“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” –Albert Einstein
Last Friday, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed a $1.9 trillion recovery bill. Within it is the Learning Recovery Act (LRA). Both the overall bill and the Learning Recovery Act are timely and wonderful. In particular, the LRA emphasizes the importance of using research-based tutoring to help students who are struggling in reading or math. The linking of evidence to large-scale federal education funding began with the 2015 ESSA definition of proven educational programs, and the LRA would greatly increase the importance of evidence-based practices.
But if you sensed a “however” coming, you were right. The “however” is that the LRA requires investments of substantial funding in “school extension programs,” such as “summer school, extended day, or extended school year programs” for vulnerable students.
This is where the Einstein quote comes in. “School extension programs” sound a lot like Supplemental Educational Services (SES), part of No Child Left Behind that offered parents and children an array of services that had to be provided after school or in summer school.
The problem is, SES was a disaster. A meta-analysis of 28 studies of SES by Chappell et al. (2011) found a mean effect size of +0.04 for math and +0.02 for reading. A sophisticated study by Deke et al. (2014) found an effect size of +0.05 for math and -0.03 for reading. These effect sizes are just different flavors of zero. Zero was the outcome whichever way you looked at the evidence, with one awful exception: The lowest achievers, and special education students, actually performed significantly less well in the Deke et al. (2014) study if they were in SES than if they qualified but did not sign up. The effect sizes for these students were around -0.20 for reading and math. Heinrich et al. (2009) also reported that the lowest achievers were least likely to sign up for SES, and least likely to attend regularly if they did. All three major studies found that outcomes did not vary much depending on which type of provider or program they received. Considering that the per-pupil cost was estimated at $1,725 in 2021 dollars, these outcomes are distressing, but more important is the fact that despite the federal government’s willingness to spend quite a lot on them, millions of struggling students in desperate need of effective assistance did not benefit.
Why did SES fail? I have two major explanations. Heinrich et al. (2009), who added questionnaires and observations to find out what was going on, discovered that at least in Milwaukee, attendance in SES after-school programs was appalling (as I reported in my previous blog). In the final year studied, only 16% of eligible students were attending (less than half signed up at all, and of those, average attendance in the remedial program was only 34%). Worse, the students in greatest need were least likely to attend.
From their data and other studies they cite, Heinrich et al. (2010) paint a picture of students doing boring, repetitive worksheets unrelated to what they were doing in their school-day classes. Students were incentivized to sign up for SES services with incentives, such as iPods, gift cards, or movie passes. Students often attended just enough to get their incentives, but then stopped coming. In 2006-2007, a new policy limited incentives to educationally-related items, such as books and museum trips, and attendance dropped further. Restricting SES services to after-school and summertime, when attendance is not mandated and far from universal, means that students who did attend were in school while their friends were out playing. This is hardly a way to engage students’ motivation to attend or to exert effort. Low-achieving students see after school and summertime as their free time, which they are unlikely to give up willingly.
Beyond the problems of attendance and motivation in extended time, there was another key problem with SES. This was that none of the hundreds of programs offered to students in SES were proven to be effective beforehand (or ever) in rigorous evaluations. And there was no mechanism to find out which of them were working well, until very late in the program’s history. As a result, neither schools nor parents had any particular basis for selecting programs according to their likely impact. Program providers probably did their best, but there was no pressure on them to make certain that students benefited from SES services.
As I noted in my previous blog, evaluations of SES do not provide the only evidence that after school and summer school programs rarely work for struggling students. Reviews of summer school programs by Xie et al. (in press) and of after school programs (Dynarski et al., 2002; Kidron & Lindsay, 2014) have found similar outcomes, always for the same reasons: poor attendance and poor motivation of students in school when they would otherwise have free time.
Designing an Effective System of Services for Struggling Students
There are two policies that are needed to provide a system of services capable of substantially improving student achievement. One is to provide services during the ordinary school day and year, not in after school or summer school. The second is to strongly emphasize the use of programs proven to be highly effective in rigorous research.
Educational services provided during the school day are far more likely to be effective than those provided after school or in the summer. During the day, everyone expects students to be in school, including the students themselves. There are attendance problems during the regular school day, of course, especially in secondary schools, but these problems are much smaller than those in non-school time, and perhaps if students are receiving effective, personalized services in school and therefore succeeding, they might attend more regularly. Further, services during the school day are far easier to integrate with other educational services. Principals, for example, are far more likely to observe tutoring or other services if they take place during the day, and to take ownership for ensuring their effectiveness. School day services also entail far fewer non-educational costs, as they do not require changing bus schedules, cleaning and securing schools more hours each day, and so on.
The problem with in-school services is that they can disrupt the basic schedule. However, this need not be a problem. Schools could designate service periods for each grade level spread over the school day, so that tutors or other service providers can be continuously busy all day. Students should not be taken out of reading or math classes, but there is a strong argument that a student who is far below grade level in reading or math needs a reading or math tutor using a proven tutoring model far more than other classes, at least for a semester (the usual length of a tutoring sequence).
If schools are deeply reluctant to interrupt any of the ordinary curriculum, then they might extend their day to offer art, music, or other subjects during the after-school session. These popular subjects might attract students without incentives, especially if students have a choice of which to attend. This could create space for tutoring or other services during the school day. A schedule like this is virtually universal in Germany, which provides all sports, art, music, theater, and other activities after school, so all in-school time is available for academic instruction.
Use of proven programs makes sense throughout the school day. Tutoring should be the main focus of the Learning Recovery Act, because in this time of emergency need to help students recover from Covid school closures, nothing less will do. But in the longer term, adoption of proven classroom programs in reading, math, science, writing, and other subjects should provide a means of helping students succeed in all parts of the curriculum (see www.evidenceforessa.org).
In summer, 2021, there may be a particularly strong rationale for summer school, assuming schools are otherwise able to open. The evidence is clear that doing ordinary instruction during the summer will not make much of a difference, but summer could be helpful if it is used as an opportunity to provide as many struggling students as possible in-person, one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring in reading or math. In the summer, students might receive tutoring more than once a day, every day for as long as six weeks. This could make a particularly big difference for students who basically missed in-person kindergarten, first, or second grade, a crucial time for learning to read. Tutoring is especially effective in those grades in reading, because phonics is relatively easy for tutors to teach. Also, there is a large number of effective tutoring programs for grades K-2. Early reading failure is very important to prevent, and can be prevented with tutoring, so the summer months may get be just the right time to help these students get a leg up on reading.
The Learning Recovery Act can make life-changing differences for millions of children in serious difficulties. If the LRA changes its emphasis to the implementation of proven tutoring programs during ordinary school times, it is likely to accomplish its mission.
SES served a useful purpose in showing us what not to do. Let’s take advantage of these expensive lessons and avoid repeating the same errors. Einstein would be so proud if we heed his advice.
My recent blog, “Avoiding the Errors of Supplemental Educational Services,” started with a summary of the progress of the Learning Recovery Act. It was brought to my attention that my summary was not correct. In fact, the Learning Recovery Act has been introduced in Congress, but is not part of the current reconciliation proposal moving through Congress and has not become law. The Congressional action cited in my last blog was referring to a non-binding budget resolution, the recent passage of which facilitated the creation of the $1.9 trillion reconciliation bill that is currently moving through Congress. Finally, while there is expected to be some amount of funding within that current reconciliation bill to address the issues discussed within my blog, reconciliation rules will prevent the Learning Recovery Act from being included in the current legislation as introduced.
Chappell, S., Nunnery, J., Pribesh, S., & Hager, J. (2011). A meta-analysis of Supplemental Education Services (SES) provider effects on student achievement. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 16 (1), 1-23.
Deke, J., Gill, B. Dragoset, L., & Bogen, K. (2014). Effectiveness of supplemental educational services. Journal of Research in Educational Effectiveness, 7, 137-165.
Dynarski, M. et al. (2003). When schools stay open late: The national evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Programs (First year findings). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Heinrich, C. J., Meyer, R., H., & Whitten, G. W. (2010). Supplemental Education Services under No Child Left Behind: Who signs up and what do they gain? Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 32, 273-298.
Kidron, Y., & Lindsay, J. (2014). The effects of increased learning time on student academic and nonacademic outcomes: Findings from a meta‑analytic review (REL 2014-015). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia.
Xie, C., Neitzel, A., Cheung, A., & Slavin, R. E. (2020). The effects of summer programs on K-12 students’ reading and mathematics achievement: A meta-analysis. Manuscript submitted for publication.
This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.
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