Evidence-Based Practice: It’s About the Kids

2013-04-10-BlogImageReading.jpg

Many years ago, I heard a heart-rending story. There was a fourth grader in a school in Southern Maryland who had not learned to read. I’ll call him Patrick. A proven reading program, our Success for All model, came to the school and replaced the school’s haphazard reading approach with a systematic, phonetic model. By the end of the school year, Patrick was reading near grade level.

Toward the end of the year, Patrick’s mother came to the school to thank his teacher for what she’d done for him. She showed Patrick’s teacher a box in which Patrick had saved every one of his phonetic readers. “Patrick calls this his treasure box,” she said. “He says he is going to keep these books forever, so that if he ever has a child of his own, he can teach him how to read.”

Here is the importance of this story. If you follow my blogs in the Huffington Post, or other writings on evidence-based practice, they often sound a little dry, full of effect sizes and wonkiness. Yet all of those effect sizes and policy proposals mean nothing unless they are changing the lives of children.

Traditional educational practices are perhaps fine for most kids, but there are millions of kids like Patrick who are not succeeding in school but could be, if they experienced proven programs and practices. Patrick, at age 10, had the foresight to prepare to help his own child someday avoid the pain and humiliation he had experienced. Why is it so hard for caring grownups in positions of authority to come to the same understanding?

There is no problem in education we know more about than early reading failure. There are proven one-to-one and small-group tutoring programs, classroom interventions, and whole-school approaches like Success for All. They differ in costs, impacts, and practicability in various settings, but it is clear that reading failure can be prevented or remediated before third grade for nearly all children. Yet most struggling young readers do not receive any of these programs.

Patrick must be about 30 by now. Perhaps he has a child of his own. Wherever he is, I’m certain he remembers how close he came to a life of illiteracy and failure. I wonder if he still has his treasure box with the books inside it.

Patrick probably does not know where those books came from, the research supporting their use, or the effect sizes from the many evaluations. He doesn’t need to be a researcher to understand what happened to him. What he does know is that somehow, someone cared enough to give him an opportunity to learn to read, using a program proven to be effective.

Why does what happened to Patrick have to be such a rare occurrence? If you understand what the evidence means and you see educators and policy makers continuing to ignore it, shouldn’t you be furious?

Advertisements

Evidence-Based Practice: It’s About the Kids

2013-04-10-BlogImageReading.jpg

Many years ago, I heard a heart-rending story. There was a fourth grader in a school in Southern Maryland who had not learned to read. I’ll call him Patrick. A proven reading program, our Success for All model, came to the school and replaced the school’s haphazard reading approach with a systematic, phonetic model. By the end of the school year, Patrick was reading near grade level.

Toward the end of the year, Patrick’s mother came to the school to thank his teacher for what she’d done for him. She showed Patrick’s teacher a box in which Patrick had saved every one of his phonetic readers. “Patrick calls this his treasure box,” she said. “He says he is going to keep these books forever, so that if he ever has a child of his own, he can teach him how to read.”

Here is the importance of this story. If you follow my blogs in the Huffington Post, or other writings on evidence-based practice, they often sound a little dry, full of effect sizes and wonkiness. Yet all of those effect sizes and policy proposals mean nothing unless they are changing the lives of children.

Traditional educational practices are perhaps fine for most kids, but there are millions of kids like Patrick who are not succeeding in school but could be, if they experienced proven programs and practices. Patrick, at age 10, had the foresight to prepare to help his own child someday avoid the pain and humiliation he had experienced. Why is it so hard for caring grownups in positions of authority to come to the same understanding?

There is no problem in education we know more about than early reading failure. There are proven one-to-one and small-group tutoring programs, classroom interventions, and whole-school approaches like Success for All. They differ in costs, impacts, and practicability in various settings, but it is clear that reading failure can be prevented or remediated before third grade for nearly all children. Yet most struggling young readers do not receive any of these programs.

Patrick must be about 30 by now. Perhaps he has a child of his own. Wherever he is, I’m certain he remembers how close he came to a life of illiteracy and failure. I wonder if he still has his treasure box with the books inside it.

Patrick probably does not know where those books came from, the research supporting their use, or the effect sizes from the many evaluations. He doesn’t need to be a researcher to understand what happened to him. What he does know is that somehow, someone cared enough to give him an opportunity to learn to read, using a program proven to be effective.

Why does what happened to Patrick have to be such a rare occurrence? If you understand what the evidence means and you see educators and policy makers continuing to ignore it, shouldn’t you be furious?

Universal Preschool: Use Innovation and Evidence to Make it Effective

In his recent State of the Union Address, President Obama proposed to “make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” He referred to research that has demonstrated long term positive effects of attending high-quality preschool programs. President Obama’s support has excited the early childhood community. Who could be opposed to expanding high-quality preschool opportunities? Yet this begs the question: What does “high-quality” mean in practice?

“High-quality” preschools are often defined by educators and economists alike as ones in which teachers are adequately paid, facilities are adequate, and the ratio of staff to children is low. These are indeed important elements of quality and they are serious problems, as preschool educators are often very poorly paid, poorly educated themselves, and lack decent facilities. The low salaries received by preschool teachers leads to a high turnover rate, which also reduces quality. So ensuring universal access to high-quality preschools when many current preschoolers are already struggling with quality and funding issues will be a heavy lift.

Leaving aside money issues, however, there is an important question about how preschool programs should be structured. There is lots of research showing the benefits of high-quality preschool in comparison to no preschool (as in the famous Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs). However, there is far less research showing different benefits of different preschool approaches.

The Preschool Curriculum Effectiveness Research initiative compared a number of promising approaches to each other and to groups using standard preschool teaching methods. The results are summarized in a review on the Best Evidence Encyclopedia. By the end of kindergarten, only a few of the programs showed child outcomes superior to those achieved by other programs. Structured programs that had a very strong focus on language and emergent literacy, giving children many opportunities to use language to work together, solve challenges, and develop positive relationships with each other, had the best outcomes for children.

Technology has so far played a modest role in early childhood education, but this may change as multimedia devices (such as interactive whiteboards) become more commonly used. Technology offers opportunities for teachers to enhance language development by engaging children with brief content that helps them understand how the world works. For example, children learning about health can see videos on how the body works and can be provided with video models of how to stay safe and healthy. Children can make choices and manipulate pictures and videos representing objects and processes. Further, classroom technology allows for linkages with the home, as parents increasingly have computers, DVDs, and other media available. Children can be shown exciting content in school and then take home DVDs or link electronically to specific materials that closely align with the content they learned that day. These electronic activities can be designed to be done with parents and children together, and can then inform parents about what children are learning in school. Also, in high-poverty homes children often have few if any books. Existing DVD or internet technologies can provide children with access to appropriate literature, which can be read to them by narrators or by their parents or older siblings.

Of course, technology will not replace the majority of early childhood teaching. Young children still need to manipulate real objects and learn to work with each other, sing songs, develop coordination and creativity, and practice appropriate behaviors. However, technology may add the capacity for teachers to show anything they want to their children and to link to the home in ways that have not been possible in the past, and this may result in enhanced learning at this critical age.

Expanding preschool access is a terrific idea, but it will take a lot of money and a long time to put into place. The possibility that it may take place should motivate immediate investments in innovation and evaluation, to develop new ways of ensuring that early education leads to enhanced preparation for success, especially for disadvantaged children.

Preschool quality should not just be seen as a question of per-pupil cost. Preschool educators and children need innovative, proven models that use modern teaching strategies and technologies that are appropriate to the developmental needs of four-year-olds. Innovation and research is needed to show the way as we head toward universal preschool.

Lessons from Innovators: Children’s Learning Initiative

2013-02-19-HP4Image21813.jpg

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 two foundations, will 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.

Today’s post focuses on the Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI). It is based on conversations between the Forum and CLI’s Executive Director, Kelly Hunter, on what it takes to maintain fidelity to a complex model in light of constant change in urban school districts. A summary of her comments is as follows.

Plan for change and stick to your core. School systems are in constant flux and developers must be prepared for instability. The Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI) tries to do that by using training, coaching and other supports to promote quality teaching to ensure that students in low performing, urban districts are proficient readers, writers and thinkers by the end of third grade. They are currently attempting to scale their effort to four new districts, Camden, Chicago, Newark and Philadelphia. This is easier said than done. Such districts experience frequent teacher and administrator turnover, school closures and mergers, and charter formation. Hunter suggests that if you want to implement with fidelity you first have to take a long and hard look at your model, make decisions about what is core, and then message those core ingredients in a way that respects where schools are coming from. Hunter notes, “We realized that we were struggling with messaging our change model. Even though research shows quality teaching is the number one school factor, funders and others were focused on other reforms that are sexy today. We didn’t want to focus on being negative or bad mouthing other reforms. We just knew we had to be strong in our position, share the research, and stay clear about our message and core ingredients.”

Identify the right champions. Kelly and her partners at CLI have learned that regional superintendents are a critical ingredient for sustained change. These area leaders have considerable influence over principals. “At the beginning,” Hunter notes, “we would get central office and schools to sign off, but not the regional superintendents. Then we would be off and running but all of a sudden the regionals were messaging something different than what we were doing.” When regional leaders began to understand the importance of fidelity and appreciate the core ingredients, they were then able to share their enthusiasm with principals or set standards to reinforce values and practices consistent with the model.

Partner to multiply resources and minimize obstacles. As they push towards scale, leaders at CLI have also learned the importance of cultivating new and varied partnerships. In addition to district staff, especially important partners include local funders and other program providers. Local funders are essential from a sustainability standpoint. It is also critical to partner with other entities that provide related services or technical assistance within a building or district – even when they involve a different subject matter or grade. These partnerships can allow for more comprehensive and coherent supports across disciplines and grade levels and minimize confusion among and competing demands on district staff. “It’s about enhancing what we are doing, not changing it,” comments Hunter. For example, in one i3 school in West Philadelphia, Drexel University was providing coaching services in math while CLI was providing literacy coaching. By working together, they were able to make coaching across these topics more consistent and communication more streamlined.

Scale back to scale up. Implementing innovative practices is complicated and labor intensive. Regional knowledge is necessary to help align external needs and resources with your own organizations’ demands and capacities. Networking locally is a great way to learn about a school, community or district, and to identify key stakeholders, funders, and advocates. But building this knowledge and these relationships takes staff, time, and energy. To address this challenge, CLI revisited their initial plan and decided to concentrate energy and resources on implementing the model deeply in four cities rather than spread themselves thinly across ten. According to Hunter, “we knew that in some communities, we didn’t have enough local influence, networking and outreach to raise the dollars and implement the model with fidelity. We were chasing dollars and our model was being compromised. Ultimately that compromises student achievement.” Instead, she says, “over time we hope to build our presence in and around our four hubs and eventually serve as a model for other communities as they scale to surrounding schools and districts.”

Lessons from Innovators: Children’s Learning Initiative

2013-02-19-HP4Image21813.jpg

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 two foundations, will 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.

Today’s post focuses on the Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI). It is based on conversations between the Forum and CLI’s Executive Director, Kelly Hunter, on what it takes to maintain fidelity to a complex model in light of constant change in urban school districts. A summary of her comments is as follows.

Plan for change and stick to your core. School systems are in constant flux and developers must be prepared for instability. The Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI) tries to do that by using training, coaching and other supports to promote quality teaching to ensure that students in low performing, urban districts are proficient readers, writers and thinkers by the end of third grade. They are currently attempting to scale their effort to four new districts, Camden, Chicago, Newark and Philadelphia. This is easier said than done. Such districts experience frequent teacher and administrator turnover, school closures and mergers, and charter formation. Hunter suggests that if you want to implement with fidelity you first have to take a long and hard look at your model, make decisions about what is core, and then message those core ingredients in a way that respects where schools are coming from. Hunter notes, “We realized that we were struggling with messaging our change model. Even though research shows quality teaching is the number one school factor, funders and others were focused on other reforms that are sexy today. We didn’t want to focus on being negative or bad mouthing other reforms. We just knew we had to be strong in our position, share the research, and stay clear about our message and core ingredients.”

Identify the right champions. Kelly and her partners at CLI have learned that regional superintendents are a critical ingredient for sustained change. These area leaders have considerable influence over principals. “At the beginning,” Hunter notes, “we would get central office and schools to sign off, but not the regional superintendents. Then we would be off and running but all of a sudden the regionals were messaging something different than what we were doing.” When regional leaders began to understand the importance of fidelity and appreciate the core ingredients, they were then able to share their enthusiasm with principals or set standards to reinforce values and practices consistent with the model.

Partner to multiply resources and minimize obstacles. As they push towards scale, leaders at CLI have also learned the importance of cultivating new and varied partnerships. In addition to district staff, especially important partners include local funders and other program providers. Local funders are essential from a sustainability standpoint. It is also critical to partner with other entities that provide related services or technical assistance within a building or district – even when they involve a different subject matter or grade. These partnerships can allow for more comprehensive and coherent supports across disciplines and grade levels and minimize confusion among and competing demands on district staff. “It’s about enhancing what we are doing, not changing it,” comments Hunter. For example, in one i3 school in West Philadelphia, Drexel University was providing coaching services in math while CLI was providing literacy coaching. By working together, they were able to make coaching across these topics more consistent and communication more streamlined.

Scale back to scale up. Implementing innovative practices is complicated and labor intensive. Regional knowledge is necessary to help align external needs and resources with your own organizations’ demands and capacities. Networking locally is a great way to learn about a school, community or district, and to identify key stakeholders, funders, and advocates. But building this knowledge and these relationships takes staff, time, and energy. To address this challenge, CLI revisited their initial plan and decided to concentrate energy and resources on implementing the model deeply in four cities rather than spread themselves thinly across ten. According to Hunter, “we knew that in some communities, we didn’t have enough local influence, networking and outreach to raise the dollars and implement the model with fidelity. We were chasing dollars and our model was being compromised. Ultimately that compromises student achievement.” Instead, she says, “over time we hope to build our presence in and around our four hubs and eventually serve as a model for other communities as they scale to surrounding schools and districts.”

Retention Costs More, Accomplishes Less

Earlier this week, John Wilson put the spotlight on a national embarrassment in his Education Week blog post entitled Flunking 3rd Graders Is Not An Intervention. His central point is worth repeating here:

“Flunking 3rd graders is costly to the taxpayers and devastating to the students. Do the math. It costs $10,000 to educate a student every year or $20,000 annually for a special needs student. Is it better to fail a student and create an extra year of that cost or to create a “bridge” program for students who have not mastered reading by the end of the third grade? It is better to provide an intensive intervention in literacy while covering a fourth grade curriculum and eventually place the students in the fourth grade classroom when they will be successful there.”

Wilson’s assessment could not be more devastatingly true. Clearly, retention is a fiscally irresponsible option. Even worse, it sets children back an entire year in their education by repeating the course of action that set them behind in the first place. Yet schools continue to opt against adopting more effective proven interventions because they are deemed “too expensive,” and legislators in several states are considering mandatory retention for low-performing third graders.

The Doing What Works initiative at the Center for American Progress takes one step forward in addressing this issue by educating school leaders on cost-effective, proven options that are available. School leaders can also refer directly to the government-funded What Works Clearinghouse, the Top Tier Evidence Initiative at the Coalition for Evidence Based Policy, and the Best Evidence Encyclopedia from Johns Hopkins School of Education to find out what works for struggling readers. All of these sites provide comprehensive information about the strength of the evidence supporting a variety of education programs.

Wilson ends his post with the question: “What are your best interventions to help children read?” With all the resources that exist, we cannot simply throw up our hands when faced with this question. If the well-meaning legislators talking about mandatory retentions were aware of the evidence, they would see that retention is far from being the only solution to the problem of school failure.

For the latest on evidence-based education, follow me on twitter: @RobertSlavin

Disclosure Note: Robert Slavin is the Director of the Best Evidence Encyclopedia project at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

Why Not an Ounce of Prevention?

There’s an old story about a town that was planning to build a playground. In the town council, someone brought up the problem that the proposed site was at the edge of a cliff, so there was a danger that children might fall off. The council then got into a debate about whether to build a fence at the top of the cliff or station an ambulance at the bottom!

The point of the story, of course, is that it’s ridiculous to invest in remediation of problems that could have been prevented. Yet in education, that is what happens all the time. We spend billions on remediation and special education, not to mention damage caused by preventable delinquency and mental health problems, while investing relatively little in prevention, or research on which preventive approaches work.

There is plenty of evidence, for example, to the effect that early reading failure is catastrophic for students’ progress in school and in life. Further, there is plenty of evidence illustrating that most reading failure can be prevented using proven preschool, kindergarten, and primary-grades reading strategies using structured, phonetic one-to-one or small group tutoring, and whole-school reforms focusing on reading for all. Add to these the likely improvements in prevention that could result from ensuring that all children who need them have eyeglasses and other health services necessary to ensure that students are ready to learn every day.

There are good reasons to invest in proven educational programs at all levels and in all subjects, but when proven programs also reduce government expenditures within a few years, even the most bottom-line oriented administrator or legislator should see the need to invest in proven prevention. A fence is not only smarter and kinder than an ambulance – it’s also a lot cheaper.