Getting Past the Dudalakas (And the Yeahbuts)

Phyllis Hunter, a gifted educator, writer, and speaker on the teaching of reading, often speaks about the biggest impediments to education improvement, which she calls the dudalakas. These are excuses for why change is impossible.  Examples are:

Dudalaka         Better students

Dudalaka         Money

Dudalaka         Policy support

Dudalaka         Parent support

Dudalaka         Union support

Dudalaka         Time

Dudalaka is just shorthand for “Due to the lack of.” It’s a close cousin of “yeahbut,” another reflexive response to ideas for improving education practices or policy.

Of course, there are real constraints that teachers and education leaders face that genuinely restrict what they can do. The problem with dudalakas and yeahbuts is not that the objections are wrong, but that they are so often thrown up as a reason not to even think about solutions.

I often participate in dudalaka conversations. Here is a composite. I’m speaking with a principal of an elementary school, who is expressing concern about the large number of students in his school who were struggling in reading. Many of these students were headed for special education. “Could you provide them with tutors?” I ask. “Yes, they get tutors, but we use a small group method that emphasizes oral reading (not the phonics skills that the students are actually lacking) (i.e., yeahbut).”

“Could you change the tutoring to focus on the skills you know students need?”

“Yeahbut our education leadership requires we use this system” (dudalaka political support). Besides, we have so many failing students (dudalaka better students) so we have to work with small groups of students (dudalaka tutors).”

“Could you hire and train paraprofessionals or recruit qualified volunteers to provide personalized tutoring?”

“Yeahbut we’d love to, but we can’t afford them (dudalaka money). Besides, we don’t have time for tutoring (dudalaka time).”

“But you have plenty of time in your afternoon schedule.”

“Yeahbut in the afternoon, children are tired. (Dudalaka better students).”

This conversation is not of course a rational discussion of strategies for solving a serious problem. It is instead an attempt by the principal to find excuses to justify his school’s continuing to do what it is doing now. Dudalakas and yeahbuts are merely ways of passing blame to other people (school leaders, teachers, children, parents, unions, and so on) and to shortages of money, time, and other resources that hold back change. Again, these excuses may or may not be valid in a particular situation, but there is a difference between rejecting potential solutions out of hand (using dudalakas and yeahbuts) as opposed to identifying and then carefully and creatively considering potential solutions. Not every solution will be possible or workable, but if the problem is important, some solution must be found. No matter what.

An average American elementary school with 500 students has an annual budget of approximately $6,000,000 ($12,000 per student). Principals and teachers, superintendents, and state superintendents think their hands are tied by limited resources (dudalaka money). But creativity and commitment to core goals can overcome funding limitations if school and district leaders are willing to use resources differently or activate underutilized resources, or ideally, find a way to obtain more funding.

The people who start off with the very human self-protective dudalakas and yeahbuts may, with time, experience, and encouragement, become huge advocates for change. It’s only natural to start with dudalakas and yeahbuts. What is important is that we don’t end with them.

We know that our children are capable of succeeding at much higher rates than they do today. Yet too many are failing, dudalaka quality implementation of proven programs. Let’s clear away the other dudalakas and yeahbuts, and get down to this one.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

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Spend Smart to Achieve Equity in Education

Politics, it is said, is all about who gets what. “What” is defined as money. Good people of all parties generally want to use government funding to improve peoples’ lives. But is giving people more money the same as improving their lives?

In education, money is important. Improving education usually costs money. You can’t make chicken soup out of chicken feathers, as we say in Baltimore. Further, inequalities in education funding between wealthy and disadvantaged districts within the same regions remain substantial. The children who need the most get the least, because education funding is usually tied to property taxes. Obviously, areas high in wealth can raise a lot more money with the same tax rate than can neighboring districts low in wealth. This is understood by all Americans as just the way of the world, but it is in fact anything but the way of the world. In fact, our system is so unfair and so unlike what happens in our peer nations that when I talk about it abroad, I have to explain it three or four times before my foreign friends can understand how any advanced country could do such a thing. In all other countries I know about, all schools receive equal funding, most often supplemented to help impoverished schools catch up. This has been true for decades, under right wing and left wing governments throughout the developed world.

I believe that equalizing school funding, and supplementing it for disadvantaged schools, is a moral responsibility, well worth fighting for. But will it solve the inequities in outcomes we see among our schools serving wealthy and disadvantaged neighborhoods?

This is a more complex question. But the simple answer is that for improving outcomes, there are better and worse ways to use money. We know a lot of proven strategies for turning money into achievement, and with modest continuing investment in the resources to help schools adopt and implement proven programs and in national R & D to create and evaluate proven programs, we could make substantial progress in reducing gaps and gaining on our international competitors. But if we expect that simply adding money to the current system will be sufficient, we are likely to be disappointed.

Spending is always a contentious issue. Spending smart should not be. Whatever we have decided to spend on education, we can all agree that every penny should count and the best way to ensure that money makes a difference is to use it on proven approaches.

Equalizing or even supplementing funding for high-poverty schools is the right thing to do, but we cannot just spend. We have to spend smart.

Money and Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Governing From the Outside In and Back Out Again

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“If a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take it from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the highest return.” – Benjamin Franklin

“We have a saying in Congress, when decisions are being made: ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’” – Senator Tom Harkin

When it comes to innovation, federal government bureaucrats usually do not sit around in their offices coming up with lots of brilliant and not-so-brilliant ideas. The majority of innovative ideas seized upon by the government originate elsewhere: a small program run by a local community leader; a researcher at a state university; or an engineer in a private sector company. Yet few of these people or programs, if left to their own devices, have the knowledge to conduct a moderately sized RCT or quasi-experimental study to determine the effectiveness of the program, much less any incentive or funding to do so. If told to go big or go home, most would never make it out the front door. Most of these people would be content to remain in their backyards running a program based on anecdotal evidence of accomplishment in their local community. No collaboration, no learning from other people’s mistakes, and no benefiting from other communities’ successes. Their ideas may be terrific, but local educators are not likely to evaluate or disseminate their ideas nationally.

The Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Resolution released by the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives this week asserts that the federal government works to “smother” and “stifle” innovation. It claims instead that this budget “promotes innovation” and reduces “ineffective” and “duplicative” programs. One of the ways it does this is by putting policy decisions in the hands of states and localities, which it states will lead to more “choices and opportunities for Americans.” Unfortunately, this is contrary to the intended result. States and localities do not have the capability to expand innovative ideas and disseminate the results the way the federal government can. Moreover, this would lead to greater duplication of efforts. As I’ve stated before, states do not do their own cancer research or defense technology research because it would be inefficient and uneconomical. The same is true for other areas of research and development.

Also released this week was a bipartisan paper entitled Moneyball for Education written by Frederick Hess and Bethany Little. In this paper, Hess and Little find common ground to suggest ideas for improving federal education policies using evidence and evaluation to spend taxpayer dollars more effectively and improve student outcomes. They assert that growing the database of innovative programs with evidence of positive outcomes and disseminating this information is in the public interest. It will provide greater flexibility and choice to state and local decision makers with an increased return on their investment thanks to the evidence behind the programs.

State and local governments should play a key role in the education process in education. Promising ideas should be welcome from everywhere — state and local governments, charter schools, universities, non-profits, and for profits. Innovators should be encouraged and given development funding to make their ideas practical and ready for evaluation. If the evaluations show positive effects, the programs should be scaled up nationally and offered as alternatives (not mandated) for local and state educators to use.

What I’ve just described is very similar to what the Investing in Innovation (i3) program already does. i3 is an outstanding example of how the federal government can support innovation no matter what its source and then help evaluate and disseminate information that state and local educators can use to make wise decisions. No matter which party initiated it or what it is called, this process is the way federal, state, and local government can best work together to introduce innovation without imposing mandates or restricting choice. Yet the current majority funding proposals have taken i3 out of the budget.

A healthy system of evidence-driven innovation has to involve all levels of government and many actors outside of government. It is both outside-in and inside-out, with each part of the system playing the role to which it is best suited.

Let a thousand (local) flowers bloom, and then send sacks of proven flower seeds back to the locals to use as they see fit. But there is a key step in the middle of this process that only the federal government can play: evaluation, and communicating the results of the evaluations. So it should be in education.

Eat Your Pets

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Don’t worry, Fluffy. This isn’t about you. I’m talking about Chia Pets.

Many years ago, someone invented little terracotta animals on which you could plant chia seeds that would grow into a coat for the animal. These were all the rage a while back and still exist, as a last-ditch birthday gift for six-year-olds, for example. More than a half million Chia Pets are still sold each year.

More recently, health food enthusiasts have been touting the benefits of eating chia seeds and chia plants. Thus, eat your pets.

So what does this have to do with evidence-based reform in education? I could mention that more is probably spent on maintaining our essential chia reserves than on all research seeking technological breakthroughs to teach, say, algebra. But I would never stoop to making such a comparison.

Instead, the point I want to make is this. In education, people always want simple answers, when only slightly less simple answers are actually useful. If “eat your pets” were proclaimed in education, you’d immediately have a small faction in favor of eating pets and a really big one opposed, with almost no one saying “eat your Chia Pet, but not other pets.” Much too reasonable, and no one likes independent clauses in education pronouncements.

We see this insistence on super-simplification all the time. Is technology good or bad? Cooperative learning? Accountability? We have pretty good answers to each of these, and many more, but they each require an independent clause or two that explains “for whom” and “under what circumstances.”

Education will never make progress until we can educate the public to tolerate a little bit of explanation. Otherwise, we’ll be eating our pets until the cows come home.

Six Low-Cost or Free Ways to Make American Education the Best in the World

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It does not take a political genius to know that for the foreseeable future, American education is not going to be rescued by a grand influx of new money. Certainly in the near term, the slow economic recovery, gridlock in Washington, and other factors mean that the path to substantial improvement in outcomes is going to be paved not with new gold, but with better use of the gold that’s already there.

No problem.

We already spend a lot of money on education. The task right now is to change how we spend federal, state, and local resources so that more money is spent on programs and practices known to make a difference rather than on investments with zero or unknown impacts on learning. Here are my top six suggestions for how to spend our education resources more effectively. (I’ll go into more details on these in future blogs).

1. Provide incentives for schools and districts to implement programs with strong evidence of effectiveness in competitive grants. In competitive grants in all parts of federal and state government, offer “competitive preference points” for applicants who promise to adopt and effectively implement programs proven to be effective. For example, schools proposing to implement programs identified as having “strong evidence of effectiveness” under the new EDGAR definitions might receive four extra points on a 100-point scale, while those meeting the criteria for “moderate evidence of effectiveness” might receive two points. Readers of this blog have seen me make this recommendation many times. Perfect example: School Improvement Grants for low-achieving schools. Cost: zero.

2. Provide incentives for schools and districts to implement programs with strong evidence of effectiveness in formula grants. The big money in federal and state education funding is in formula grants that go to districts and schools based on, for example, levels of poverty, rather than competitive applications. The classic example is Title I. Schools have great freedom in how they use these funds, so how can they be encouraged to use them in more effective ways? The answer is to provide additional incentive funding if schools or districts commit to using proven programs with their allotted formula funds. For example, if schools agree to use a portion of their (formula-driven) Title I funds on a proven program, they may qualify for additional funds (not from the formula pot). This was the idea behind the Obey-Porter Comprehensive School Reform initiative of the late 1990s, which encouraged thousands of Title I schools to adopt whole-school reform models. Cost: This strategy could be done at a cost of perhaps 1% of the current $15 billion annual Title I budget.

3. Offer commitment to proven programs as an alternative to use of value-added teacher evaluation models. A central part of the current administration’s policies is incentivizing states and districts to adopt teacher evaluation plans that combine principal ratings of teachers with value-added scores based on students’ state reading and math tests. This is a required part of Race to the Top in those states that received this funding, and it is a required element of state applications for a waiver of elements of No Child Left Behind.

In practice, current teacher evaluation policies are intended to do two things. First, they insist that schools identify extremely ineffective teachers and help them find other futures. If done fairly and consistently, few oppose this aspect of teacher evaluation. Principals have evaluated teachers and identified those with serious deficits forever, and I am not arguing against continuing this type of evaluation.

The second purpose of the teacher evaluation policies is to improve teaching and learning for all teachers. This is the expensive and contentious part of the policies; in most states it requires a combination of frequent, structured observation by principals and “value-added” assessments of a given teacher’s students. The technical difficulties of both are substantial, and no study has yet shown any benefit to student learning as a result of going through the whole ordeal.

If the goal is better teaching and learning, why not require that all reform approaches meet the same evidence standards? If a school proposes to use a schoolwide strategy that (unlike current teacher evaluation policies) has strong evidence of effectiveness, the school should be permitted, even encouraged, to suspend aspects of the new model as long as it is implementing proven alternatives with fidelity and good outcomes. Cost: Modest, assuming proven programs are similar in cost to the expensive new teacher evaluation strategies.

4. Train and equip paraprofessionals as tutors. The most common expenditure of Title I funds is on paraprofessionals or aides, educators who do not usually have teaching degrees but perform all sorts of functions within schools other than class teaching. Paraprofessionals can be wonderful and capable people, but evidence in the U.S. and U.K. consistently finds that as they are most commonly used, they make little difference in student learning.

Yet there is also extensive evidence that paraprofessionals can be very effective if 
they are trained to provide well-structured one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring to students who are struggling in reading and math. Paraprofessionals are a multi-billion dollar army eager and capable of making more of a difference. Let’s empower them to do so. Cost: Minimal (just training and materials).

5. Encourage schools to use Supplemental Educational Services (SES) funding on proven programs. As part of No Child Left Behind, Title I schools had to use substantial portions of their Title I dollars to provide Supplemental Educational Services (SES) to students in schools failing to meet standards. Study after study has found SES to be ineffective, and expenditures on SES are waning, yet they remain as a significant element of Title I funding, even in states with waivers. If districts could be encouraged to use SES funds on programs with evidence of effectiveness in improving achievement (such as training paraprofessionals and teachers to be tutors in reading and/or math), outcomes are sure to improve. Cost: Minimal.

6. Invest in research and development to identify effective uses of universal access to tablets or computers. Despite economic and political hard times, schools everywhere are moving rapidly toward providing universal, all-student access to tablets or computers. There is a lot of talk about blended learning, flipped learning, and so on, but little actual research and development is going on that is likely to identify effective and replicable classroom strategies likely to make good use of these powerful tools. As it has done many times before, American education is about to spend billions on technology without first knowing which applications actually work. Setting aside a tiny percentage of the costs of the hardware and software, we could fund many innovators to create and rigorously evaluate approaches using all-student technology access, before we get stuck on ineffective solutions (again). Cost: modest.

* * *

I’m sure there are many more ways we could shift existing funds to advance
American education, but they all come down to one common recommendation: use what works. Collectively, the six strategies I’ve outlined, and others like them, could catapult American education to the top on international comparisons, greatly reduce education gaps, and prepare our students for the demands of a technological economy, all at little or no net cost, if we’re willing to also stop making ineffective investments. Moreover, all of these six prescriptions could be substantially underway in the next two years, during the remainder of the current administration. All could be done by the Department of Education alone, without congressional action. And again, I’m sure that others have many other examples of low-cost and no-cost solutions that I haven’t thought of or haven’t addressed here.

A revolution in American education does not necessarily require money, but it does require courage, leadership, and resolve. Those are resources our nation has in abundance. Let’s put them to work.

Wink Wink Nudge Nudge: Use Proven Programs

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Discussions about evidence-based reform in education often founder on the question of financing. Who is going to provide the funding necessary to help schools adopt proven programs?

There are some areas in which additional funding might be necessary, which I’ll address in a moment. But the most important federal action to promote adoption of proven programs is to encourage schools and districts to use existing federal funding in this way. In particular, leaders of high-poverty schools constantly sniff the wind to be aware of what the feds want them to do. If the feds say “Wink wink nudge nudge, use proven programs,” high-poverty schools will get a lot more interested in what these are and how they can get ahold of them. Beyond winks and nudges, the feds and state leaders can offer a few competitive preference points to proposals that promise to adopt and effectively implement proven programs. Again, if government is handing out discretionary money based on local proposals, it costs nothing to nudge these proposals toward proven programs.

Of course, government funding is needed to help develop and evaluate promising programs, and sometimes to provide incentive or start-up funding to help schools or districts adopt them. But the really big money, like Title I and Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, is what should be phasing toward support for proven approaches, and with a wink, a nudge, some competitive preference points, and an ever-growing set of proven programs from which schools may choose, our system of schooling can become far more effective over time, especially for the struggling schools that receive the largest amounts of federal funding.