Everyone knows that during World War II, the pace of innovation greatly accelerated. Computers, rocketry, jets, sonar, radar, microwaves, aerosol cans, penicillin, and morphine were among the many wartime developments. What unites these innovations, of course, is that each was developed to solve an urgent problem important to the war effort, and all of them later tuned out to have revolutionary benefits for civilian use. Yet these advances could not have taken place so quickly if not for the urgent need for innovations and the massive resources devoted to them.
Today, we face Covid, a dire medical crisis, and investments of massive resources have produced vaccines in record time. However, the Covid pandemic has also created an emergency in education, as millions of children are experiencing educational losses due to school closures. The Institute for Education Sciences (IES) has announced a grants program to respond to the Covid crisis, but at the usual pace, the grants will only lead to practical solutions in many years when (we fervently hope) the crisis will be over.
I would argue that in this perilous time, research in education should focus on urgent practical problems that could have a significant impact within, say, the next year or two on the problems of students who are far below grade level in essential skills because of Covid school closures, or for other reasons:
1. Tutoring. Yes, of course I was going to start with tutoring. The biggest problem in tutoring is that while we have many proven programs for elementary reading, especially for grades K-3, we have far fewer proven programs ready for prime time in the upper elementary grades, and none at all in middle or high school reading. Studies in England have found positive effects of tutoring in their equivalent of middle school, but none of these exist in the U.S. In mathematics, there are few proven tutoring programs in elementary school, and just one I know of for middle school, and one for high school.
How could research funding produce new tutoring programs for middle and high school reading, and for math at all grade levels, in such a short time? Simple. First, there are already tutoring programs for reading and math at all grade levels, but few have been successfully evaluated, or (in most cases) ever evaluated at all in rigorous experiments. So it would be important to fund evaluations of particularly promising programs that are already working at significant scale.
Another means of rapidly discovering effective tutoring programs would be to fund programs that have been successful in certain grade levels to quickly create programs for adjacent grades. For example, a program proven effective in grades 2-3 should be able to be significantly modified to work in grades 4-5. One that works in grades 4-5 could be modified for use in middle school. Programs proven effective in reading might be modified for use in mathematics at the same grade level, or vice versa. Many programs with successful programs in some grade levels have the staff and experience to quickly create programs in adjacent grade levels.
Also, it might be possible for developers of successful classwide technology programs to create and pilot tutoring models using similar software, but adding the assistance of a tutor for groups of one to four students, perhaps in collaboration with experts on tutoring.
2. Approaches other than tutoring. There are many effective reading and math programs of all kinds, not just tutoring, that have proven their effectiveness (see www.evidenceforessa.org). Such programs might be ready to go as they are, and others could be evaluated in a form appropriate to the current emergency. Very few programs other than tutoring obtain effect sizes like those typical of the best tutoring programs, but classwide programs with modest effect sizes serve many more students than tutoring programs do. Also, classroom programs might be evaluated for their capacity to maintain gains made due to tutoring.
Tutoring or non-tutoring programs that already exist at scale, or that could be quickly adapted from proven programs, might be ready for rigorous, third-party evaluations as soon as fall, 2021. These programs should be evaluated using rigorous, third-party evaluations, with all programs at a given grade level using identical procedures and measures. In this way, it should be possible to have many new, proven programs by the end of the 2021-2022 school year, ready for dissemination in fall, 2022. This would be in time to greatly add capacity to serve the millions of students who need proven programs to help them make rapid progress toward grade level.
A research program of this kind could be expensive, and it may not provide theoretical breakthroughs. However, given the substantial and obvious need, and the apparent willingness of government to provide major resources to combat Covid learning losses, such a research effort might be feasible. If it were to take place, it might build excitement about R & D as a practical means of enhancing student achievement. And if even a quarter of the experiments found sizable positive impacts, this would add substantially to our armamentarium of proven strategies for struggling students.
There is an old saying in social work: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” As in World War II, the educational impacts of the Covid pandemic present educational research with a crisis that we must solve, but if we can solve any portion of this problem, this will create benefits for generations of children long after Covid has faded into a distant memory.
Photo credit: User Messybeast on en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
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