On Motivation

Once upon a time there was a man standing on a city street selling pencils from a tin cup. An old friend came by and recognized him.

“Hank!” said his friend. “What happened to you? Didn’t you have a big job at the Acme Dog Food Company?”

Hank hung his head. “I did,” he said mournfully. “I was its chief scientist. But it closed down, and it was all my fault!”

“What happened?” asked his friend.

“We decided to make the best dog food ever. We got together the top experts in dog nutrition in the whole world to find out what dogs really need. We put in the very best ingredients, no matter what they cost.”

“That sounds wonderful!” exclaimed the friend.

“It sounded great,” sighed Hank, “but the darned dogs wouldn’t eat it!”

In educational development, research, and dissemination, I think we often make the mistake made by the mythical Acme Dog Food Company. We create instructional materials and software completely in accord with everything the experts recommend. Today, for example, someone might make a program that is aligned with the Common Core or other college- and career-readiness standards, that uses personalization and authentic problem solving, and so on. Not that there is anything wrong with these concepts, but are they enough?

The key factor, I’d argue, is motivation. No matter how nutritious our instruction is, it has to appeal to the kids. In a review of secondary reading programs my colleagues and I wrote recently (www.bestevidence.org), most of the programs evaluated were 100% in accord with what the experts suggest. In particular, most of them emphasized the teaching of metacognitive skills, which has long been the touchstone for secondary reading, and many also provided an extra instructional period every day, in accord with the popular emphasis on extra-time strategies.

However, the approaches that made the biggest differences in reading outcomes were not those that provided extra time. They included small-group or individual tutoring approaches, cooperative learning, BARR (a program focusing on building relationships between teachers and students), and a few technology approaches. The successful approaches usually included metacognitive skills, but so did many programs that did not show positive outcomes.

What united the successful strategies is that they all get to the head through the heart.

Tutoring allows total personalization of instruction, but it also lets tutors and students build personal, close relationships. BARR (Building Assets, Reducing Risks) is all about building personal relationships. Cooperative learning focuses on building relationships among students, and adding an element of fun and engagement to daily lessons. Some technology programs are also good at making lessons fun and engaging.

I can’t say for sure that these were the factors that made the difference in learning outcomes, but it seems likely. I’d never say that instructional content and strategies don’t matter. They do. But the very best teaching methods with the very best content are unlikely to enhance learning very much unless they make the kids eager to learn.

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Love and Evidence

Valentine’s Day is this Sunday. If you are spending it thinking about effect sizes or research designs or education policy, shame on you. Unless, of course, that sort of thing turns you on.

So what does love have to do with evidence? Everything, actually. Our field is education. Education is empty without love. Evidence helps teachers and principals give every child the best possible chance to achieve success in school and in life. An educator who loves children wants the best for them. The purpose of educational research, development, and evaluation is to provide educators with pragmatic means of showing their love for children. Love without effective teaching is not enough, of course, and technically proficient teaching means little without love. But the two together are the most powerful force in education.

Children, especially young ones, completely trust their teachers. They look up to them with hope and respect. They are easy to love, even if sometimes hard to teach. But how can we give them any less than what we know how to give? Evidence does not provide all the answers or solve all the problems, but how is it responsible and loving to ignore evidence that could help students succeed?

I recently heard a story that illustrates what I’m talking about. A mother in a poor, Appalachian school in Kentucky came to meet with her daughter’s middle school principal. The school was using our Success for All program, which was adopted to improve very low reading proficiency rates. Even though the staff voted to adopt the research proven approach, there was some grumbling about the instructional processes that were required by the program among some of the staff. After all, change is hard. The principal was considering letting some teachers opt out.

The mother told the principal that her daughter, now in eighth grade, had never been able to read. Because of the school’s new program, she was now learning, excitedly bringing home books to read aloud to her.

The mother burst into tears. She’d never heard her daughter read to her before. She urged the principal to hold her ground and keep the program. Ultimately she did so.

This incident, repeated thousands of times every year for many proven programs, is a direct product of decades of research, development, and dissemination. All that R&D might sound technical and boring. But the outcome is a concrete expression of our love for children.

Love comes in many forms. On Valentine’s Day, we celebrate one of them. But the rest of the year, let’s remember that as educators, our love for children has to drive everything we do, including our choice of programs and practices that work. How can we want anything less than the best for the children who depend on us?

School Reform Is Empty Without Love and Support

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In a recent article in The New York Times, David Kirp wrote in opposition to “business models” being applied to education: Assessments, accountability, charters, vouchers, technology, and competition. In place of these, he notes that truly effective programs that have stood the test of time focus not on charters or vouchers or technology alone, but on building strong personal bonds between teachers and students. He gives as examples our Success for All modelDiplomas NowBig Brothers/Big Sisters, and YouthBuild. All of these help teachers, administrators, and community members to build positive, caring environments for children in high-poverty elementary and secondary schools. At the same time, all have been rigorously evaluated and found to improve such key outcomes as achievement and high school graduation.

Kirp is not arguing that approaches emphasizing charters or technology cannot work. However, his point is that unless they also intentionally improve teacher-student bonds, they are unlikely to make a lasting difference. We have enough evidence today to indicate that charters and technology are not magic, and that it matters a great deal what programs and practices they incorporate. I believe that Kirp is right in identifying teacher-student relationships as a key component of effective and sustainable reform. Further, building positive teacher-student relationships is valuable in itself.

Children are social beings who want and need to be loved and supported, and want to please teachers who give them love and support. Love and support are not enough to ensure that students can read or succeed in math, science, or other subjects. Teaching skill and effective practices and programs are also essential. One expression of love and support is the use of exciting, engaging teaching methods and communicating high expectations for all students. But even the best of programs and practices are empty and futile if they do not flow from love and support for children. No new form of governance, no new technology, no program of any kind can make a lasting difference without love and support at their core.

Preschools and Evidence: A Child Will Lead Us

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These are exciting times for people who care about preschool, for people who care about evidence, and especially for people who care about both. President Obama advocated for expanding high-quality preschool opportunities, Bill de Blasio, the new Mayor of New York City, is proposing new taxes on the wealthy for this purpose, and many states are moving toward universal preschool, or at least considering it. The recently passed Omnibus Budget had $250 million in it for states to add to or improve their preschool programs.

What is refreshing is that after thirty years of agreement among researchers that it’s only high-quality preschools that have long-term positive effects, the phrase “high quality” has become part of the political dialogue. At a minimum, “high quality” means “not just underpaid, poorly educated preschool teachers.” But beyond this, “high quality” is easy to agree on, difficult to define.

This is where evidence comes in. We have good evidence about long-term effects of very high-quality preschool programs compared to no preschool, but identifying exceptionally effective, replicable programs (in comparison to run-of-the-mill preschools) has been harder.

The importance of identifying preschool programs that actually work is being recognized not only in academia, but in the general press as well. In the January 29 New York Times, Daniel Willingham and David Grissmer advocated local and national randomized experiments to find out what works in preschool. On January 30, Nicholas Kristof wrote about rigorous research supporting long-term effects of preschool. Two articles on randomized experiments in education would be a good week for Education Week, much less the New York Times.

With President Obama, John Boehner, and the great majority of Americans favoring expansion of high-quality preschools, this might be an extraordinarily good time for the U.S. Department of Education to sponsor development and evaluation of promising preschool models. At the current rate it will take a long time to get to universal pre-K, so in the meantime let’s learn what works.

The U. S. Department of Education did such a study several years ago called Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research (PCER), in which various models were compared to ordinary preschool approaches. PCER found that only a few models did better than their control groups, but there was a clear pattern to the ones that did. These were models that provided teachers with extensive professional development and materials with a definite structure designed to build vocabulary, phonemic awareness, early math concepts, and school skills. They were not just early introduction of kindergarten, but focused on play, themes, rhymes, songs, stories, and counting games with specific purposes well understood by teachers.

In a new R & D effort, innovators might be asked to create new, practical models, perhaps based on the PCER findings, and evaluate them in rigorous studies. Within a few years, we’d have many proven approaches to preschool, ones that would justify the optimism being expressed by politicians of all stripes.

Historically, preschool is one of the few areas of educational practice or policy in which politicians and the public consider evidence to have much relevance. Perhaps if we get this one right, they will begin to wonder, if evidence is good for four year olds, why shouldn’t we consult it for the rest of education policy? If evidence is to become important for all of education, perhaps it has to begin with a small child leading us.

Love and Data

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I was recently visiting one of our Success for All schools in the most disadvantaged neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas. The amazing principal, Kathleen St. Clair, was telling me about something she had done to build commitment to the program among her teachers. She asked them to bring in pictures of their own kids, or relatives’ kids. The teachers passed around their photos with all appropriate “oohs” and “ahs” and “awws.” Ms. St. Clair then asked her teachers what kind of a school they wanted for their kids. They described schools where the children would feel cherished, challenged, and respected every day, where they had every chance to succeed and opportunities to be creative, to write well, to read critically. They wanted schools that their kids would be eager to attend, in which they would be active, engaged learners because the work was interesting and worthwhile.

Ms. St. Clair acknowledged that what her teachers described was what all parents want for their children. “Why,” she asked, “why shouldn’t we want the same for the children we teach?”

If you follow this blog, you’ve heard me going on at length about the importance of using high-quality evidence to make consequential decisions for children. I hope nothing I’ve written leads anyone to think that I’m suggesting anything different from what Ms. St. Clair was so powerfully advocating. Love has to come first. A teacher without a passion for children and a belief in what they can accomplish is not likely to make much of a difference even using the most research-proven of programs.

A principal or a school staff should choose proven programs out of love for their children, out of belief in their potential. The evidence matters, but in the sense that choosing and then implementing a proven program should be an indicator of the love and care teachers have for their children. Just as a pediatrician, for example, makes certain to choose research-proven treatments because they have real consequences for the children they serve and care about, so should school leaders and school staffs learn about, choose, and effectively implement proven programs, not because the programs are “in,” not because they want to avoid sanctions in state accountability schemes, not because they are worried about a new teacher evaluation, but because there is strong evidence that they work for kids, and then create the kinds of schools all parents want their children to attend.

We need to pay attention to all the research designs, statistics, and technical details that indicate that programs have been rigorously and successfully evaluated. Because all of those statistics come from the head rather than the heart, some people assume that people who love numbers don’t love children. Yet we don’t show love for children by giving them ineffective or unproven instruction and watching them fail. Love and data must go hand in hand to help all of our children succeed in school and grow to be confident, capable, and caring people themselves.

The next time someone challenges the need for evidence to support educational practice, try showing them pictures of your own children. Try saying, “I want my children to receive the best instructional programs possible, as proven by high-quality evidence. I want this because I love my children and want them to have challenging, exciting, and successful experiences in school, so they can reach their full potential. Isn’t that what you want for your own children? Isn’t that what you want for all children?”

Lessons from Innovators: The National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform

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The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The W. T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment, highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.

This blog, based on an interview between the Forum for Youth Investment and Debby Kasak, director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, shares how school-to-school mentoring is both bringing about substantial improvements and itself serving as an important sustainability strategy.

Mentoring is Good for Mentors and Mentees
Coaches and mentors, whether at the individual or school level, can improve their own practice by helping others. That is what has begun to happen among schools involved in the National Forum’s i3 project. The National Forum is an alliance of educators, researchers, national associations, and officers of professional organizations and foundations committed to promoting the academic performance and healthy development of young adolescents. Through its Schools to Watch (STW) program, the National Forum has developed criteria for identifying high-performing middle-grades schools and created tools to help schools use them.

The National Forum’s i3 development grant is focused on improving 18 low-performing schools in three states using the STW framework and criteria. The goal is for those schools to learn from other STW schools that have been performing well. “We are inspiring schools to change their practice through whole school intervention,” says Kasak. “Each i3 school is matched up with demographically similar STW schools so they can see that it is possible to make change, even with a tough student population. It helps bring the theory to life for them. Given all the things that teachers get confronted with, they really respond when they see other teachers who are getting results.” But it isn’t just the low-performing schools and their teachers and administrators who are benefitting. “Successful schools can be powerful change agents in the lives of schools that need help, but interestingly, we’ve found that those mentor schools are improving their practice too,” reports Kasak. By helping others – coaching and sharing tools and strategies – schools and individuals within them are reminded to shore up their own promising practices.

Building Relationships is Key
“It sounds like a cliché, but one thing we have learned that can’t be underscored enough is that relationships matter,” Kasak shares. “The first six to seven months that we were involved in this project it was really important that we had coaches in the buildings who could form good relationships with teachers and principals. We needed to take the time to nurture those relationships. And as we did that, we saw the culture and climate of those schools changing.” Supportive relationships help schools weather the inevitable transitions that occur at the senior administration level. If teachers and coaches have a strong network and are committed to the work, it is less disruptive when a principal or superintendent leaves. A cadre of advocates for the initiative remains to educate new leaders. According to Kasak, that is exactly what happened in Chicago. “In Chicago, schools across the city are divided into networks. Originally, all of our schools were part of one network and we had a really supportive network leader. When the district administration changed, the networks were reorganized and our schools were no longer in the same network. One of our new network leaders wasn’t as supportive. But in one school, a teacher invited the Mayor to come visit the school; low and behold he did, and he brought the network leader with him. Seeing the school in action, hearing the teachers talk about their experiences, and building that relationship with the school staff made all the difference. He (the network leader) has been much more supportive since.”

Evaluation Can Be a Powerful Tool
Another way the National Forum has built relationships is through evaluation. Although it may sound counterintuitive, Kasak has found that working with the project evaluation team to look at what they are doing in a developmental way has helped them to share more information with schools than they might have otherwise and to build trust and commitment to the effort. “We are finding that in the second year we have gotten much better participation rates – almost 100% of the faculty in our 18 buildings – than we did the first year,” reports Kasak. In speculating why that might be, the National Forum came up with a couple of explanations. “In part, we know this has to do with being in our second year – teachers understand the process better. But we also credit our evaluation team. They regularly give data back to the schools which helps them better understand how all this work is impacting their school culture. Our evaluation team has really helped us to ask: Are doing what we said we would? Is it working? And how can we improve?”

Participating Schools are Part of the Sustainability Pipeline
The National Forum has an innovative approach to scaling their innovation and sustaining those schools where they are already working. Their two networks – low-performing schools supported through the i3 project and higher-performing Schools to Watch schools – create a natural pipeline toward STW status. The goal is to have all of their i3 schools eventually become STW schools who then mentor and support other low-performing schools that may receive funding through additional i3 funding or other sources down the road. Only three years into the i3 initiative, this pipeline is already in action in North Carolina. “We have one rural school in our i3 project that has just been terrific over the past several years. Recently, it applied to be a Schools to Watch school. They were evaluated and received a very high score, so were designated as a STW school. Now they are in a position to mentor other i3 schools in North Carolina. They benefit from the mentoring process itself, and then every three years will have to go through a re-designation process to maintain STW status, ensuring they are always on their game and thinking about how to get better. This school just went from being one site in a project to being part of a sustainable system of reform. We hope to do this with all of our i3 schools.”