Proven Tutoring Approaches: The Path to Universal Proficiency

There are lots of problems in education that are fundamentally difficult. Ensuring success in early reading, however, is an exception. We know what skills children need in order to succeed in reading. No area of teaching has a better basis in high-quality research. Yet the reading performance of America’s children is not improving at an adequate pace. Reading scores have hardly changed in the past decade, and gaps between white, African-American, and Hispanic students have been resistant to change.
In light of the rapid growth in the evidence base, and of the policy focus on early reading at the federal and state levels, this is shameful. We already know a great deal about how to improve early reading, and we know how to learn more. Yet our knowledge is not translating into improved practice and improved outcomes on a large enough scale.
There are lots of complex problems in education, and complex solutions. But here’s a really simple solution:

 

Over the past 30 years researchers have experimented with all sorts of approaches to improve students’ reading achievement. There are many proven and promising classroom approaches, and such programs should be used with all students in initial teaching as broadly as possible. Effective classroom instruction, universal access to eyeglasses, and other proven approaches could surely reduce the number of students who need tutors. But at the end of the day, every child must read well. And the only tool we have that can reliably make a substantial difference at scale with struggling readers is tutors, using proven one-to-one or small-group methods.

I realized again why tutors are so important in a proposal I’m making to the State of Maryland, which wants to bring all or nearly all students to “proficient” on its state test, the PARCC. “Proficient” on the PARCC is a score of 750, with a standard deviation of about 50. The state mean is currently around 740. I made a colorful chart (below) showing “bands” of scores below 750 to show how far students have to go to get to 750.

 

Each band covers an effect size of 0.20. There are several classroom reading programs with effect sizes this large, so if schools adopted them, they could move children scoring at 740 to 750. These programs can be found at www.evidenceforessa.org. But implementing these programs alone still leaves half of the state’s children not reaching “proficient.”

What about students at 720? They need 30 points, or +0.60. The best one-to-one tutoring can achieve outcomes like this, but these are the only solutions that can.

Here are mean effect sizes for various reading tutoring programs with strong evidence:

 

 

As this chart shows, one-to-one tutoring, by well-trained teachers or paraprofessionals using proven programs, can potentially have the impacts needed to bring most students scoring 720 (needing 30 points or an effect size of +0.60) to proficiency (750). Three programs have reported effect sizes of at least +0.60, and several others have approached this level. But what about students scoring below 720?

So far I’ve been sticking to established facts, studies of tutoring that are, in most cases, already being disseminated. Now I’m entering the region of well-justified supposition. Almost all studies of tutoring occupy just one year or less. But what if the lowest achievers could receive multiple years of tutoring, if necessary?

One study, over 2½ years, did find an effect size of +0.68 for one-to-one tutoring. Could we do better that that? Most likely. In addition to providing multiple years of tutoring, it should be possible to design programs to achieve one-year effect sizes of +1.00 or more. These may incorporate technology or personalized approaches specific to the needs of individual children. Using the best programs for multiple years, if necessary, could increase outcomes further. Also, as noted earlier, using proven programs other than tutoring for all students may increase outcomes for students who also receive tutoring.

But isn’t tutoring expensive? Yes it is. But it is not as expensive as the costs of reading failure: Remediation, special education, disappointment, and delinquency. If we could greatly improve the reading performance of low achievers, this would of course reduce inequities across the board. Reducing inequities in educational outcomes could reduce inequities in our entire society, an outcome of enormous importance.

Even providing a substantial amount of teacher tutoring could, by my calculations, increase total state education expenditures (in Maryland) by only about 12%. These costs could be reduced greatly or even eliminated by reducing expenditures on ineffective programs, reducing special education placements, and other savings. Having some tutoring done by part time teachers may reduce costs. Using small-group tutoring (fewer than 6 students at a time) for students with milder problems may save a great deal of money. Even at full cost, the necessary funding could be phased in over a period of 6 years at 2% a year.

The bottom line is that the low levels of achievement and high levels of gaps according to economic and racial differences could be improved a great deal using methods already proven to be effective and already widely available. Educators and policy makers are always promising policies that bring every child to proficiency: “No Child Left Behind” and “Every Student Succeeds” come to mind. Yet if these outcomes are truly possible, why shouldn’t we be pursuing them, with every resource at our disposal?

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Money and Evidence

Many years ago, I spent a few days testifying in a funding equity case in Alabama. At the end of my testimony, the main lawyer for the plaintiffs drove me to the airport. “I think we’re going to win this case,” he said, “But will it help my clients?”

The lawyer’s question has haunted me ever since. In Alabama, then and now, there are enormous inequities in education funding in rich and poor districts due to differences in property tax receipts in different districts. There are corresponding differences in student outcomes. The same is true in most states. To a greater or lesser degree, most states and the federal government provide some funding to reduce inequalities, but in most places it is still the case that poor districts have to tax themselves at a higher rate to produce education funding that is significantly lower than that of their wealthier neighbors.

Funding inequities are worse than wrong, they are repugnant. When I travel in other countries and try to describe our system, it usually takes me a while to get people outside the U.S. to even understand what I am saying. “So schools in poor areas get less than those in wealthy ones? Surely that cannot be true.” In fact, it is true in the U.S., but in all of our peer countries, national or at least regional funding policies ensure basic equality in school funding, and in most cases I know about they then add additional funding on top of equalized funding for schools serving many children in poverty. For example, England has long had equal funding, and the Conservative government added “Pupil Premium” funding in which each disadvantaged child brings additional funds to his or her school. Pupil Premium is sort of like Title I in the U.S., if you can imagine Title I adding resources on top of equal funding, which it does in only a few U.S. states.

So let’s accept the idea that funding inequity is a BAD THING. Now consider this: Would eliminating funding inequities eliminate achievement gaps in U.S. schools? This gets back to the lawyer’s question. If we somehow won a national “case” that required equalizing school funding, would the “clients” benefit?

More money for disadvantaged schools would certainly be welcome, and it would certainly create the possibility of major advances. But in order to maximize the impact of significant additional funding, it all depends on what schools do with the added dollars. Of course you’d have to increase teachers’ salaries and reduce class sizes to draw highly qualified teachers into disadvantaged schools. But you’d also have to spend a significant portion of new funds to help schools implement proven programs with fidelity and verve.

Again, England offers an interesting model. Twenty years ago, achievement in England was very unequal, despite equal funding. Children of immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and other minorities performed well below White British children. The Labour government implemented a massive effort to change this, starting with the London Challenge and continuing with a Manchester Challenge and a Black Country Challenge in the post-industrial Midlands. Each “challenge” provided substantial professional development to school staffs, as well as organizing achievement data to show school leaders that other schools with exactly the same demographic challenges were achieving far better results.

Today, children of Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants are scoring at the English mean. Children of African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants are just below the English mean. Policy makers in England are now turning their attention to White working-class boys. But the persistent and substantial gaps we see as so resistant to change in the U.S. are essentially gone in England.

Today, we are getting even smarter about how to turn dollars into enhanced achievement, due to investments by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and Investing in Innovation (i3) program in the U.S. and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in England. In both countries, however, we lack the funding to put into place what we know how to do on a large enough scale to matter, but this need not always be the case.

Funding matters. No one can make chicken soup out of chicken feathers, as we say in Baltimore. But funding in itself will not solve our achievement gap. Funding needs to be spent on specific, high-impact investments to make a big difference.

Evidence, Brown, and the Civil Rights Act

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2014 is the anniversary of two great milestones in American history: Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) and the Civil Rights Act (1964). I was too young to remember the first, but I remember exactly where I was when I heard that the Civil Rights Act had passed. I was 13, working as a volunteer in a giant orphanage in Washington, DC, called Junior Village. The kids, hundreds of them from babies to teens, were all African American, and so was most of the staff, plus a few liberal whites, so the news was greeted with euphoria. That summer changed my life.

Many people are writing to commemorate these great events, always with a question of how far we’ve really come toward the fairness and equality promised both by Brown and by the Civil Rights Act. Anyone with eyes to see has to acknowledge the progress that has taken place, but also the huge inequities that still remain.

I won’t add to the half-hurrahs being widely offered. During the time since Brown and the Civil Rights Act, we, the greatest nation on Earth, rocketed to the moon, cured many diseases, led astonishing developments in technology, defeated the Soviets, and on and on. And yet we still struggle to solve the most basic issues of equality between racial and ethnic groups: employment, education, health, and more. If inequality were merely a technical problem, we would have solved it. But it’s a problem of will, and therefore we consider the unacceptable acceptable. For shame.

In my own field, education, the “gap” between white students and African American and Hispanic children is always decried but never solved. It has remained about the same since 1980. Could we solve it? Could anyone doubt that the greatest nation on the planet could solve such a problem if it wanted to?

If we were truly committed to solving this problem, here is what we’d do. First, we’d identify all of the problems holding back minority students. Then we’d put in place solutions already known to be effective. We’d then commission research and development on the scale of the Manhattan Project to find effective, replicable solutions to the remaining problems. As approaches are validated in rigorous evaluations, we’d put them into practice in all schools that need them. We’d do the same in public health, mental health, social services, juvenile justice, employment, housing, and every other area that affects children and families. If America decided to do these things, it would succeed. There is no doubt. But did you notice the word “if” at the beginning of this paragraph?

America is an incredibly wealthy and capable country. Just as one example, we spent more than $2 trillion on the Iraq war. It did not even cause taxes to go up. We could have spent that much to combat inequality. We still could, and it would actually cost far less. But we have, thus far at least, chosen not to.

Even in dysfunctional Washington, we can still make progress in learning how to use the funds we already have committed to education and other services more effectively. Progressives and conservatives share an interest in using federal funds efficiently, and bipartisan alliances are coalescing to find out what works and use that information to make good policy choices that may eventually reduce achievement gaps. That’s the realistic grown-up me talking. The hopeful 13-year-old who celebrated the Civil Rights Act has confronted reality.

But can anyone explain to me why we shouldn’t be achieving what everyone knows can be achieved to bring about true equality and opportunity for all?

Restoring Opportunity

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I just read a fascinating book, Restoring Opportunity, by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane.. It describes the now-familiar problems of growing inequality in America between the educational haves and have-nots, but then goes on to describe some outstanding preschool, elementary, and high school programs that may offer models of how to help disadvantaged children close the gap. Refreshingly, Duncan and Murnane do not stop with heartwarming tales of successful schools, but also present data from randomized experiments showing the impacts on children, especially for the small high school initiative in New York City and the University of Chicago Charter Network.

From these and other examples, Duncan and Murnane derive some factors common to outstanding schools: Accountability for outcomes within schools, extensive professional development and support for teachers, and experimentation and evaluation to identify effective models.

Readers of this blog won’t be surprised to learn that I support each of these recommendations. So let’s start there. How do we get more than 100,000 schools to become markedly more effective? Or to make the problem a little easier, how about just the 55,000 Title I schools?

Duncan and Murnane are forthright about many of the solutions that aren’t likely to make a widescale difference. They note that while there are a few promising charter management organizations, charters overall are not generally being found to improve learning outcomes, and some of the most celebrated charters achieve good results by burning out young, talented teachers, a strategy that is hard to sustain and harder to scale. Popular solutions such as ratcheting up accountability, providing vouchers, and changing governance have also been disappointing in evaluations.

There is a strategy that puts all of Duncan and Murnane’s principles into practice on a very large scale: Comprehensive school reform. They note the strong evaluation results and widespread impact of two CSR models, one of which is our Success for All programfor elementary and middle schools. CSR models exemplify the principles Duncan and Murnane arrive at, but they can do so at a substantial scale. That is, they invariably provide a great deal of professional development and support to teachers, accountability for outcomes within schools, links to parents, provisions for struggling students, and so on. Unlike charters, CSR models do not require radical changes in governance, which explains why they have been able to go to substantial scale far more rapidly.

The only problem with comprehensive school reform models is that at present, there are too few to choose from. Yet with support from government and foundations, this could rapidly change.

Imagine a situation in which Title I school staffs could choose among proven, whole-school reform models the one they thought best for their needs. The schools themselves and the leaders of their CSR reform networks would be responsible for the progress of children on state standards, but otherwise these schools would be free to implement their proven models with fidelity, without having to juggle district and CSR requirements.

Such a strategy could accomplish the goals Duncan and Murnane outline in thousands of schools, enough to make real inroads in the problems of inequity they so articulately identify.

Eliminating Achievement Gaps in England

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Imagine that the U.S. government released a report showing that the achievement gap between White students and African American and Hispanic children had been eliminated. (In fact, the gap has hardly budged since 1980.) Such a report would cause dancing in the streets, champagne all around, and a genuine sense of a job well done.

Just such a report was released, but in England, not the U.S. In that country, longstanding achievement gaps have been greatly diminished or eliminated, according to Ofsted, an independent government agency that manages school inspectors. As recently as 2007, White English students far outscored those who were Black African, Afro-Carribean, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi. Today, all of these gaps have disappeared, or are now very small, in reading and math. The result is that instead of worrying about the achievement gap, the English are worrying about the perceived low performance of White students. However, in actuality, White students also made gains over the same period, just not as much as minorities.

How did the English accomplish this feat of closing the achievement gap, and what can we learn from their efforts in the U.S.? Such a large shift may have many causes, but the Ofsted report gives the main credit to a massive investment made by the previous Labor government called the London Challenge. This initiative provided substantial professional development and assistance to high-poverty schools throughout the London metropolitan area. A Manchester Challenge did the same in that city. Since most minority students in England live in London or Manchester, this appears to have been enough to affect reading and math gaps in the entire country.

England is very similar to the U.S. in most ways. It has similar income per capita, and its overall scores on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS are similar to ours. However, some aspects of the English context may not transfer to the U.S. For example, the proportion of students in England who are minorities is just 7%, compared to 30% in the U.S. A key structural difference is that although there are districts (local authorities) in England, they are very weak. Principals (head teachers) and boards of governors for each school have great autonomy, but the national government plays a much stronger role than in the U.S. What this means is that if the national government decides to intervene to improve schools, they can do so, and this is what happened in the London and Manchester Challenges. Also, basic per-pupil funding in the UK is equalized, as it is in all civilized countries, and in fact schools with many poor or minority students get extra funding. This contrasts with the situation in the U.S., where funding is largely dependent on local or state tax receipts, so poor areas receive much less than rich ones. A London or Manchester Challenge therefore builds on a level playing field, while in the U.S., just getting to equality would be a major accomplishment.

The most important lesson from the English example is this: achievement gaps are not inexorable. Substantial investment and concerted effort can make a meaningful difference. The English example does not provide a simple road map for the U.S., but it should remove a lot of excuses for the persistence of gaps in academic achievement in our country.

Summer: The Missing Link in Education Reform

By Gary Huggins, Chief Executive Officer, National Summer Learning Association

Research has long documented the phenomenon of summer learning loss. Over the three-month summer vacation, children forget some of what they have learned during the previous school year. It’s an unfortunate, unintended consequence of the ideal of a lazy, fun-filled summer.

Most youth lose about two months in grade equivalents in math computational skills over the summer. Low-income youth lose more than two months in reading achievement while their middle-income peers make slight gains.

Worse, these losses are cumulative, contributing to a widening achievement gap. A study by Johns Hopkins University’s Karl Alexander found that summer learning loss in the elementary school years results in low-income students being as much as 2.5 years behind their higher-income peers by the end of 5th grade. It also leads to placement in less rigorous high school courses, higher high school dropout rates, and lower college attendance. Further, when students lose hard-won skills over the summer, teachers waste time re-teaching at the beginning of every school year.

The learning losses, and the wasted time, are preventable.

There is evidence that students who attend high-quality summer programs can avoid summer losses, but what makes a high-quality program? Not surprisingly, such programs offer strong, individualized instruction, have parents who are involved, and feature small class sizes and engaging activities, according to the RAND Corporation’s 2011 report Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning. They’re typically full-day programs that run from five to six weeks.

There are examples of successful summer learning programs in school districts and communities throughout the country. These high-quality programs effectively blend academics and enrichment activities to help students avoid learning losses, and even experience gains. These have nothing in common with the punitive summer schools I recall from my childhood. Rather, this new vision for summer school has kids reading in the morning and visiting museums in the afternoon. Math lessons are followed by art and music – subjects often squeezed out of the strained school day.

Outcomes are impressive. As part of the Smarter Summers initiative the National Summer Learning Association launched in 10 cities last year with support from the Walmart Foundation, middle school students attending Summer Advantage USA in Chicago and Indianapolis gained an average of 2.1 months in grade equivalents in literacy and math skills.

In Oakland, Calif., more than half of 1,000 elementary students who attended a summer program were found by the district to be performing at or above the benchmark in English/language arts scores after the program, compared with 36 percent in the spring. In Baltimore’s expanded summer learning program, elementary school students registered double-digit percentage-point gains in language arts and math tests from spring to fall 2010. Recently, Baltimore City Schools CEO Andres Alonso said that summer school is no longer just for children who are failing, but an important part of his strategy for helping all students to succeed.

Research is now underway on wide scale implementation and on sustained gains. The reality is that if we ever hope to close the persistent academic achievement gap, districts need to consider summer learning as part of their school improvement strategies. Summer school shouldn’t be seen as punitive, and shouldn’t be the first sacrifice in a tight budget year. It’s a link in the chain that’s been broken for far too long.

What We Can and Cannot Learn From International Comparisons

In education reform circles, people often express deep concerns about the mediocre performance of American students on international assessments such as PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS. There is good reason to be concerned that U.S. students score behind peer nations such as Finland, Netherlands, and Canada, and the international comparisons do provide a useful benchmark to tell us how our students are doing overall. However, while we can learn from the practices of other countries with high scores, we also need to maintain perspective.

First, there is great variation within our own country; representative samples of students in Massachusetts and Minnesota were given the PISA test, for example, and scored near the top, above most countries on most scales. Do these findings indicate that we should be studying Massachusetts and Minnesota as others are studying high-scoring Finland? Perhaps, but again, we should not get our knickers in a twist. Each of these states and countries has very different social and political contexts, and it is impossible to know which particular policy or practice contributes to the outcomes.

For example, a striking observation about Finland is that teachers are very highly respected there and only top students go into teaching. The teachers are not paid all that well, but for whatever reason, teaching is deeply valued. That’s useful to know, but is it the main reason Finns do so well? Perhaps it’s the long, cold winters with nothing else to do, the saunas, the completely phonetic language, the flatbread, the smoked fish. Who can say? And if the status of teachers were the key, what would we have to do in the US to get the top university graduates to go into teaching?

International comparisons are intriguing, but never tell us what to do. American students will start outperforming Finnish ones when we start implementing more effective programs and practices, proven in research in our schools. We may get good ideas from other countries worth testing out in U.S. schools, but we cannot assume that because a given high-scoring country uses a particular practice, that practice is what causes their high scores or is good for us.