Out to Launch

Dear Reader,

Every Thursday for the past nine years, except for major holidays, I have produced my blog on educational research and practice.  However, this week, I am running my blog on Monday.  Why?  Because on Monday, we are launching our tutoring website, the one I’ve been hinting about for weeks.  And for some technical reasons I do not even understand, the website has to go out on the same day as my blog.   Yes, I should have scheduled the launch for a Thursday, but here we are.  

I can guarantee you that this website will completely change your perception of life, the universe, and everything, or at the very least about tutoring.  

After Monday, my blogs will return to normal.  Perhaps even better than normal.

Thank you for your patience and understanding.  

-Bob

Lessons for Educational Research from the COVID-19 Vaccines

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 130 biotech companies have launched major efforts to develop and test vaccines. Only four have been approved so far (Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca). Among the others, many have outright failed, and others are considered highly unlikely. Some of the failed vaccines are small, fringe companies, but they also include some of the largest and most successful drug companies in the world: Merck (U.S.), Glaxo-Smith-Kline (U.K.), and Sanofi (France).

Kamala Harris gets her vaccine.

Photo courtesy of NIH

If no further companies succeed, the score is something like 4 successes and 126 failures.  Based on this, is the COVID vaccine a triumph of science, or a failure? Obviously, if you believe that even one of the successful programs is truly effective, you would have to agree that this is one of the most extraordinary successes in the history of medicine. In less than one year, companies were able to create, evaluate, and roll out successful vaccines, already saving hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide.

Meanwhile, Back in Education . . .

The example of COVID vaccines contrasts sharply with the way research findings are treated in education. As one example, Borman et al. (2003) reviewed research on 33 comprehensive school reform programs. Only three of these had solid evidence of effectiveness, according to the authors (one of these was our program, Success for All; see Cheung et al., in press). Actually, few of the programs failed; most had just not been evaluated adequately. Yet the response from government and educational leaders was “comprehensive school reform doesn’t work” rather than, “How wonderful! Let’s use the programs proven to work.” As a result, a federal program supporting comprehensive school reform was canceled, use of comprehensive school reform plummeted, and most CSR programs went out of operation (we survived, just barely, but the other two successful programs soon disappeared).

Similarly, the What Works Clearinghouse, and our Evidence for ESSA website (www.evidenceforessa.org), are often criticized because so few of the programs we review turn out to have significant positive outcomes in rigorous studies.

The reality is that in any field in which rigorous experiments are used to evaluate innovations, most of the innovations fail. Mature science-focused fields, like medicine and agriculture, expect this and honor it, because the only way to prevent failures is to do no experiments at all, or only flawed experiments. Without rigorous experiments, we would have no reliable successes.  Also, we learn from failures, as scientists are learning from the findings of the evaluations of all 130 of the COVID vaccines.

Unfortunately, education is not a mature science-focused field, and in our field, failure to show positive effects in rigorous experiments leads to cover-ups, despair, abandonment of proven and promising approaches, or abandonment of rigorous research itself. About 20 years ago, a popular federally-funded education program was found to be ineffective in a large, randomized experiment. Supporters of this program actually got Congress to enact legislation that forbade the use of randomized experiments to evaluate this program!

Research has improved in the past two decades, and acceptance of research has improved as well. Yet we are a long way from medicine, for example, which accepts both success and failure as part of a process of using science to improve health. In our field, we need to commit to broad scale, rigorous evaluations of promising approaches, wide dissemination of programs that work, and learning from experiments that do not (yet) show positive outcomes. In this way, we could achieve the astonishing gains that take place in medicine, and learn how to produce these gains even faster using all the knowledge acquired in experiments, successful or not.

References

Borman, G. D., Hews, G. M., Overman, L. T., & Brown, S. (2003). Comprehensive school reform and achievement: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 12(2), 125-230.

Cheung, A., Xie, C., Zhang, T. & Slavin, R. E. (in press). Success for All: A quantitative synthesis of evaluations. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness.

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 enter your email address here.

Message From NorthBay: All Students Can Learn to Read

Last July, I wrote a blog about a Year 6 (fifth grade) student in England, “Richard,” who just happened to transfer to one of our Success for All schools in spring, 2020. The school staff tested him. He had no reading skills at all. None.

Because they only had a few months to prepare him to go to secondary school, the staff decided to use our Tutoring With the Lightning Squad program with Richard for 90 minutes a day for three weeks (it’s usually used 30 minutes a day for at least 60 days). He gained 2.2 grade levels. To his delight, he could read The Hodgeheg, and was looking forward to reading Harry Potter books!

Photo credit: NorthBay Media Arts

Recently, I discovered that the gains Richard made were not unique to him.

Last summer, we were approached by John Erickson, the founder of NorthBay Education, which had a campus called NorthBay at the top of the Chesapeake. For many years, NorthBay has provided week-long outdoor education and social and emotional learning experiences for sixth graders across Maryland. However, due to Covid, this was impossible, so Erickson and NorthBay Director of Education, Rick Garber, wanted to use their staff and campus to provide an extended educational experience for students who were particularly vulnerable due to their life circumstances. Erickson and Garber wanted us (at Johns Hopkins University and the Success for All Foundation) to provide daily tutoring in reading to these students. We were delighted to agree, so in October, the program got under way. The students had to participate in remote instruction, like other Baltimore students, for six hours a day, and then had a half-hour tutoring session taught by NorthBay staff, trained by SFA coaches. The students stayed all week at the camp, and then went home over each weekend.

I can’t say that all went smoothly, but after a while NorthBay was operating well.

There were two sessions, October to January and February to June. Some students stayed for only the first session and were replaced by others. Others dropped out for a variety of reasons along the way.

I just received the test scores for the 31 students who were pretested in October and posttested on March 2, on the Gray Silent Reading Test (GSRT). Because of all the coming and going, we cannot say anything scientific about the data. We do not know if the gains were representative of all students who attended, and there was no control group. However, something extraordinary happened, and I wanted to share it.

At pretest, eight of the sixth grade students tested at the beginning first grade level (1.0), and one at 1.2. The average for these nine former non-readers at posttest was 4.1. That’s a gain of 3 grade levels in four months. Every non-reader but one reached a grade equivalent of at least 3.0. The exception got to 2.8. One got to 5.8, and one to 9.2!

I had been impressed that Richard, in England, went from zero to Hodgeheg in three weeks, but he was getting the equivalent of three tutoring sessions a day. In four months, with one session a day, every one of the nine non-reading NorthBay students went from zero to Hodgeheg, and some from zero to Harry Potter.

Other students also made astonishing gains. One went from 1.8 to 5.8. One, from 2.0 to 5.0. One from 3.0 to 7.5. One from 3.5 to 9.8.

There were many things going on in this experience, of course. The students were living at a beautiful, peaceful place for four months, with caring staff, good food, and great outdoor activities. They were experiencing the Baltimore City online curriculum, with good computer linkages and plenty of on-site assistance. Tutoring is not all they were getting.

The most important conclusion from the NorthBay experience is that these kids, mostly from very difficult backgrounds, could learn to read. The NorthBay experience suggests that they always could have learned to read under the right circumstances. Had they had the opportunity to make these gains earlier in elementary school, and reached the third grade level or better by, say, third grade, perhaps they would now be at grade level in sixth grade.

The message of NorthBay is that the problems kids face in learning to read are not usually due to anything wrong with the kids. It is not due to anything wrong with the capable and heroic teachers who have done their very best. It is the system, far beyond Baltimore, that does not allocate the funding needed to provide every struggling reader whatever is necessary to learn to read.

Today, Baltimore City Public Schools is about to receive significant funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and other sources. They cannot send everyone to NorthBay, though that would be wonderful. But they can use the new funds to create the teaching and tutoring resources that made such a difference. And so can any school or district in America.

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, send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

Prioritize Tutoring for Low-Achieving Readers

In speaking and writing about tutoring, I am often asked about where limited tutoring resources should be concentrated.  My answer is this: “Make certain that every single child in America who needs it gets enough tutoring to be proficient in phonics. All other priorities are tied for second place.”

There are many pragmatic reasons why early reading should be the focus. First, the largest number of proven tutoring programs focus on grades K-2 or K-3 reading, and these programs tend to have spectacular impacts on measures of reading comprehension as well as phonics. Second, reading is fundamental. Very few students end up in special education, or are held back in grade, due to failure in any other subject, for example. Most other subjects depend on reading, of course. But also, a student’s academic self-esteem depends primarily on his or her self-perception as a reader.

Note that “early reading” in this case does not only mean reading in grades K-3. The great majority of students who are failing in reading in grades 4-12 do not have solid phonics skills, typically taught in grades K-2. There are no proven middle school reading programs in the U.S., but there are two in England, and both were adapted from K-2 programs, with a strong focus on phonics.

My point about focusing on phonics first is influenced by the fact that very poor reading skills (defined here as scoring “below basic” on NAEP) are very widespread, especially among disadvantaged and minority students. On the 2019 4th grade NAEP, 34% of all students, but 52% of Black students and 45% of Hispanic students, scored below basic. At 8th grade, it’s 27% below basic for all, 46% for Black students, and 37% for Hispanic students. Using these numbers, I’d estimate that 9.5 million elementary and 7.3 million secondary students are scoring below basic on NAEP reading, and surely need tutoring. While we wait for someone to create and evaluate secondary reading tutoring programs, could we start with the 9.5 million elementary students? This is a mighty big job in itself. We could also use proven upper-elementary tutoring programs to work with some proportion of secondary students reading far below grade level.

Even leaving aside the importance of immediate capacity, demonstrated impact, and the obvious importance of reading in elementary schools, consider the huge role of the reading gap on the most important social problem in our nation: Inequality by race and social class. In large part, racial and social class disparities cause the reading gap, but they are also caused by reading gaps. And it is possible to close the reading gaps, alongside other efforts focusing on closing economic, housing, criminal justice, and other gaps. If we made sure that every American child could read at the fifth grade level by fifth grade, the reading gap would be no longer be a major problem.

The numbers I have been citing are from 2019, before the pandemic. Now things are much worse, and there are surely a lot more than 9.5 million elementary students and 7.3 million secondary students who would score below “basic” on NAEP. Fortunately, the American Rescue Plan Act is providing substantial resources to combat Covid learning losses, and low achievement in general. Covid or no Covid, we have an opportunity and a clear pressing need to close the reading gap and provide a strong foundation for reading for today’s students.

Note that I do not mean to minimize the importance of mathematics, or of secondary school reading and math. These are crucial as well, and we need to solve these problems too. But first out of the gate, in 2021-2022, let’s make sure we use the proven tools we have at hand to solve the problem we happen to be best placed to solve, which happens to be the most important educational problem we face at this moment.

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