Changing Thoughts on School Opening in the Fall

School districts all over the U.S. are planning how they will safely open schools next fall. Depending on Covid-19 infection rates, schools in some states and districts might not open at all, at least until conditions improve. However, there will also be many schools opening when the dangers of Covid-19 are relatively low, and schools can be reasonably safe if they are careful. This is the situation state and district leaders are mainly trying to plan for.

For the past several months, I have been reading about and hearing about plans to partially open schools in the fall. These plans have involved reducing the number of students in each class to allow for social distancing among students. Reducing the numbers of students in these plans usually requires having students attend schools on alternate days (“A Day”/”B Day”), and working online at home on the non-school days. Another often-discussed plan has students attend school either before lunch or after lunch.

Such plans are likely to be educationally damaging, because it is becoming widely acknowledged that online learning is simply no match for in-person teaching, especially for disadvantaged students, who often do not have access to adequate technology for online learning. However, these plans are based on the assumption that social distancing is the key to protecting students from getting or transmitting Covid-19. Social distancing is in fact highly effective with adults, but children rarely get or transmit Covid-19, and in the rare cases when they do, they almost never die from it. Further, while it is possible to maintain social distancing during well-organized class time, it is nearly impossible to keep students apart during recess, much less waiting for busses or walking to and from school. In a news story from Sydney, Australia, an eighth grader described how his school started the school year with strict social distancing, but within a week, it completely broke down, because students found so many ways to get together at times other than class time. Based on informal stories from schools opening this spring in the Southern Hemisphere, China, Singapore, and Europe, it seems that this is a widespread problem.

blog_7-02-20_covidstudents_500x333Recently, a major policy document from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) came out squarely against plans that involve students being required to rely on distance learning all or some of the time:

“The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

The AAP’s rationale depends in part on concerns that social distancing cannot be maintained, in part on the evidence that children are at very small risk for Covid-19, and in part on the health and mental health hazards of having many children staying at home for long periods, especially if adult supervision cannot be arranged. These dangers, note the AAP, include dangers of isolation, physical and sexual abuse, substance use, depression, food insecurity, and lack of physical activity.

The AAP does recommend as much social distancing as can be feasibly arranged within schools. It also notes the importance of maintaining social distancing among staff members, for example, by restricting meetings to electronic communications. It suggests masks for staff and students, especially in secondary school, as much as possible, as well as testing students and staff.

The AAP recommendations seem sensible and flexible, and would maximize effective learning time, not a minor factor. Their document provides additional details to consider at each grade level.

I do not know how influential the AAP guidelines have been, and perhaps other trusted organizations are making similar recommendations. However, districts around the country are beginning to announce their school re-opening plans, and some I have heard about are aligned with the AAP approach (i.e., fully open, with care). There are districts proposing A Day/B Day schedules, and other means of reducing the numbers of students in each class to allow social distancing, but many others are proposing that when numbers of new cases get low enough, they will fully open, and let schools do as much social distancing in class as they can within whatever space their facilities allow. Plans I’ve heard about are generally allowing parents to keep students at home if they wish, and will provide these students remote learning opportunities. I think all plans include the flexibility to closely monitor the health consequences of each plan, and be ready to change course, even to close schools again if disease rates spike for staff or students.

In the U.S., we have the luxury of being able to learn from the many schools around the world that have opened their schools before we will have to do so (or not) in August or September. These include schools in the Southern Hemisphere and East Asia, which open in our spring, as well as schools in Europe, where many countries have chosen to open schools in June and July. At this very moment, these schools are actually implementing a wide variety of the same strategies U.S. schools are just thinking about. Do other countries find out that school opening strategies emphasizing social distancing are effective? Which combinations of strategies turn out to be most effective, for both the health of students and staff and the education of students?

Our research group is collecting newspaper articles, government reports, and formal studies around the world, and we are asking teachers, parents, and students in these schools to tell us what they are seeing on the ground (we have friends all over). This effort will be less than systematic, but what we report will be timely and unvarnished. I sincerely hope that researchers are systematically studying outcomes of alternative plans. However, we also need immediate on-the-ground information on what other countries are experiencing.

The Covid-19 crisis has put educational leaders into positions of terrible responsibility for the lives of children and staff. They are seeking and heeding advice from medical and public health professionals, and have been struggling to balance educational and health needs. I think everyone owes these leaders enormous respect for the decisions they are having to make. As the summer progresses, I hope school leaders will be paying attention to the experiences of countries that have opened their schools, learning from their successes and setbacks, before implementing the best plans possible 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

Are the Dutch Solving the Covid Slide with Tutoring?

For a small country, the Netherlands has produced a remarkable number of inventions. The Dutch invented the telescope, the microscope, the eye test, Wi-Fi, DVD/Blue-Ray, Bluetooth, the stock market, golf, and major improvements in sailboats, windmills, and water management. And now, as they (like every other country) are facing major educational damage due to school closures in the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the Dutch who are the first to apply tutoring on a large scale to help students who are furthest behind. The Dutch government recently announced a plan to allocate the equivalent of $278 million to provide support to all students in elementary, secondary, and vocational schools who need it. Schools can provide the support in different ways (e.g., summer schools, extended school days), but it is likely that a significant amount of the money will be spent on tutoring. The Ministry of Education proposed to recruit student teachers to provide tutoring, who will have to be specially trained for this role.

blog_6-18-20_Dutchclass_500x333The Dutch investment would be equivalent to a U.S. investment of about $5.3 billion, because of our much larger population. That’s a lot of tutors. Including salaries, materials, and training, I’d estimate this much money would support about 150,000 tutors. If each could work in small groups with 50 students a year, they might serve about 7,500,000 students each year, roughly one in every seven American children. That would be a pretty good start.

Where would we get all this money? Because of the recession we are in now, millions of recent college graduates will not be able to find work. Many of these would make great tutors. As in any recession, the federal government will seek to restart the economy by investing in people. In this particular recession, it would be wise to devote part of such investments to support enthusiastic young people to learn and apply proven tutoring approaches coast to coast.

Imagine that we created an American equivalent of the Dutch tutoring program. How could such a huge effort be fielded in time to help the millions of students who need substantial help? The answer would be to build on organizations that already exist and know how to recruit, train, mentor, and manage large numbers of people. The many state-based AmeriCorps agencies would be a great place to begin, and in fact there has already been discussion in the U.S. Congress about a rapid expansion of AmeriCorps for work in health and education roles to heal the damage of Covid-19. The former governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, is funding a statewide tutoring plan in collaboration with Boys and Girls Clubs. Other national non-profit organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, City Year, and Communities in Schools could each manage recruitment, training, and management of tutors in particular states and regions.

It would be critical to make certain that the tutoring programs used under such a program are proven to be effective, and are ready to be scaled up nationally, in collaboration with local agencies with proven track records.

All of this could be done. Considering the amounts of money recently spent in the U.S. to shore up the economy, and the essential need both to keep people employed and to make a substantial difference in student learning, $5.3 billion targeted to proven approaches seems entirely reasonable.

If the Dutch can mount such an effort, there is no reason we could not do the same. It would be wonderful to help both unemployed new entrants to the labor force and students struggling in reading or mathematics. A double Dutch treat!

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

Large-Scale Tutoring as a Solution for School Closure Losses: Is the Idea Taking Hold?

What will America’s schools be like when they reopen in fall, 2020?  There are many things we don’t know, and conditions will vary considerably from state to state and school to school.  To begin with, we need to strengthen our schools, to be sure they have the teachers and administrators and supplies they need to do their essential work.  However, schools will need more than just a return to the status quo.  One thing we can absolutely predict is that millions of children will have fallen far behind in their educational progression. In particular, many elementary students in the early stages of learning reading and mathematics will need effective and rapid assistance tailored to their needs to get back on track.  Dedicated teachers and other educators will do everything in their power to bring students back up to speed, but without additional assistance, it will be very difficult to overcome the losses so many children have experienced.  States and school districts will be struggling economically, so no matter how clearly they understand what needs to be done, they will need help.  Yet at the same time, there will be large numbers of capable people eager to help struggling children who will be on the sidelines, without jobs that enable them to make the difference they want to make.

If you have been following my blogs for the past month or so (here, here, here, and here), you will be aware that I have been writing quite a bit about the idea of recruiting, training, and deploying large numbers of tutors to work in schools that have been closed for many months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  Our research and reviews of research have found that several one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring approaches that use teaching assistants (usually people with college degrees but not teaching certificates) have demonstrated effect sizes of +0.40 or more, roughly equivalent to five additional months of learning over a school year.  No other type of educational service comes close to these impacts.  My argument has been that in the recession we will be facing when school opens in the fall, it would be good for the economy as well as essential for students to have government fund thousands of tutors to work with students who have fallen far behind grade level in reading or mathematics.

This idea may be taking hold.  For example, the State of Tennessee recently announced a plan to work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters to recruit and train people to serve as tutors, as a response to the school closures (here and here). On May 15, the House of Representatives passed the Heroes Act, which includes substantial additional funding for K-12 education.  This includes “initiatives to reduce education gaps.”  This could certainly include tutoring.  I heard that there was talk in the Senate about funding that could also support tutoring.  None of these federal initiatives are certain, but at this point, what is important is that solutions of this kind are in discussion.

blog_5-28-20_tutor_500x333          In addition, other observers are also proposing large-scale tutoring as a solution for the educational damage done by school closures (and as a means of providing essential employment to thousands of recent college graduates otherwise unable to enter the job market).  Jill Barshay wrote about this in a recent article in the Hechinger Report.  Matthew Kraft and Michael Goldstein wrote on the topic in a recent Brookings blog.  Susan Dynarski wrote an op-ed on the proposal in the New York Times.

One concern I have heard expressed about the tutoring plan is that with all the uncertainties about the progression of Covid-19 and plans to re-open schools, it is not clear whether schools will re-open on time or not, and whenever they do open, they may use double sessions or other means to reduce the number of children being taught at a given time, to allow for social distancing within schools.  If neither cures nor vaccines are available by the fall, late or partial school openings are indeed possible.  We and other tutoring providers are developing and piloting distance tutoring models, and are willing to share them with other tutoring providers, should this be necessary.  And if schools do not open in September at all, then the need for intensive solutions such as tutoring are that much greater, whenever schools open.

If large-scale tutoring is to be used as part of recovery plans for schools, then preparations need to be begun as soon as possible, to coordinate the efforts of various providers, and then begin to recruit and train tutors, trainers, and others whose efforts will be needed to make this all work.  It would be wonderful if some number of tutors could be ready to go, starting with the elementary grades, soon after students arrive in school, and then expand services to add capacity to serve additional children in need over the 2020-2021 school year.

In the late 1930s, the extraordinary potential of penicillin to treat wounds and diseases was known by scientists and government officials in Britain, and they knew that war was coming and that penicillin could save millions of lives.  However, no one knew how to mass produce enough penicillin to matter.  The British contracted with an American company to work rapidly on the problem, and by the start of World War II, there was enough penicillin for a start, and massive manufacturing capacity to make more.  In a way, we are in a similar situation with tutoring.  We know what has to be done to provide millions of American children with the most effective service known to put them back on track, and it is clearly going to be necessary to do so.  Yet we have a lot of work to do to make this happen in time.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused great devastation in our economy, our society, and our schools.  There are many things we must do to repair these losses.  In each arena, we have to use the best methods we have to cost-effectively solve problems caused by the crisis.  In our field of education, there are many things that must be done, but tutoring, to ensure that students can catch up to grade level, should be part of this great effort.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

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

September, 2020: Opening School Doors to New Opportunities for Universal Success

“Now is the time for all good schools to come to the aid of their country.”

In times of great danger, nations have always called upon their citizens to volunteer to do what is necessary to solve their most pressing problems. Today, our most immediate crisis is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. This time, the heroes who have come forward are health care providers, who risk their lives to save the lives of others. The many people who work in essential services, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, also subject themselves to risks so that others can survive. Teachers across the country are working day and night to prepare online lessons, as well as helping get food to hungry students.  Behind the scenes, scientists are working to find cures, expand testing, and determine when it will be safe for our society to return to normal.

In a few months, we will face a new emergency. Schools will open. Hopefully, school opening will not pose major health threats to students and staff, assuming that the danger of infection has passed. But we will without any doubt face a new set of challenges in the education of the more than 50 million children in elementary and secondary schools in the U.S., as well as the billion students in the world as a whole.

blog_5-7-20_backtoschool500x333 2In the U.S., children re-entering our schools will have been out of school since March. Some may have kept up with their school work online, but most will have had little formal schooling for six months. This will be most serious, of course, among the students most at risk. By next September, 2020, millions of children will not only have missed out on schooling, but many will also be traumatized by what they have experienced since they were last in school. Many will have experienced the disease or death of a close relative. Many will have parents who have lost their jobs, and may have lived in fear of lacking food or safety.

This is a predictable crisis. No one can expect that schools and students will just pick up and carry on when schools re-open, as though they’ve just had a few snow days.  No teacher is going to say on Day 1, “Please open your textbook to the page where we left off last March.”

As educators and policy makers, it would be irresponsible to wait until schools re-open and only then take action to solve the entirely predictable problems. Instead, we need to prepare, starting today, to create the schools students will need in September, 2020, or whenever it is deemed safe for schools to open.

Here are a few ideas I would propose to address the problems students are likely to have.

  1. Bring all students up to grade level in reading and mathematics.

In two recent blogs (here and here) I discussed one aspect of this problem, the fact that many students will have fallen behind in basic skills because of their long absence from face-to-face school. I proposed a Marshall Plan for education, including mobilization of tens of thousands of recent college graduates, and others eager to help, to serve as paid tutors to students who are struggling in reading and/or mathematics.  As I noted, research overwhelmingly points to tutoring as the most effective strategy to accelerate the achievement of students who are performing below their capabilities.  According to the evidence, several one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring models can routinely increase student achievement by an effect size of +0.40 in a year (almost equivalent to the difference between middle class and disadvantaged students). But what if students received effective tutoring for two years, or longer? What if their classroom teachers used teaching methods proven to be effective, contributing further to student success? What if schools could provide services to students with problems with their vision or hearing, or chronic health problems such as asthma? Based on what we already know how to do, a goal of steadily increasing the percentage of students performing at today’s definition of “at grade level” could increase each year, until virtually all students could expect that level of performance.

  1. Schools need to welcome back every child.

When students return to school after the long delay and trauma they may have endured, they need to be welcomed back with enthusiasm by all school staff. The return will create a psychological opportunity.  Students will always remember what happened on the first day, the first weeks, the first months. A big party to welcome students back is a good start, but students will need constant and sincere affirmations of their value and importance to the adults in the school. They need to be told, one at a time and by name, how much they were missed, and how glad everyone is that they are back, safe and healthy. I think the theme of each school should be “a once-in-a-lifetime chance to connect with the school,” not “at last, everything is back to normal.”

  1.  Schools need social emotional and health solutions

In addition to using proven academic approaches, schools need to implement proven social-emotional and health promotion strategies to help all students reconnect and thrive.  Strategies to build self-concept, positive relations with peers, concern for the well-being of others, and a commitment to banish violence and bullying will be especially important.  Cooperative learning can help to build friendships, acceptance, and engagement, in addition to improving achievement.

In light of all that has happened, schools need to enthusiastically welcome their students back, and then provide them the success, respect, and love that they deserve.  They need to give them every reason to believe that they have a new opportunity to achieve success.  Students, parents, and educators alike need to have well-founded confidence that out of the destruction caused by the pandemic, there will come triumph.

 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

Marshall Plan II: Heal the Damage, But Build for the Future

At the end of World War II, Western Europe was devastated. Factories, housing, transportation, everything was destroyed. Millions were homeless, millions were refugees. The U.S. led an international effort to help countries rebuild. The U.S. Marshall Plan (1947-1951) was a massive gift to restart Western European economies and societies.

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“Berlin Emergency Program with Marshall Plan Help” National Archives at College Park / Public domain

There was so much that obviously had to be done in the short term. Yet the leaders of the shattered countries were not just thinking short term. Each of them used a significant portion of the Marshall Plan funding to establish national health systems. One irony never mentioned in the debate about trying European-style universal health care in the U.S. is that U.S. funds were used to create these very plans.

Today we face the COVID-19 crisis. Schools have closed, and are unlikely to re-open until September, at best. There has been a lot of discussion of how to use distance education to help students now, but only recently has there been much talk about what to do when schools re-open to make up the losses. I wrote a recent blog suggesting schools accelerate the achievement of students who have lost ground in basic skills, as well as those who had problems before schools closed and are now in greater difficulty. I suggested providing well-trained teacher assistants with college degrees to use proven tutoring approaches to accelerate student achievement in reading and mathematics. According to evidence, experience, and common sense, large scale, small group tutoring programs, and other proven methods, should enable struggling students to make substantial gains, erasing deficits from the COVID-19 closures.

But why should we stop there? If it is indeed possible to make a big difference in the performance levels of whole schools using proven cost-effective methods, why should we stop?

Time-limited solutions to the educational damage done by the COVID-19 school closures will not make the difference that needs to be made. Getting back to the status quo is not sufficient. Proven strategies capable of rapidly bringing students back to where they were will also demonstrate how schools can produce gains that go far beyond healing the specific damage due to the crisis.

The Marshall Plan helped Western Europe overcome its losses, but also to establish sustainable systems that continue to ensure the health of their populations 75 years later. In the same way, our solution to the educational impacts of the COVID-19 crisis could help establish a new basis for success for millions of children. Seventy-five years from now, wouldn’t it be wonderful if people recalled that in 2020, a worldwide pandemic finally shocked American education into solving its fundamental problems?

 This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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

A Marshall Plan for Post-COVID-19 Recovery

In World War II, my father was in the U.S. Navy.  In 1945, he was serving on a specially outfitted destroyer preparing for the invasion of Japan.  He always claimed that had the invasion gone forward, he would have been doomed.  He was in charge of his ship’s “radio-radar countermeasures,” new technology that would have been able to blind the radio and radar of the Japanese Navy so that there would have been only one ship they could detect: his.  Fortunately, the Japanese surrendered on October 14, before the invasion was set to begin.

I’m sure you’ve seen the famous picture of jubilant crowds in New York celebrating the surrender.  My father’s experience was different.  He was landed in Tokyo as part of the occupation forces.  He described Tokyo as a city whose former industrial and military areas had not one stone standing on another.  Many others have described similar scenes in Europe and Asia.  Like all servicemen, he was relieved that the war had ended, that he had survived.  But the extent of the destruction was horrifying, even to the victors.  How could a normal country grow back from this desert?

But it did.  Even the countries that suffered the greatest destruction were able, with American and other help, to rebuild, and ultimately to prosper.  The U.S. Marshall Plan, in particular, was a far-sighted investment in reconstruction that led the way in enabling destroyed countries to rebuild their societies and their economies.

Now we face another challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic.  I write from Baltimore at the point of inflection, when new cases of the disease have started to decline.  But it will still take a long time for everything to return to normal.  Compared to the death and destruction of World War II, COVID-19 is far less of a challenge, but day to day, it does not feel that way.  And unlike VJ Day, there will not be a day when it all ends, when everyone knows they are safe.

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For Americans, World War II was awful, but it was far away.  Life went on.  Schools and universities were open.  COVID-19 is different, because it profoundly affects the daily life of every American.  Most relevant to the readers of this blog, COVID-19 is severely interrupting the education of a generation.  This is a particular problem, of course, for disadvantaged students, whose parents are more likely to get the virus, who are less likely to have technology at home, and who were often already having difficulties in school.  How will we rebuild?  How will we help students regain the learning and the sense of security they once had?  And can we use this sobering experience to make lasting improvements in education?

Educational leaders are starting to think about what comes next.  Most are overwhelmed with the present, trying to figure out how, for example, to use distance learning to substitute for in-person school.  But anyone who has a child, or knows a child, or has ever been a child or parent, knows that distance education is not going to be enough, certainly not for most children, even in areas where students have plenty of computers, access to the Internet, excellent support from teachers teaching online, and parents who are willing and able to fill in to make sure that students are taking full advantage of whatever the school is providing their children. There will be happy exceptions, but there is a reason that homeschooling is rare.  When the schools open, hopefully next September, there will be a huge job to be done to repair the damage COVID-19 will have done to the educational futures of the 50 million U.S. children in grades PK to 12, as well as hundreds of millions more throughout the world.

One thing that seems highly likely is that when schools do open, they will open into an economic recession.  Currently, there is much concern for people who have lost their jobs, and initial efforts by the federal government have focused on propping up businesses and helping people who were employed, but happened to work for companies that had to close due to the pandemic.  This is essential, of course.  However, there is another problem that also needs attention: people who are just entering the workforce.  Since the Great Depression, economists have known how to respond to such crises: invest massively in people, to jump start the economy.

I would propose a solution that could help both with the schools and the recession. Schools should hire, train, and deploy large numbers of recent (and not so recent) college graduates as tutors, and in other essential roles in schools.

There is no intervention known that has an impact larger than that of tutoring.  One-to- one is most effective, but one-to-small group can also make a substantial difference in reading and mathematics performance in elementary and middle schools, and reaches many more students at a much lower cost per student.  Our recent research reviews (Baye et al., 2019; Neitzel et al., 2020; Pellegrini et al., 2020) tell us that teaching assistants, with proven materials and expert professional development, can obtain outcomes as good as those obtained by certified teachers working as tutors.

Imagine that every school could receive up to five well-trained, well-supported teaching assistant tutors, with the number of tutors determined by the school’s needs. This tutor corps could work with the students who are struggling in reading and/or mathematics, for as long as they need the assistance.  Our experience with small-group tutoring of this kind suggests that the cost per student tutored would be around $600 per year (Madden & Slavin, 2017).  Title I schools, especially those serving the most disadvantaged students, should be first in line for this assistance.  $600 per pupil per year is serious money, but well worth it in light of the need.  (Note: there are people suggesting that all students who missed school should repeat their most recent grade.  At an average per-pupil cost of $12,000 to do this, $600 per year sounds awfully reasonable as an alternative).   There are tutoring programs operating right now that can routinely obtain effect sizes of 0.40, or roughly 5 additional months of learning.  This  could go a very long way to not only solve the problems of students whose progress was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also help the many students who had problems before, which now need to be urgently addressed).

College graduates could also be trained as health aides, to use proven strategies to ensure that students who need them receive and use eyeglasses, or receive needed medications for asthma and other chronic illnesses that affect children’s school success as well as their long-term health).  They might also be trained and deployed to work with parents on issues such as attendance, social-emotional development, and mental health.

The problems of schools after the COVID-19 health crisis has passed must be addressed, with sufficient power and intensity to ensure that they get solved.  A return to normal is not sufficient.

We may never have a V-COVID Day, as we did a V-J Day after World War II.  But we must have a Marshall Plan for schools.  Universal access to tutoring and other essential services for students who need them would be a feasible, cost-effective start to a plan to reconstruct our schools.

Photo: National Archives at College Park / Public domain

References

Baye, A., Lake, C., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (2019). Effective reading programs for secondary students. Reading Research Quarterly, 54 (2), 133-166.

Madden, N. A., & Slavin, R. E. (2017). Evaluations of technology-assisted small-group tutoring for struggling readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 1-8.

Neitzel, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2020). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Available at www.bestevidence.org. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Pellegrini, M., Neitzel, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. (2020). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Available at www.bestevidence.com. Manuscript submitted for publication.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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

Preschool: A Step, Not a Journey

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

So said Lau Tzi (or Lau Tzu), the great Chinese scholar who lived in the 6th century BC.

For many years, especially since the extraordinary long-term outcomes of the Perry Preschool became known, many educators have seen high-quality preschool as an essential “first step” in a quality education. Truly, a first step in a journey of a thousand miles. Further, due to the Perry Preschool findings, educators, researchers, and policy makers have maintained that quality preschool is not only the first step in a quality education, but it is the most important, capable of making substantial differences in the lives of disadvantaged students.

I believe, based on the evidence, that high-quality preschool helps students enter kindergarten and, perhaps, first grade, with important advantages in academic and social skills. It is clear that quality preschool can provide a good start, and for this reason, I’d support investments in providing the best preschool experiences we can afford.

But the claims of most preschool advocates go far beyond benefits through kindergarten. We have been led to expect benefits that last throughout children’s lives.

Would that this were so, but it is not. The problem is that randomized studies rarely find long-term impacts. In such studies, children are randomly assigned to receive specific, high-quality preschool services or to serve in a control group, in which children may remain at home or may receive various daycare or preschool experiences of varying quality. In randomized long-term studies comparing students randomly assigned to preschool or business as usual, the usual pattern of findings shows positive effects on many measures at the end of the preschool year, fading effects at the end of kindergarten, and no differences in later years. One outstanding example is the Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten Program (Lipsey, Farran, & Durkin, 2018). A national study of Head Start by Puma, Bell, Cook, & Heid (2010) found the same pattern, as did randomized studies in England (Melhuish et al., 2010) and Australia (Claessens & Garrett, 2014). Reviews of research routinely identify this consistent pattern (Chambers, Cheung, & Slavin, 2017; Camilli et al., 2009; Melhuish et al., 2010).

So why do so many researchers and educators believe that there are long-term positive effects of preschool? There are two answers. One is the Perry Preschool, and the other is the use of matched rather than randomized study designs.

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The Perry Preschool study (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997) did use a randomized design, but it had many features that made it an interesting pilot rather than a conclusive demonstration of powerful and scalable impacts. First, the Perry Preschool study had a very small sample (initially, 123 students in a single school in Ypsilanti, Michigan). It allowed deviations from random assignment, such as assigning children whose mothers worked to the control group. It provided an extraordinary level of services, never intended to be broadly replicable. Further, the long-term effects were never seen on elementary achievement, but only appeared when students were in secondary school. It seems unlikely that powerful impacts could be seen after there were no detectable impacts in all of elementary school. No one can fully explain what happened, but it is important to note that no one has replicated anything like what the Perry Preschool did, in all the years since the program was implemented in 1962-1967.

With respect to matched study designs, which do sometimes find positive longitudinal effects, a likely explanation is that with preschool children, matching fails to adequately control for initial differences. Families that enroll their four-year-olds in preschool tend, on average, to be more positively oriented toward learning and more eager to promote their children’s academic success. Well-implemented matched designs in the elementary and secondary grades invariably control for prior achievement, and this usually does a good job of equalizing matched samples. With four-year-olds, however, early achievement or IQ tests are not very reliable or well-correlated with outcomes, so it is impossible to know how much matching has equalized the groups on key variables.

Preparing for a Journey

Lao Tzi’s observation reminds us that any great accomplishment is composed of many small, simple activities. Representing a student’s educational career as a journey, this fits. One grand intervention at one point in that journey may be necessary, but it is not sufficient to ensure the success of the journey. In the journey of education, it is surely important to begin with a positive experience, one that provides children with a positive orientation toward school, skills needed to get along with teachers and classmates, knowledge about how the world works, a love for books, stories, and drama, early mathematical ideas, and much more. This is the importance of preschool. Yet it is not enough. Major make-or-break objectives lie in the future. In the years after preschool, students must learn to read proficiently, they must learn basic concepts of mathematics, and they must continue to build social-emotional skills for the formal classroom setting. In the upper elementary grades, they must learn to use their reading and math skills to learn to write effectively, and to learn science and social studies. Then they must make a successful transition to master the challenges of secondary school, leading to successful graduation and entry into valued careers or post-secondary education. Each of these accomplishments, along with many others, requires the best teaching possible, and each is as important and as difficult to achieve for every child as is success in preschool.

A journey of a thousand miles may begin with a single step, but what matters is how the traveler negotiates all the challenges between the first step and the last one. This is true of education. We need to find effective and replicable methods to maximize the possibility that every student will succeed at every stage of the learning process. This can be done, and every year our profession finds more and better ways to improve outcomes at every grade level, in every subject. Preschool is only the first of a series of opportunities to enable all children to reach challenging goals. An important step, to be sure, but not the whole journey.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

References

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S., & Barnett, S. (2009). Meta-analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record, 112 (3), 579-620.

Chambers, B., Cheung, A., & Slavin, R.E. (2016) Literacy and language outcomes of comprehensive and developmental-constructivist approaches to early childhood education: A systematic review. Educational Research Review, 18, 88-111..

Claessens, A., & Garrett, R. (2014). The role of early childhood settings for 4-5 year old children in early academic skills and later achievement in Australia. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29, (4), 550-561.

Lipsey, M., Farran, D., & Durkin, K. (2018). Effects of the Tennessee Prekindergarten Program on children’s achievement and behavior through third grade. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 45 (4), 155-176.

Melhuish, E., Belsky, J., & Leyland, R. (2010). The impact of Sure Start local programmes on five year olds and their families. London: Department for Education.

Puma, M., Bell, S., Cook, R., & Heid, C. (2010). Head Start impact study: Final report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1997). Lasting differences: The High/Scope Preschool curriculum comparison study through age 23 (Monographs of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation No. 12) Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.

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

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Florence Nightingale, Statistician

Everyone knows about Florence Nightingale, whose 200th birthday is this year. You probably know of her courageous reform of hospitals and aid stations in the Crimean War, and her insistence on sanitary conditions for wounded soldiers that saved thousands of lives. You may know that she founded the world’s first school for nurses, and of her lifelong fight for the professionalization of nursing, formerly a refuge for uneducated, often alcoholic young women who had no other way to support themselves. You may know her as a bold feminist, who taught by example what women could accomplish.

But did you know that she was also a statistician? In fact, she was the first woman ever to be admitted to Britain’s Royal Statistical Society, in 1858.

blog_3-12-20_FlorenceNightingale_500x347Nightingale was not only a statistician, she was an innovator among statisticians. Her life’s goal was to improve medical care, public health, and nursing for all, but especially for people in poverty. In her time, landless people were pouring into large, filthy industrial cities. Death rates from unclean water and air, and unsafe working conditions, were appalling. Women suffered most, and deaths from childbirth in unsanitary hospitals were all too common. This was the sentimental Victorian age, and there were people who wanted to help. But how could they link particular conditions to particular outcomes? Opponents of investments in prevention and health care argued that the poor brought the problems on themselves, through alcoholism or slovenly behavior, or that these problems had always existed, or even that they were God’s will. The numbers of people and variables involved were enormous. How could these numbers be summarized in a way that would stand up to scrutiny, but also communicate the essence of the process leading from cause to effect?

As a child, Nightingale and her sister were taught by her brilliant and liberal father. He gave his daughters a mathematics education that few (male) students in the very finest schools could match. She put these skills to work in her work in hospital reform, demonstrating, for example, that when her hospital in the Crimean War ordered reforms such as cleaning out latrines and cesspools, the mortality rate dropped from 42.7 percent to 2.2 percent in a few months. She invented a circular graph that showed changes month by month, as the reforms were implemented. She also made it immediately clear to anyone that deaths due to disease far outnumbered those due to war wounds. No numbers, just colors and patterns, made the situation obvious to the least mathematical of readers.

When she returned from Crimea, Nightingale had a disease, probably spondylitis, that forced her to be bedridden much of the time for the rest of her life. Yet this did not dim her commitment to health reform. In fact, it gave her a lot of time to focus on her statistical work, often published in the top newspapers of the day. From her bedroom, she had a profound effect on the reform of Britain’s Poor Laws, and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, which her statistics showed to be counterproductive.

Note that so far, I haven’t said a word about education. In many ways, the analogy is obvious. But I’d like to emphasize one contribution of Nightingale’s work that has particular importance to our field.

Everyone who works in education cares deeply for all children, and especially for disadvantaged, underserved children. As a consequence of our profound concern, we advocate fiercely for policies and solutions that we believe to be good for children. Each of us comes down on one side or another of controversial policies, and then advocates for our positions, certain that our favored position would be hugely beneficial if it prevails, and disastrous if it does not. The same was true in Victorian Britain, where people had heated, interminable arguments about all sorts of public policy.

What Florence Nightingale did, more than a century ago, was to subject various policies affecting the health and welfare of poor people to statistical analysis. She worked hard to be sure that her findings were correct and that they communicated to readers. Then she advocated in the public arena for the policies that were beneficial, and against those that were counterproductive.

In education, we have loads of statistics that bear on various policies, but we do not often commit ourselves to advocate for the ones that actually work. As one example, there have been arguments for decades about charter schools. Yet a national CREDO (2013) study found that, on average, charter schools made no difference at all on reading or math performance. A later CREDO (2015) study found that effects were slightly more positive in urban settings, but these effects were tiny. Other studies have had similar outcomes, although there are more positive outcomes for “no-excuses” charters such as KIPP, a small percentage of all charter schools.

If charters make no major differences in student learning, I suppose one might conclude that they might be maintained or not maintained based on other factors. Yet neither side can plausibly argue, based on evidence of achievement outcomes, that charters should be an important policy focus in the quest for higher achievement. In contrast, there are many programs that have impacts on achievement far greater than those of charters. Yet use of such programs is not particularly controversial, and is not part of anyone’s political agenda.

The principle that Florence Nightingale established in public health was simple: Follow the data. This principle now dominates policy and practice in medicine. Yet more than a hundred years after Nightingale’s death, have we arrived at that common-sense conclusion in educational policy and practice? We’re moving in that direction, but at the current rate, I’m afraid it will be a very long time before this becomes the core of educational policy or practice.

Photo credit: Florence Nightingale, Illustrated London News (February 24, 1855)

References

CREDO (2013). National charter school study. At http://credo.stanford.edu

CREDO (2015). Urban charter school study. At http://credo.stanford.edu

 This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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

Why Can’t Education Progress Like Medicine Does?

I recently saw an end-of-year article in The Washington Post called “19 Good Things That Happened in 2019.” Four of them were medical or public health breakthroughs. Scientists announced a new therapy for cystic fibrosis likely to benefit 90% of people with this terrible disease, incurable for most patients before now. The World Health Organization announced a new vaccine to prevent Ebola. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that deaths of children before their fifth birthday have now dropped from 82 per thousand births in 1990 to 37 in 2019. The Centers for Disease Control reported a decline of 5.1 percent in deaths from drug overdoses in just one year, from 2017 to 2018.

Needless to say, breakthroughs in education did not make the list. In fact, I’ll bet there has never been an education breakthrough mentioned on such lists.

blog_1-9-20_kiddoctor_337x500 I get a lot of criticism from all sides for comparing education to medicine and public health. Most commonly, I’m told that it’s ever so much easier to give someone a pill than to change complex systems of education. That’s true enough, but not one of the 2019 medical or public health breakthroughs was anything like “taking a pill.” The cystic fibrosis cure involves a series of three treatments personalized to the genetic background of patients. It took decades to find and test this treatment. A vaccine for Ebola may be simple in concept, but it also took decades to develop. Also, Ebola occurs in very poor countries, where ensuring universal coverage with a vaccine is very complex. Reducing deaths of infants and toddlers took massive coordinated efforts of national governments, international organizations, and ongoing research and development. There is still much to do, of course, but the progress made so far is astonishing. Similarly, the drop in deaths due to overdoses required, and still requires, huge investments, cooperation between government agencies of all sorts, and constant research, development, and dissemination. In fact, I would argue that reducing infant deaths and overdose deaths strongly resemble what education would have to do to, for example, eliminate reading failure or enable all students to succeed at middle school mathematics. No one distinct intervention, no one miracle pill has by itself improved infant mortality or overdose mortality, and solutions for reading and math failure will similarly involve many elements and coordinated efforts among many government agencies, private foundations, and educators, as well as researchers and developers.

The difference between evidence-based reform in medicine/public health and education is, I believe, a difference in societal commitment to solving the problems. The general public, especially political leaders, tend to be rather complacent about educational failures. One of our past presidents said he wanted to help, but said, “We have more will than wallet” to solve educational problems. Another focused his education plans on recruiting volunteers to help with reading. These policies hardly communicate seriousness. In contrast, if medicine or public health can significantly reduce death or disease, it’s hard to be complacent.

Perhaps part of the motivational difference is due to the situations of powerful people. Anyone can get a disease, so powerful individuals are likely to have children or other relatives or friends who suffer from a given disease. In contrast, they may assume that children failing in school have inadequate parents or parents who need improved job opportunities or economic security or decent housing, which will take decades, and massive investments to solve. As a result, governments allocate little money for research, development, or dissemination of proven programs.

There is no doubt in my mind that we could, for example, eliminate early reading failure, using the same techniques used to eliminate diseases: research, development, practical experiments, and planful, rapid scale-up. It’s all a question of resources, political leadership, collaboration among many critical agencies and individuals, and a total commitment to getting the job done. The year reading failure drops to near zero nationwide, perhaps education will make the Washington Post list of “50 Good Things That Happened in 2050.”

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Evidence-Based Reform and the Multi-Academy Trust

Recently, I was in England to visit Success for All (SFA) schools there. I saw two of the best SFA schools I’ve ever seen anywhere, Applegarth Primary School in Croyden, south of London, and Houldsworth Primary School in Sussex, southeast of London. Both are very high-poverty schools with histories of poor achievement, violence, and high staff turnover. Applegarth mostly serves the children of African immigrants, and Houldsworth mostly serves White students from very poor homes. Yet I saw every class in each school and in each one, children were highly engaged, excited, and learning like crazy. Both schools were once in the lowest one percent of achievement in England, yet both are now performing at or above national norms.

In my travels, I often see outstanding Success for All schools. However, in this case I learned about an important set of policies that goes beyond Success for All, but could have implications for evidence-based reform more broadly.

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Both Applegarth and Houldsworth are in multi-academy trusts (MATs), the STEP Trust and the Unity Trust, respectively. Academies are much like charter schools in the U.S., and multi-academy trusts are organizations that run more than one academy. Academies are far more common in the U.K. than the U.S., constituting 22% of primary (i.e., elementary) schools and 68% of secondary schools. There are 1,170 multi-academy trusts, managing more than 5,000 of Britain’s 32,000 schools, or 16%. Multi-academy trusts can operate within a single local authority (school district) (like Success Academies in New York City) or may operate in many local authorities. Quite commonly, poorly-performing schools in a local authority, or stand-alone academies, may be offered to a successful and capable multi-academy trust, and these hand-overs explain much of the growth in multi-academy trusts in recent years.

What I saw in the STEP and Unity Trusts was something extraordinary. In each case, the exceptional schools I saw were serving as lead schools for the dissemination of Success for All. Staff in these schools had an explicit responsibility to train and mentor future principals, facilitators, and teachers, who spend a year at the lead school learning about SFA and their role in it, and then taking on their roles in a new SFA school elsewhere in the multi-academy trust. Over time, there are multiple lead schools, each of which takes responsibility to mentor new SFA schools other than their own. This cascading dissemination strategy, carried out in close partnership with the national SFA-UK non-profit organization, is likely to produce exceptional implementations.

I’m sure there must be problems with multi-academy trusts that I don’t know about, and in the absence of data on MATs throughout Britain, I would not take a position on them in general. But based on my limited experience with the STEP and Unity Trusts, this policy has particular potential as a means of disseminating very effective forms of programs proven effective in rigorous research.

First, multi-academy trusts have the opportunity and motivation to establish themselves as effective. Ordinary U.S. districts want to do well, of course, but they do not grow (or shrink) because of their success (or lack of it). In contrast, a multi-academy trust in the U.K. is more likely to seek out proven programs and implement them with care and competence, both to increase student success and to establish a “brand” based on their effective use of proven programs. Both STEP and Unity Trusts are building a reputation for succeeding with difficult schools using methods known to be effective. Using cascading professional developing and mentoring from established schools to new ones, a multi-academy trust can build effectiveness and reputation.

Although the schools I saw were using Success for All, any multi-academy trust could use any proven program or programs to create positive outcomes and expand its reach and influence. As other multi-academy trusts see what the pioneers are accomplishing, they may decide to emulate them. One major advantage possessed by multi-academy trusts is that much in contrast to U.S. school districts, especially large, urban ones, multi-academy trusts are likely to remain under consistent leadership for many years. Leaders of multi-academy trusts, and their staff and supporters, are likely to have time to transform practices gradually over time, knowing that they have the stable leadership needed for long-term change.

There is no magic in school governance arrangements, and no guarantee that many multi-academy trusts will use the available opportunities to implement and perfect proven strategies. Yet by their nature, multi-academy trusts have the opportunity to make a substantial difference in the education provided to all students, especially those serving disadvantaged students. I look forward to watching plans unfold in the STEP and Unity Trusts, and to learn more about how the academy movement in the U.K. might provide a path toward widespread and thoughtful use of proven programs, benefiting very large numbers of students. And I’d love to see more U.S. charter networks and traditional school districts use cascading replication to scale up proven, whole-school approaches likely to improve outcomes in disadvantaged schools.

Photo credit: Kindermel [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.