to success as tutoring organizations build capacity, is a better use of taxpayers’ money than starting too large and too fast, with unproven approaches.

            The apparent enthusiasm for tutoring is wonderful. But misplaced dollars will not ensure the outcomes we so desperately need for so many students harmed by Covid-19 school closures. Let’s invest in a plan based on high-quality implementation of proven programs and then grow it as we learn more about what works and what scales in sustainable forms of tutoring.

Photo credit: Deeper Learning 4 All, (CC BY-NC 4.0)

References

Cook, P. J., et al. (2016) Not too late: Improving academic outcomes for disadvantaged youth. Available at https://www.ipr.northwestern.edu/documents/working-papers/2015/IPR-WP-15-01.pdf

Dorn, E., et al. (2020). Covid-19 and learning loss: Disparities grow and students need help. New York: McKinsey & Co.

Kelly, M. L. (2020, December 28). Schools face a massive challenge to make up for learning lost during the pandemic. National Public Radio.

Madden, N. A., & Slavin, R. E. (2017). Evaluations of technology-assisted small-group tutoring for struggling readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 33(4), 327–334. https://doi.org/10.1080/10573569.2016.1255577

Neitzel, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (in press). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Reading Research Quarterly.

Nickow, A. J., Oreopoulos, P., & Quan, V. (2020). The transformative potential of tutoring for pre-k to 12 learning outcomes: Lessons from randomized evaluations. Boston: Abdul Latif Poverty Action Lab.

Pellegrini, M., Neitzel, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. (in press). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. AERA Open.

Sawchuk, S. (2020, August 26). Overcoming Covid-19 learning loss. Education Week 40(2), 6.

Slavin, R. E., Madden, N. A., Neitzel, A., & Lake, C. (2020). The National Tutoring Corps: Scaling up proven tutoring for struggling students. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, Center for Research and Reform in Education.

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