Science of Reading: Can We Get Beyond Our 30-Year Pillar Fight?

How is it possible that the “reading wars” are back on? The reading wars primarily revolve around what are often called the five pillars of early reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency. Actually, there is little debate about the importance of comprehension, vocabulary, or fluency, so the reading wars are mainly about phonemic awareness and phonics. Diehard anti-phonics advocates exist, but in all of educational research, there are few issues that have been more convincingly settled by high-quality evidence. The National Reading Panel (2000), the source of the five pillars, has been widely cited as conclusive evidence that success in the early stages of reading depends on ensuring that students are all successful in phonemic awareness, phonics, and the other pillars. I was invited to serve on that panel, but declined, because I thought it was redundant. Just a short time earlier, the National Research Council’s Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) had covered essentially the same ground and came to essentially the same conclusion, as had Marilyn Adams’ (1990) Beginning to Read, and many individual studies. To my knowledge, there is little credible evidence to the contrary. Certainly, then and now there have been many students who learn to read successfully with or without a focus on phonemic awareness and phonics. However, I do not think there are many students who could succeed with non-phonetic approaches but cannot learn to read with phonics-emphasis methods. In other words, there is little if any evidence that phonemic awareness or phonics cause harm, but a great deal of evidence that for perhaps more than half of students, effective instruction emphasizing phonemic awareness and phonics are essential.  Since it is impossible to know in advance which students will need phonics and which will not, it just makes sense to teach using methods likely to maximize the chances that all children (those who need phonics and those who would succeed with or without them) will succeed in reading.

However…

The importance of the five pillars of the National Reading Panel (NRP) catechism are not in doubt among people who believe in rigorous evidence, as far as I know. The reading wars ended in the 2000s and the five pillars won. However, this does not mean that knowing all about these pillars and the evidence behind them is sufficient to solve America’s reading problems. The NRP pillars describe essential elements of curriculum, but not of instruction.

blog_3-19-20_readinggroup_333x500Improving reading outcomes for all children requires the five pillars, but they are not enough. The five pillars could be extensively and accurately taught in every school of education, and this would surely help, but it would not solve the problem. State and district standards could emphasize the five pillars and this would help, but would not solve the problem. Reading textbooks, software, and professional development could emphasize the five pillars and this would help, but it would not solve the problem.

The reason that such necessary policies would still not be sufficient is that teaching effectiveness does not just depend on getting curriculum right. It also depends on the nature of instruction, classroom management, grouping, and other factors. Teaching reading without teaching phonics is surely harmful to large numbers of students, but teaching phonics does not guarantee success.

As one example, consider grouping. For a very long time, most reading teachers have used homogeneous reading groups. For example, the “Stars” might contain the highest-performing readers, the “Rockets” the middle readers, and the “Planets” the lowest readers. The teacher calls up groups one at a time. No problem there, but what are the students doing back at their desks? Mostly worksheets, on paper or computers. The problem is that if there are three groups, each student spends two thirds of reading class time doing, well, not much of value. Worse, the students are sitting for long periods of time, with not much to do, and the teacher is fully occupied elsewhere. Does anyone see the potential for idle hands to become the devil’s playground? The kids do.

There are alternatives to reading groups, such as the Joplin Plan (cross-grade grouping by reading level), forms of whole-class instruction, or forms of cooperative learning. These provide active teaching to all students all period. There is good evidence for these alternatives (Slavin, 1994, 2017). My main point is that a reading strategy that follows NRP guidelines 100% may still succeed or fail based on its grouping strategy. The same could be true of the use of proven classroom management strategies or motivational strategies during reading periods.

To make the point most strongly, imagine that a district’s teachers have all thoroughly mastered all five pillars of science of reading, which (we’ll assume) are strongly supported by their district and state. In an experiment, 40 teachers of grades 1 to 3 are selected, and 20 of these are chosen at random to receive sufficient tutors to work with their lowest-achieving 33% of students in groups of four, using a proven model based on science of reading principles. The other 20 schools just use their usual materials and methods, also emphasizing science of reading curricula and methods.

The evidence from many studies of tutoring (Inns et al., 2020), as well as common sense, tell us what would happen. The teachers supported by tutors would produce far greater achievement among their lowest readers than would the other equally science-of-reading-oriented teachers in the control group.

None of these examples diminish the importance of science of reading. But they illustrate that knowing science of reading is not enough.

At www.evidenceforessa.org, you can find 65 elementary reading programs of all kinds that meet high standards of effectiveness. Almost all of these use approaches that emphasize the five pillars. Yet Evidence for ESSA also lists many programs that equally emphasize the five pillars and yet have not found positive impacts. Rather than re-starting our thirty-year-old pillar fight, don’t you think we might move on to advocating programs that not only use the right curricula, but are also proven to get excellent results for kids?

References

Adams, M.J. (1990).  Beginning to read:  Thinking and learning about print.  Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press.

Inns, 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.

National Reading Panel (2000).  Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction.  Rockville, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Slavin, R. E. (1994). School and classroom organization in beginning reading:  Class size, aides, and instructional grouping. In R. E. Slavin, N. L. Karweit, and B. A. Wasik (Eds.), Preventing early school failure. Boston:  Allyn and Bacon.

Slavin, R. E. (2017). Instruction based on cooperative learning. In R. Mayer & P. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of research on learning and instruction. New York: Routledge.

Snow, C.E., Burns, S.M., & Griffin, P. (Eds.) (1998).  Preventing reading difficulties in young children.  Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

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

 

Compared to What? Getting Control Groups Right

Several years ago, I had a grant from the National Science Foundation to review research on elementary science programs. I therefore got to attend NSF conferences for principal investigators. At one such conference, we were asked to present poster sessions. The group next to mine was showing an experiment in science education that had remarkably large effect sizes. I got to talking with the very friendly researcher, and discovered that the experiment involved a four-week unit on a topic in middle school science. I think it was electricity. Initially, I was very excited, electrified even, but then I asked a few questions about the control group.

“Of course there was a control group,” he said. “They would have taught electricity too. It’s pretty much a required portion of middle school science.”

Then I asked, “When did the control group teach about electricity?”

“We had no way of knowing,” said my new friend.

“So it’s possible that they had a four-week electricity unit before the time when your program was in use?”

“Sure,” he responded.

“Or possibly after?”

“Could have been,” he said. “It would have varied.”

Being the nerdy sort of person I am, I couldn’t just let this go.

“I assume you pretested students at the beginning of your electricity unit and at the end?”

“Of course.”

“But wouldn’t this create the possibility that control classes that received their electricity unit before you began would have already finished the topic, so they would make no more progress in this topic during your experiment?”

“…I guess so.”

“And,” I continued, “students who received their electricity instruction after your experiment would make no progress either because they had no electricity instruction between pre- and posttest?”

I don’t recall how the conversation ended, but the point is, wonderful though my neighbor’s science program might be, the science achievement outcome of his experiment were, well, meaningless.

In the course of writing many reviews of research, my colleagues and I encounter misuses of control groups all the time, even in articles in respected journals written by well-known researchers. So I thought I’d write a blog on the fundamental issues involved in using control groups properly, and the ways in which control groups are often misused.

The purpose of a control group

The purpose of a control group in any experiment, randomized or matched, is to provide a valid estimate of what the experimental group would have achieved had it not received the experimental treatment, or if the study had not taken place at all. Through random assignment or matching, the experimental and control groups are essentially equal at pretest on all important variables (e.g., pretest scores, demographics), and nothing happens in the course of the experiment to upset this initial equality.

How control groups go wrong

Inequality in opportunities to learn tested content. Often, experiments appear to be legitimate (e.g., experimental and control groups are well matched at pretest), but the design contains major bias, because the content being taught in the experimental group is not the same as the content taught in the control group, and the final outcome measure is aligned to what the experimental group was taught but not what the control group was taught. My story at the start of this blog was an example of this. Between pre- and posttest, all students in the experimental group were learning about electricity, but many of those in the control group had already completed electricity or had not received it yet, so they might have been making great progress on other topics, which were not tested, but were unlikely to make much progress on the electricity content that was tested. In this case, the experimental and control groups could be said to be unequal in opportunities to learn electricity. In such a case, it matters little what the exact content or teaching methods were for the experimental program. Teaching a lot more about electricity is sure to add to learning of that topic regardless of how it is taught.

There are many other circumstances in which opportunities to learn are unequal. Many studies use unusual content, and then use tests partially or completely aligned to this unusual content, but not to what the control group was learning. Another common case is where experimental students learn something involving use of technology, but the control group uses paper and pencil to learn the same content. If the final test is given on the technology used by the experimental but not the control group, the potential for bias is obvious.

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Unequal opportunities to learn (as a source of bias in experiments) relates to a topic I’ve written a lot about. Use of developer- or researcher-made outcome measures may introduce unequal opportunities to learn, because these measures are more aligned with what the experimental group was learning than what the control group was learning. However, the problem of unequal opportunities to learn is broader than that of developer/researcher-made measures. For example, the story that began this blog illustrated serious bias, but the measure could have been an off-the-shelf, valid measure of electricity concepts.

Problems with control groups that arise during the experiment. Many problems with control groups only arise after an experiment is under way, or completed. These involve situations in which there are different numbers of students/classes/schools that are not counted in the analysis. Usually, these are cases in which, in theory, experimental and control groups have equal opportunities to learn the tested content at the beginning of the experiment. However, some number of students assigned to the experimental group do not participate in the experiment enough to be considered to have truly received the treatment. Typical examples of this include after-school and summer-school programs. A group of students is randomly assigned to receive after-school services, for example, but perhaps only 60% of the students actually show up, or attend enough days to constitute sufficient participation. The problem is that the researchers know exactly who attended and who did not in the experimental group, but they have no idea which control students would or would not have attended if the control group had had the opportunity. The 40% of students who did not attend can probably be assumed to be less highly motivated, lower achieving, have less supportive parents, or to possess other characteristics that, on average, may identify students who are less likely to do well than students in general. If the researchers drop these 40% of students, the remaining 60% who did participate are likely (on average) to be more motivated, higher achieving, and so on, so the experimental program may look a lot more effective than it truly is. This kind of problem comes up quite often in studies of technology programs, because researchers can easily find out how often students in the experimental group actually logged in and did the required work. If they drop students who did not use the technology as prescribed, then the remaining students who did use the technology as intended are likely to perform better than control students, who will be a mix of students who would or would not have used the technology if they’d had the chance. Because these control groups contain more and less motivated students, while the experimental group only contains the students who were motivated to use the technology, the experimental group may have a huge advantage.

Problems of this kind can be avoided by using intent to treat (ITT) methods, in which all students who were pretested remain in the sample and are analyzed whether or not they used the software or attended the after-school program. Both the What Works Clearinghouse and Evidence for ESSA require use of ITT models in situations of this kind. The problem is that use of ITT analyses almost invariably reduces estimates of effect sizes, but to do otherwise may introduce quite a lot of bias in favor of the experimental groups.

Experiments without control groups

Of course, there are valid research designs that do not require use of control groups at all. These include regression discontinuity designs (in which long-term data trends are studied to see if there is a sharp change at the point when a treatment is introduced) and single-case experimental designs (in which as few as one student/class/school is observed frequently to see what happens when treatment conditions change). However, these designs have their own problems, and single case designs are rarely used outside of special education.

Control groups are essential in most rigorous experimental research in education, and with proper design they can do what they were intended to do with little bias. Education researchers are becoming increasingly sophisticated about fair use of control groups. Next time I go to an NSF conference, for example, I hope I won’t see posters on experiments that compare students who received an experimental treatment to those who did not even receive instruction on the same topic between pretest and posttest.

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.

New Sections on Social Emotional Learning and Attendance in Evidence for ESSA!

We are proud to announce the launch of two new sections of our Evidence for ESSA website (www.evidenceforessa.org): K-12 social-emotional learning and attendance. Funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the new sections represent our first foray beyond academic achievement.

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The social-emotional learning section represents the greatest departure from our prior work. This is due to the nature of SEL, which combines many quite diverse measures. We identified 17 distinct measures, which we grouped in four overarching categories, as follows:

Academic Competence

  • Academic performance
  • Academic engagement

Problem Behaviors

  • Aggression/misconduct
  • Bullying
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Drug/alcohol abuse
  • Sexual/racial harassment or aggression
  • Early/risky sexual behavior

Social Relationships

  • Empathy
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Pro-social behavior
  • Social skills
  • School climate

Emotional Well-Being

  • Reduction of anxiety/depression
  • Coping skills/stress management
  • Emotional regulation
  • Self-esteem/self-efficacy

Evidence for ESSA reports overall effect sizes and ratings for each of the four categories, as well as the 17 individual measures (which are themselves composed of many measures used by various qualifying studies). So in contrast to reading and math, where programs are rated based on the average of all qualifying  reading or math measures, an SEL program could be rated “strong” in one category, “promising” in another, and “no qualifying evidence” or “qualifying studies found no significant positive effects” on others.

Social-Emotional Learning

The SEL review, led by Sooyeon Byun, Amanda Inns, Cynthia Lake, and Liz Kim at Johns Hopkins University, located 24 SEL programs that both met our inclusion standards and had at least one study that met strong, moderate, or promising standards on at least one of the four categories of outcomes.

There is much more evidence at the elementary and middle school levels than at the high school level. Recognizing that some programs had qualifying outcomes at multiple levels, there were 7 programs with positive evidence for pre-K/K, 10 for 1-2, 13 for 3-6, and 9 for middle school. In contrast, there were only 4 programs with positive effects in senior high schools. Fourteen studies took place in urban locations, 5 in suburbs, and 5 in rural districts.

The outcome variables most often showing positive impacts include social skills (12), school climate (10), academic performance (10), pro-social behavior (8), aggression/misconduct (7), disruptive behavior (7), academic engagement (7), interpersonal relationships (7), anxiety/depression (6), bullying (6), and empathy (5). Fifteen of the programs targeted whole classes or schools, and 9 targeted individual students.

Several programs stood out in terms of the size of the impacts. Take the Lead found effect sizes of +0.88 for social relationships and +0.51 for problem behaviors. Check, Connect, and Expect found effect sizes of +0.51 for emotional well-being, +0.29 for problem behaviors, and +0.28 for academic competence. I Can Problem Solve found effect sizes of +0.57 on school climate. The Incredible Years Classroom and Parent Training Approach reported effect sizes of +.57 for emotional regulation, +0.35 for pro-social behavior, and +0.21 for aggression/misconduct. The related Dinosaur School classroom management model reported effect sizes of +0.31 for aggression/misbehavior. Class-Wide Function-Related Intervention Teams (CW-FIT), an intervention for elementary students with emotional and behavioral disorders, had effect sizes of +0.47 and +0.30 across two studies for academic engagement and +0.38 and +0.21 for disruptive behavior. It also reported effect sizes of +0.37 for interpersonal relationships, +0.28 for social skills, and +0.26 for empathy. Student Success Skills reported effect sizes of +0.30 for problem behaviors, +0.23 for academic competence, and +0.16 for social relationships.

In addition to the 24 highlighted programs, Evidence for ESSA lists 145 programs that were no longer available, had no qualifying studies (e.g., no control group), or had one or more qualifying studies but none that met the ESSA Strong, Moderate, or Promising criteria. These programs can be found by clicking on the “search” bar.

There are many problems inherent to interpreting research on social-emotional skills. One is that some programs may appear more effective than others because they use measures such as self-report, or behavior ratings by the teachers who taught the program. In contrast, studies that used more objective measures, such as independent observations or routinely collected data, may obtain smaller impacts. Also, SEL studies typically measure many outcomes and only a few may have positive impacts.

In the coming months, we will be doing analyses and looking for patterns in the data, and will have more to say about overall generalizations. For now, the new SEL section provides a guide to what we know now about individual programs, but there is much more to learn about this important topic.

Attendance

Our attendance review was led by Chenchen Shi, Cynthia Lake, and Amanda Inns. It located ten attendance programs that met our standards. Only three of these reported on chronic absenteeism, which refers to students missing more than 10% of days. Many more focused on average daily attendance (ADA). Among programs focused on average daily attendance, a Milwaukee elementary school program called SPARK had the largest impact (ES=+0.25). This is not an attendance program per se, but it uses AmeriCorps members to provide tutoring services across the school, as well as involving families. SPARK has been shown to have strong effects on reading, as well as its impressive effects on attendance. Positive Action is another schoolwide approach, in this case focused on SEL. It has been found in two major studies in grades K-8 to improve student reading and math achievement, as well as overall attendance, with a mean effect size of +0.20.

The one program to report data on both ADA and chronic absenteeism is called Attendance and Truancy Intervention and Universal Procedures, or ATI-UP. It reported an effect size in grades K-6 of +0.19 for ADA and +0.08 for chronic attendance. Talent Development High School (TDHS) is a ninth grade intervention program that provides interdisciplinary learning communities and “double dose” English and math classes for students who need them. TDHS reported an effect size of +0.17.

An interesting approach with a modest effect size but very modest cost is now called EveryDay Labs (formerly InClass Today). This program helps schools organize and implement a system to send postcards to parents reminding them of the importance of student attendance. If students start missing school, the postcards include this information as well. The effect size across two studies was a respectable +0.16.

As with SEL, we will be doing further work to draw broader lessons from research on attendance in the coming months. One pattern that seems clear already is that effective attendance improvement models work on building close relationships between at-risk students and concerned adults. None of the effective programs primarily uses punishment to improve attendance, but instead they focus on providing information to parents and students and on making it clear to students that they are welcome in school and missed when they are gone.

Both SEL and attendance are topics of much discussion right now, and we hope these new sections will be useful and timely in helping schools make informed choices about how to improve social-emotional and attendance outcomes for all students.

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 Affects School Change and Teacher-by-Teacher Change Differently

Nell Duke, now a distinguished professor at the University of Michigan, likes to tell a story about using cooperative learning as a young teacher. She had read a lot about cooperative learning and was excited to try it in her elementary class. However, not long after she started, her principal came to her class and asked her to step into the hall. “Miss Duke,” he said, “what in blazes are you doing in there?”

Nell told her principal all about cooperative learning, and how strongly the research supported it, and how her students were so excited to work in groups and help each other learn.

“Cooperative learning?” said her principal. “Well, I suppose that’s all right. But from now on could you do it quietly?”

Nell Duke’s story exemplifies one of the most important problems in research-based reform in education. Should research-based reform focus on teachers or on schools? Nell was following the evidence, and her students were enjoying the new method and seemed to be learning better because of it. Yet in her school, she was the only teacher using cooperative learning. As a result, she did not have the support or understanding of her principal, or even of her fellow teachers. Her principal had rules about keeping noise levels down, and he was not about to make an exception for one teacher.

However, the problem of evidence-based reform for teachers as opposed to schools goes far beyond the problems of one noisy classroom. The problem is that it is difficult to do reform one teacher at a time. In fact, it is very difficult to even do high-quality program evaluations at the teacher level, and as a result, most programs listed as effective in the What Works Clearinghouse or Evidence for ESSA are designed for use at least in whole grade levels, and often in whole schools. One reason for this is that it is more cost-effective to provide coaching to whole schools or grade levels. Most successful programs provide initial professional development to many teachers and then follow up with coaching visits to teachers using new methods, to give them feedback and encouragement. It is too expensive for most schools to provide extensive coaching to just one or a small number of teachers. Further, multiple teachers working together can support each other, ask each other questions, and visit each other’s classes. Principals and other administrative staff can support the whole school in using proven programs, but a principal responsible for many teachers is not likely to spend a lot of time learning about a method used by just one or two teachers.

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When we were disseminating cooperative learning programs in the 1980s, we started off providing large workshops for anyone who wanted to attend. These were very popular and teachers loved them, but when we checked in a year later, many teachers were not using the methods they’d learned. Why? The answer was most often that teachers had difficulty sustaining a new program without much support from their leadership or colleagues. We’d found that on-site coaching was essential for quality implementation, but we could not provide coaching to widely dispersed schools. Instead, we began to focus on school-wide implementations of cooperative learning. This soon led to our development and successful evaluations of Success for All, as we learned that working with whole schools made it possible not only to ensure high-quality implementations of cooperative learning, but also to add in grouping strategies, tutoring for struggling readers, parent involvement approaches, and other elements that would have been impossible to do in a teacher-by teacher approach to change.

In comparison with our experience with cooperative learning focused on individual teachers, Success for All has both been more effective and longer-lasting. The median Success for All school has used the program for 11 years, for example.

Of course, it is still important to have research-based strategies that teachers can use on their own. Cooperative learning itself can be used this way, as can proven strategies for classroom management, instruction, assessment, feedback, and much more. Yet it is often the case that practices suggested to individual teachers were in fact evaluated in whole school or grade levels. It is probably better for teachers to use programs proven effective in school-level research than to use unevaluated approaches, but teachers using such programs on their own should be aware that teachers in school-level evaluations probably received a lot of professional development and in-class coaching. To get the same results, individual teachers might visit others using the programs successfully, or at a minimum participate in social media conversations with other teachers using the same approaches.

Individual teachers interested in using proven programs and practices might do best to make common cause with colleagues and approach the principal about trying the new method in their grade level or in the school as a whole. This way, it is possible to obtain the benefits of school-wide implementation while playing an active role in the process of innovation.

There are never guarantees in any form of innovation, but teachers who are eager to improve their teaching and their students’ learning can work with receptive principals to systematically try out and informally evaluate promising approaches. Perhaps nothing would have changed the mind of Nell Duke’s principal, but most principals value initiative on the part of their teachers to try out likely solutions to improve students’ learning.

The numbers of children who need proven programs to reach their full potential is vast. Whenever possible, shouldn’t we try to reach larger numbers of students with well-conceived and well-supported implementations of proven teaching methods?

 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.

On Reviews of Research in Education

Not so long ago, every middle class home had at least one encyclopedia. Encyclopedias were prominently displayed, a statement to all that this was a house that valued learning. People consulted the encyclopedia to find out about things of interest to them. Those who did not own encyclopedias found them in the local library, where they were heavily used. As a kid, I loved everything about encyclopedias. I loved to read them, but also loved their musty small, their weight, and their beautiful maps and photos.

There were two important advantages of an encyclopedia. First, it was encyclopedic, so users could be reasonably certain that whatever information they wanted was in there somewhere. Second, they were authoritative. Whatever it said in the encyclopedia was likely to be true, or at least carefully vetted by experts.

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In educational research, and all scientific fields, we have our own kinds of encyclopedias. One consists of articles in journals that publish reviews of research. In our field, the Review of Educational Research plays a pre-eminent role in this, but there are many others. Reviews are hugely popular. Invariably, review journals have a much higher citation count than even the most esteemed journals focusing on empirical research. In addition to journals, reviews appear I edited volumes, in online compendia, in technical reports, and other sources. At Johns Hopkins, we produce a bi-weekly newsletter, Best Evidence in Brief (BEiB; https://beibindex.wordpress.com/) that summarizes recent research in education. Two years ago we looked at analytics to find out the favorite articles from BEiB. Although BEiB mostly summarizes individual studies, almost all of its favorite articles were summaries of the findings of recent reviews.

Over time, RER and other review journals become “encyclopedias” of a sort.  However, they are not encyclopedic. No journal tries to ensure that key topics will all be covered over time. Instead, journal reviewers and editors evaluate each review sent to them on its own merits. I’m not criticizing this, but it is the way the system works.

Are reviews in journals authoritative? They are in one sense, because reviews accepted for publication have been carefully evaluated by distinguished experts on the topic at hand. However, review methods vary widely and reviews are written for many purposes. Some are written primarily for theory development, and some are really just essays with citations. In contrast, one category of reviews, meta-analyses, go to great lengths to locate and systematically include all relevant citations. These are not pure types, and most meta-analyses have at least some focus on theory building and discussion of current policy or research issues, even if their main purpose is to systematically review a well-defined set of studies.

Given the state of the art of research reviews in education, how could we create an “encyclopedia” of evidence from all sources on the effectiveness of programs and practices designed to improve student outcomes? The goal of such an activity would be to provide readers with something both encyclopedic and authoritative.

My colleagues and I created two websites that are intended to serve as a sort of encyclopedia of PK-12 instructional programs. The Best Evidence Encyclopedia (BEE; www.bestevidence.org) consists of meta-analyses written by our staff and students, all of which use similar inclusion criteria and review methods. These are used by a wide variety of readers, especially but not only researchers. The BEE has meta-analyses on elementary and secondary reading, reading for struggling readers, writing programs, programs for English learners, elementary and secondary mathematics, elementary and secondary science, early childhood programs, and other topics, so at least as far as achievement outcomes are concerned, it is reasonably encyclopedic. Our second website is Evidence for ESSA, designed more for educators. It seeks to include every program currently in existence, and therefore is truly encyclopedic in reading and mathematics. Sections on social emotional learning, attendance, and science are in progress.

Are the BEE and Evidence for ESSA authoritative as well as encyclopedic? You’ll have to judge for yourself. One important indicator of authoritativeness for the BEE is that all of the meta-analyses are eventually published, so the reviewers for those journals could be considered to be lending authority.

The What Works Clearinghouse (https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/) could be considered authoritative, as it is a carefully monitored online publication of the U.S. Department of Education. But is it encyclopedic? Probably not, for two reasons. One is that the WWC has difficulty keeping up with new research. Secondly, the WWC does not list programs that do not have any studies that meet its standards. As a result of both of these, a reader who types in the name of a current program may find nothing at all on it. Is this because the program did not meet WWC standards, or because the WWC has not yet reviewed it? There is no way to tell. Still, the WWC makes important contributions in the areas it has reviewed.

Beyond the websites focused on achievement, the most encyclopedic and authoritative source is Blueprints (www.blueprintsprograms.org). Blueprints focuses on drug and alcohol abuse, violence, bullying, social emotional learning, and other topics not extensively covered in other review sources.

In order to provide readers with easy access to all of the reviews meeting a specified level of quality on a given topic, it would be useful to have a source that briefly describes various reviews, regardless of where they appear. For example, a reader might want to know about all of the meta-analyses that focus on elementary mathematics, or dropout prevention, or attendance. These would include review articles published in scientific journals, technical reports, websites, edited volumes, and so on. To be cited in detail, the reviews should have to meet agreed-upon criteria, including a restriction to experimental-control comparison, a broad and well-documented search for eligible studies, documented efforts to include all studies (published or unpublished) that fall within well-specified parameters (e.g., subjects, grade levels, and start and end dates of studies included). Reviews that meet these standards might be highlighted, though others, including less systematic reviews, should be listed as well, as supplementary resources.

Creating such a virtual encyclopedia would be a difficult but straightforward task. At the end, the collection of rigorous reviews would offer readers encyclopedic, authoritative information on the topics of their interest, as well as providing something more important that no paper encyclopedias ever included: contrasting viewpoints from well-informed experts on each topic.

My imagined encyclopedia wouldn’t have the hypnotic musty smell, the impressive heft, or the beautiful maps and photos of the old paper encyclopedias. However, it would give readers access to up-to-date, curated, authoritative, quantitative reviews of key topics in education, with readable and appealing summaries of what was concluded in qualifying reviews.

Also, did I mention that unlike the encyclopedias of old, it would have to be free?

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.

Do School Districts Really Have Difficulty Meeting ESSA Evidence Standards?

The Center for Educational Policy recently released a report on how school districts are responding to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requirement that schools seeking school improvement grants select programs that meet ESSA’s strong, moderate, or promising standards of evidence. Education Week ran a story on the CEP report.

The report noted that many states, districts, and schools are taking the evidence requirements seriously, and are looking at websites and consulting with researchers to help them identify programs that meet the standards. This is all to the good.

However, the report also notes continuing problems districts and schools are having finding out “what works.” Two particular problems were cited. One was that districts and schools were not equipped to review research to find out what works. The other was that rural districts and schools found few programs proven effective in rural schools.

I find these concerns astounding. The same concerns were expressed when ESSA was first passed, in 2015. But that was almost four years ago. Since 2015, the What Works Clearinghouse has added information to help schools identify programs that meet the top two ESSA evidence categories, strong and moderate. Our own Evidence for ESSA, launched in February, 2017, has up-to-date information on virtually all PK-12 reading and math programs currently in dissemination. Among hundreds of programs examined, 113 meet ESSA standards for strong, moderate, or promising evidence of effectiveness. WWC, Evidence for ESSA, and other sources are available online at no cost. The contents of the entire Evidence for ESSA website were imported into Ohio’s own website on this topic, and dozens of states, perhaps all of them, have informed their districts and schools about these sources.

The idea that districts and schools could not find information on proven programs if they wanted to do so is difficult to believe, especially among schools eligible for school improvement grants. Such schools, and the districts in which they are located, write a lot of grant proposals for federal and state funding. The application forms for school improvement grants always explain the evidence requirements, because that is the law. Someone in every state involved with federal funding knows about the WWC and Evidence for ESSA websites. More than 90,000 unique users have used Evidence for ESSA, and more than 800 more sign on each week.

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As to rural schools, it is true that many studies of educational programs have taken place in urban areas. However, 47 of the 113 programs qualified by Evidence for ESSA were validated in at least one rural study, or a study including a large enough rural sample to enable researchers to separately report program impacts for rural students. Also, almost all widely disseminated programs have been used in many rural schools. So rural districts and schools that care about evidence can find programs that have been evaluated in rural locations, or at least that were evaluated in urban or suburban schools but widely disseminated in rural schools.

Also, it is important to note that if a program was successfully evaluated only in urban or suburban schools, the program still meets the ESSA evidence standards. If no studies of a given outcome were done in rural locations, a rural school in need of better outcomes could, in effect, be asked to choose between a program proven to work somewhere and probably used in dissemination in rural schools, or they could choose a program not proven to work anywhere. Every school and district has to make the best choices for their kids, but if I were a rural superintendent or principal, I’d read up on proven programs, and then go visit some rural schools using that program nearby. Wouldn’t you?

I have no reason to suspect that the CEP survey is incorrect. There are many indications that district and school leaders often do feel that the ESSA evidence rules are too difficult to meet. So what is really going on?

My guess is that there are many district and school leaders who do not want to know about evidence on proven programs. For example, they may have longstanding, positive relationships with representatives of publishers or software developers, or they may be comfortable and happy with the materials and services they are already using, evidence-proven or not. If they do not have evidence of effectiveness that would pass muster with WWC or Evidence for ESSA, the publishers and software developers may push hard on state and district officials, put forward dubious claims for evidence (such as studies with no control groups), and do their best to get by in a system that increasingly demands evidence that they lack. In my experience, district and state officials often complain about having inadequate staff to review evidence of effectiveness, but their concern may be less often finding out what works as it is defending themselves from publishers, software developers, or current district or school users of programs, who maintain that they have been unfairly rated by WWC, Evidence for ESSA, or other reviews. State and district leaders who stand up to this pressure may have to spend a lot of time reviewing evidence or hearing arguments.

On the plus side, at the same time that publishers and software producers may be seeking recognition for their current products, many are also sponsoring evaluations of some of their products that they feel are mostly likely to perform well in rigorous evaluations. Some may be creating new programs that resemble programs that have met evidence standards. If the federal ESSA law continues to demand evidence for certain federal funding purposes, or even to expand this requirement to additional parts of federal grant-making, then over time the ESSA law will have its desired effect, rewarding the creation and evaluation of programs that do meet standards by making it easier to disseminate such programs. The difficulties the evidence movement is experiencing are likely to diminish over time as more proven programs appear, and as federal, state, district, and school leaders get comfortable with evidence.

Evidence-based reform was always going to be difficult, because of the amount of change it entails and the stakes involved. But sooner or later, it is the right thing to do, and leaders who insist on evidence will see increasing levels of learning among their students, at minimal cost beyond what they already spend on untested or ineffective approaches. Medicine went through a similar transition in 1962, when the U.S. Congress first required that medicines be rigorously evaluated for effectiveness and safety. At first, many leaders in the medical profession resisted the changes, but after a while, they came to insist on them. The key is political leadership willing to support the evidence requirement strongly and permanently, so that educators and vendors alike will see that the best way forward is to embrace evidence and make it work for kids.

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 the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Proven Programs Can’t Replicate, Just Like Bees Can’t Fly

In the 1930’s, scientists in France announced that based on principles of aerodynamics, bees could not fly. The only evidence to the contrary was observational, atheoretical, quasi-scientific reports that bees do in fact fly.

The widely known story about bees’ ability to fly came up in a discussion about the dissemination of proven programs in education. Many education researchers and policy makers maintain that the research-development-evaluation-dissemination sequence relied upon for decades to create better ways to educate children has failed. Many observers note that few practitioners seek out research when they consider selection of programs intended to improve student learning or other important outcomes. Research Practice Partnerships, in which researchers work in partnership with local educators to solve problems of importance to the educators, is largely based on the idea that educators are unlikely to use programs or practices unless they personally were involved in creating them. Opponents of evidence-based education policies invariably complain that because schools are so diverse, they are unlikely to adopt programs developed and researched elsewhere, and this is why few research-based programs are widely disseminated.

Dissemination of proven programs is in fact difficult, and there is little evidence of how proven programs might be best disseminated. Recognizing these and many other problems, however, it is important to note one small fact in all this doom and gloom: Proven programs are disseminated. Among the 113 reading and mathematics programs that have met the stringent standards of Evidence for ESSA (www.evidenceforessa.org), most have been disseminated to dozens, hundreds, or thousands of schools. In fact, we do not accept programs that are not in active dissemination (because it is not terribly useful for educators, our target audience, to find out that a proven program is no longer available, or never was). Some (generally newer) programs may only operate in a few schools, but they intend to grow. But most programs, supported by non-profit or commercial organizations, are widely disseminated.

Examples of elementary reading programs with strong, moderate, or promising evidence of effectiveness (by ESSA standards) and wide dissemination include Reading Recovery, Success for All, Sound Partners, Lindamood, Targeted Reading Intervention, QuickReads, SMART, Reading Plus, Spell Read, Acuity, Corrective Reading, Reading Rescue, SuperKids, and REACH. For middle/high, effective and disseminated reading programs include SIM, Read180, Reading Apprenticeship, Comprehension Circuit Training, BARR, ITSS, Passport Reading Journeys, Expository Reading and Writing Course, Talent Development, Collaborative Strategic Reading, Every Classroom Every Day, and Word Generation.

In elementary math, effective and disseminated programs include Math in Focus, Math Expressions, Acuity, FocusMath, Math Recovery, Time to Know, Jump Math, ST Math, and Saxon Math. Middle/high school programs include ASSISTments, Every Classroom Every Day, eMINTS, Carnegie Learning, Core-Plus, and Larson Pre-Algebra.

These are programs that I know have strong, moderate, or promising evidence and are widely disseminated. There may be others I do not know about.

I hope this list convinces any doubters that proven programs can be disseminated. In light of this list, how can it be that so many educators, researchers, and policy makers think that proven educational programs cannot be disseminated?

One answer may be that dissemination of educational programs and practices almost never happens the way many educational researchers wish it did. Researchers put enormous energy into doing research and publishing their results in top journals. Then they are disappointed to find out that publishing in a research journal usually has no impact whatever on practice. They then often try to make their findings more accessible by writing them in plain English in more practitioner-oriented journals. Still, this usually has little or no impact on dissemination.

But writing in journals is rarely how serious dissemination happens. The way it does happen is that the developer or an expert partner (such as a publisher or software company) takes the research ideas and makes them into a program, one that solves a problem that is important to educators, is attractive, professional, and complete, and is not too expensive. Effective programs almost always provide extensive professional development, materials, and software. Programs that provide excellent, appealing, effective professional development, materials, and software become likely candidates for dissemination. I’d guess that virtually every one of the programs I listed earlier took a great idea and made it into an appealing program.

A depressing part of this process is that programs that have no evidence of effectiveness, or even have evidence of ineffectiveness, follow the same dissemination process as do proven programs. Until the 2015 ESSA evidence standards appeared, evidence had a very limited role in the whole development-dissemination process. So far, ESSA has pointed more of a spotlight on evidence of effectiveness, but it is still the case that having strong evidence of effectiveness does not provide a program with a decisive advantage over programs lacking positive evidence. Regardless of their actual evidence bases, most programs today make claims that their programs are “evidence-based” or at least “evidence-informed,” so users can easily be fooled.

However, this situation is changing. First, the government itself is identifying programs with evidence of effectiveness, and may publicize them. Government initiatives such as Investing in Innovation (i3; now called EIR) actually provide funding to proven programs to enable them to begin to scale up their programs. The What Works Clearinghouse (https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/), Evidence for ESSA (www.evidenceforessa.org), and other sources provide easy access to information on proven programs. In other words, government is starting to intervene to nudge the longstanding dissemination process toward programs proven to work.

blog_10-3-19_Bee_art_500x444Back to the bees, the 1930 conclusion that bees should not be able to fly was overturned in 2005, when American researchers observed what bees actually do when they fly, and discovered that bees do not flap their wings like birds. Instead, they push air forward and back with their wings, creating a low pressure zone above them. This pressure keeps them in the air.

In the same way, educational researchers might stop theorizing about how disseminating proven programs is impossible, but instead, observe several programs that have actually done it. Then we can design government policies to further assist proven programs to build the capital and the organizational capacity to effectively disseminate, and to provide incentives and assistance to help schools in need of proven programs to learn about and adopt them.

Perhaps we could call this Plan Bee.

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.