Thorough Implementation Saves Lives

In an article in the May 23 Washington Post, Dr. John Barry, a professor of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Tulane, wrote about lessons from the 1918 influenza epidemic.  Dr. Barry is the author of a book about that long-ago precursor to the epidemic we face today.  I found the article chilling, in light of what is happening right now in the Covid-19 pandemic.

In particular, he wrote about a study of Army training camps in 1918.  Army leaders prescribed strict isolation and quarantine measures, and most camps followed this guidance.  However, some did not.  Most camps that did follow the guidance did so rigorously for a few weeks, but then gradually loosened up.  The study compared the camps that never did anything to the camps that followed the guidelines for a while.  There were no differences in the rates of sickness or death.  However, a third set of camps continued to follow the guidance for a much longer time. These camps saw greatly reduced rates of sickness and death.

Camp Funston at Fort Riley, Kansas, during the 1918 flu pandemic, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology/National Museum of Health and Medicine, distributed via the Associated Press / Public domain

Dr. Barry also gave an example from the SARS epidemic in the early 2000’s.  President George W. Bush wanted to honor the one hospital in the world with the lowest rate of SARS infection among staff.  A study of that hospital found that they were doing exactly what all hospitals were doing, making sure that staff maintained sterile procedures.  The difference was that in this hospital, the hospital administration made sure that these rules were being rigorously followed.  This reminds me of a story by Atul Gawande about the most successful hospital in the world for treating cystic fibrosis. Researchers studied this hospital, an ordinary, non-research hospital in a Minneapolis suburb.  The physician in charge of cystic fibrosis was found to be using the very same procedures and equipment that every other hospital used.  The difference was that he frequently called all of his patients to make sure they were using the equipment and procedures properly.  His patients had markedly higher survival rates than did patients in similar hospitals doing exactly the same (medical) things with less attention to fidelity.

Now consider what is happening in the U.S. in our current pandemic.  Given our late start, we have done a pretty good job reducing rates of disease and death, compared to what might have been.  However, all fifty states are now opening up, to one degree or another.  The basic message: “We have been careful long enough.  Now let’s get sloppy.”

Epidemiologists are watching all of this with horror.  They know full well what is coming.  Leana Wen, Baltimore’s former Health Commissioner, explained the consequences of the choices we are making in a deeply disturbing article in the May 13 Post.

The entire story of what has happened in the Covid-19 crisis, and what is likely to happen now, has a substantial resonance with problems we experience in educational reform.  Our field is full of really good ideas for improving educational outcomes.  However, we have relatively few examples of programs that have been successful even in one-year evaluations, much less over extended time periods at large scale.  The problem is not usually that the ideas turn out not to be so good after all, but that they are rarely implemented with consistency or rigor. Or they are implemented well for a while, but get sloppy over time, or stop altogether.  I am often asked how long innovators must stay connected with schools using their research-proven programs with success.  My answer is, “forever.”  The connection need not be frequent in successful implementers, but someone who knows what the program is supposed to look like needs to check in from time to time to see how things are going, to cheer the school on in its efforts to maintain and constantly improve their implementation, and to help the school identify and solve any problems that have cropped up.

Another thing I am frequently asked is how I can base my argument for evidence-based education on the examples of medicine and other evidence-based fields.  “Taking a pill is not like changing a school.”  This is true.  However, the examples of epidemiology, cystic fibrosis (before the recent cure was announced), dealing with obesity and drug abuse, and many other problems of medicine and public health, actually look quite a bit like the problems of education reform.  In medicine, there is a robust interest in “implementation science,” focused on, among other things, getting people to take their medicine or follow a proven protocol (e.g., “eat more veggies”).  There is growing interest in implementation science in education, too.  Similar problems, similar solutions, in many cases.

Education, public health, and medicine have a lot to learn from each other.  In each case, we are trying to make important differences in whole populations.  It is never easy, but in each of our fields, we are learning how to cost-effectively increase health and education outcomes at scale.  In the current pandemic, I hope science will prevail in both reducing the impact of the disease and in using proven practices, with consistency and rigor, to help schools repair the educational damage children have suffered.


Barry, J.M. (2020, May 23).  How to avoid a second wave of infections.  Washington Post.

Wen, L.S. (2020, May 13).  We are retreating to a new strategy on covid-19.  Let’s call it what it is.  Washington Post.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to


Marshall Plan II: Heal the Damage, But Build for the Future

At the end of World War II, Western Europe was devastated. Factories, housing, transportation, everything was destroyed. Millions were homeless, millions were refugees. The U.S. led an international effort to help countries rebuild. The U.S. Marshall Plan (1947-1951) was a massive gift to restart Western European economies and societies.

“Berlin Emergency Program with Marshall Plan Help” National Archives at College Park / Public domain

There was so much that obviously had to be done in the short term. Yet the leaders of the shattered countries were not just thinking short term. Each of them used a significant portion of the Marshall Plan funding to establish national health systems. One irony never mentioned in the debate about trying European-style universal health care in the U.S. is that U.S. funds were used to create these very plans.

Today we face the COVID-19 crisis. Schools have closed, and are unlikely to re-open until September, at best. There has been a lot of discussion of how to use distance education to help students now, but only recently has there been much talk about what to do when schools re-open to make up the losses. I wrote a recent blog suggesting schools accelerate the achievement of students who have lost ground in basic skills, as well as those who had problems before schools closed and are now in greater difficulty. I suggested providing well-trained teacher assistants with college degrees to use proven tutoring approaches to accelerate student achievement in reading and mathematics. According to evidence, experience, and common sense, large scale, small group tutoring programs, and other proven methods, should enable struggling students to make substantial gains, erasing deficits from the COVID-19 closures.

But why should we stop there? If it is indeed possible to make a big difference in the performance levels of whole schools using proven cost-effective methods, why should we stop?

Time-limited solutions to the educational damage done by the COVID-19 school closures will not make the difference that needs to be made. Getting back to the status quo is not sufficient. Proven strategies capable of rapidly bringing students back to where they were will also demonstrate how schools can produce gains that go far beyond healing the specific damage due to the crisis.

The Marshall Plan helped Western Europe overcome its losses, but also to establish sustainable systems that continue to ensure the health of their populations 75 years later. In the same way, our solution to the educational impacts of the COVID-19 crisis could help establish a new basis for success for millions of children. Seventy-five years from now, wouldn’t it be wonderful if people recalled that in 2020, a worldwide pandemic finally shocked American education into solving its fundamental problems?

 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

A Marshall Plan for Post-COVID-19 Recovery

In World War II, my father was in the U.S. Navy.  In 1945, he was serving on a specially outfitted destroyer preparing for the invasion of Japan.  He always claimed that had the invasion gone forward, he would have been doomed.  He was in charge of his ship’s “radio-radar countermeasures,” new technology that would have been able to blind the radio and radar of the Japanese Navy so that there would have been only one ship they could detect: his.  Fortunately, the Japanese surrendered on October 14, before the invasion was set to begin.

I’m sure you’ve seen the famous picture of jubilant crowds in New York celebrating the surrender.  My father’s experience was different.  He was landed in Tokyo as part of the occupation forces.  He described Tokyo as a city whose former industrial and military areas had not one stone standing on another.  Many others have described similar scenes in Europe and Asia.  Like all servicemen, he was relieved that the war had ended, that he had survived.  But the extent of the destruction was horrifying, even to the victors.  How could a normal country grow back from this desert?

But it did.  Even the countries that suffered the greatest destruction were able, with American and other help, to rebuild, and ultimately to prosper.  The U.S. Marshall Plan, in particular, was a far-sighted investment in reconstruction that led the way in enabling destroyed countries to rebuild their societies and their economies.

Now we face another challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic.  I write from Baltimore at the point of inflection, when new cases of the disease have started to decline.  But it will still take a long time for everything to return to normal.  Compared to the death and destruction of World War II, COVID-19 is far less of a challenge, but day to day, it does not feel that way.  And unlike VJ Day, there will not be a day when it all ends, when everyone knows they are safe.


For Americans, World War II was awful, but it was far away.  Life went on.  Schools and universities were open.  COVID-19 is different, because it profoundly affects the daily life of every American.  Most relevant to the readers of this blog, COVID-19 is severely interrupting the education of a generation.  This is a particular problem, of course, for disadvantaged students, whose parents are more likely to get the virus, who are less likely to have technology at home, and who were often already having difficulties in school.  How will we rebuild?  How will we help students regain the learning and the sense of security they once had?  And can we use this sobering experience to make lasting improvements in education?

Educational leaders are starting to think about what comes next.  Most are overwhelmed with the present, trying to figure out how, for example, to use distance learning to substitute for in-person school.  But anyone who has a child, or knows a child, or has ever been a child or parent, knows that distance education is not going to be enough, certainly not for most children, even in areas where students have plenty of computers, access to the Internet, excellent support from teachers teaching online, and parents who are willing and able to fill in to make sure that students are taking full advantage of whatever the school is providing their children. There will be happy exceptions, but there is a reason that homeschooling is rare.  When the schools open, hopefully next September, there will be a huge job to be done to repair the damage COVID-19 will have done to the educational futures of the 50 million U.S. children in grades PK to 12, as well as hundreds of millions more throughout the world.

One thing that seems highly likely is that when schools do open, they will open into an economic recession.  Currently, there is much concern for people who have lost their jobs, and initial efforts by the federal government have focused on propping up businesses and helping people who were employed, but happened to work for companies that had to close due to the pandemic.  This is essential, of course.  However, there is another problem that also needs attention: people who are just entering the workforce.  Since the Great Depression, economists have known how to respond to such crises: invest massively in people, to jump start the economy.

I would propose a solution that could help both with the schools and the recession. Schools should hire, train, and deploy large numbers of recent (and not so recent) college graduates as tutors, and in other essential roles in schools.

There is no intervention known that has an impact larger than that of tutoring.  One-to- one is most effective, but one-to-small group can also make a substantial difference in reading and mathematics performance in elementary and middle schools, and reaches many more students at a much lower cost per student.  Our recent research reviews (Baye et al., 2019; Neitzel et al., 2020; Pellegrini et al., 2020) tell us that teaching assistants, with proven materials and expert professional development, can obtain outcomes as good as those obtained by certified teachers working as tutors.

Imagine that every school could receive up to five well-trained, well-supported teaching assistant tutors, with the number of tutors determined by the school’s needs. This tutor corps could work with the students who are struggling in reading and/or mathematics, for as long as they need the assistance.  Our experience with small-group tutoring of this kind suggests that the cost per student tutored would be around $600 per year (Madden & Slavin, 2017).  Title I schools, especially those serving the most disadvantaged students, should be first in line for this assistance.  $600 per pupil per year is serious money, but well worth it in light of the need.  (Note: there are people suggesting that all students who missed school should repeat their most recent grade.  At an average per-pupil cost of $12,000 to do this, $600 per year sounds awfully reasonable as an alternative).   There are tutoring programs operating right now that can routinely obtain effect sizes of 0.40, or roughly 5 additional months of learning.  This  could go a very long way to not only solve the problems of students whose progress was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also help the many students who had problems before, which now need to be urgently addressed).

College graduates could also be trained as health aides, to use proven strategies to ensure that students who need them receive and use eyeglasses, or receive needed medications for asthma and other chronic illnesses that affect children’s school success as well as their long-term health).  They might also be trained and deployed to work with parents on issues such as attendance, social-emotional development, and mental health.

The problems of schools after the COVID-19 health crisis has passed must be addressed, with sufficient power and intensity to ensure that they get solved.  A return to normal is not sufficient.

We may never have a V-COVID Day, as we did a V-J Day after World War II.  But we must have a Marshall Plan for schools.  Universal access to tutoring and other essential services for students who need them would be a feasible, cost-effective start to a plan to reconstruct our schools.

Photo: National Archives at College Park / Public domain


Baye, A., Lake, C., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (2019). Effective reading programs for secondary students. Reading Research Quarterly, 54 (2), 133-166.

Madden, N. A., & Slavin, R. E. (2017). Evaluations of technology-assisted small-group tutoring for struggling readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 1-8.

Neitzel, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2020). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Available at Manuscript submitted for publication.

Pellegrini, M., Neitzel, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. (2020). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Available at Manuscript submitted for publication.

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

Florence Nightingale, Statistician

Everyone knows about Florence Nightingale, whose 200th birthday is this year. You probably know of her courageous reform of hospitals and aid stations in the Crimean War, and her insistence on sanitary conditions for wounded soldiers that saved thousands of lives. You may know that she founded the world’s first school for nurses, and of her lifelong fight for the professionalization of nursing, formerly a refuge for uneducated, often alcoholic young women who had no other way to support themselves. You may know her as a bold feminist, who taught by example what women could accomplish.

But did you know that she was also a statistician? In fact, she was the first woman ever to be admitted to Britain’s Royal Statistical Society, in 1858.

blog_3-12-20_FlorenceNightingale_500x347Nightingale was not only a statistician, she was an innovator among statisticians. Her life’s goal was to improve medical care, public health, and nursing for all, but especially for people in poverty. In her time, landless people were pouring into large, filthy industrial cities. Death rates from unclean water and air, and unsafe working conditions, were appalling. Women suffered most, and deaths from childbirth in unsanitary hospitals were all too common. This was the sentimental Victorian age, and there were people who wanted to help. But how could they link particular conditions to particular outcomes? Opponents of investments in prevention and health care argued that the poor brought the problems on themselves, through alcoholism or slovenly behavior, or that these problems had always existed, or even that they were God’s will. The numbers of people and variables involved were enormous. How could these numbers be summarized in a way that would stand up to scrutiny, but also communicate the essence of the process leading from cause to effect?

As a child, Nightingale and her sister were taught by her brilliant and liberal father. He gave his daughters a mathematics education that few (male) students in the very finest schools could match. She put these skills to work in her work in hospital reform, demonstrating, for example, that when her hospital in the Crimean War ordered reforms such as cleaning out latrines and cesspools, the mortality rate dropped from 42.7 percent to 2.2 percent in a few months. She invented a circular graph that showed changes month by month, as the reforms were implemented. She also made it immediately clear to anyone that deaths due to disease far outnumbered those due to war wounds. No numbers, just colors and patterns, made the situation obvious to the least mathematical of readers.

When she returned from Crimea, Nightingale had a disease, probably spondylitis, that forced her to be bedridden much of the time for the rest of her life. Yet this did not dim her commitment to health reform. In fact, it gave her a lot of time to focus on her statistical work, often published in the top newspapers of the day. From her bedroom, she had a profound effect on the reform of Britain’s Poor Laws, and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, which her statistics showed to be counterproductive.

Note that so far, I haven’t said a word about education. In many ways, the analogy is obvious. But I’d like to emphasize one contribution of Nightingale’s work that has particular importance to our field.

Everyone who works in education cares deeply for all children, and especially for disadvantaged, underserved children. As a consequence of our profound concern, we advocate fiercely for policies and solutions that we believe to be good for children. Each of us comes down on one side or another of controversial policies, and then advocates for our positions, certain that our favored position would be hugely beneficial if it prevails, and disastrous if it does not. The same was true in Victorian Britain, where people had heated, interminable arguments about all sorts of public policy.

What Florence Nightingale did, more than a century ago, was to subject various policies affecting the health and welfare of poor people to statistical analysis. She worked hard to be sure that her findings were correct and that they communicated to readers. Then she advocated in the public arena for the policies that were beneficial, and against those that were counterproductive.

In education, we have loads of statistics that bear on various policies, but we do not often commit ourselves to advocate for the ones that actually work. As one example, there have been arguments for decades about charter schools. Yet a national CREDO (2013) study found that, on average, charter schools made no difference at all on reading or math performance. A later CREDO (2015) study found that effects were slightly more positive in urban settings, but these effects were tiny. Other studies have had similar outcomes, although there are more positive outcomes for “no-excuses” charters such as KIPP, a small percentage of all charter schools.

If charters make no major differences in student learning, I suppose one might conclude that they might be maintained or not maintained based on other factors. Yet neither side can plausibly argue, based on evidence of achievement outcomes, that charters should be an important policy focus in the quest for higher achievement. In contrast, there are many programs that have impacts on achievement far greater than those of charters. Yet use of such programs is not particularly controversial, and is not part of anyone’s political agenda.

The principle that Florence Nightingale established in public health was simple: Follow the data. This principle now dominates policy and practice in medicine. Yet more than a hundred years after Nightingale’s death, have we arrived at that common-sense conclusion in educational policy and practice? We’re moving in that direction, but at the current rate, I’m afraid it will be a very long time before this becomes the core of educational policy or practice.

Photo credit: Florence Nightingale, Illustrated London News (February 24, 1855)


CREDO (2013). National charter school study. At

CREDO (2015). Urban charter school study. At

 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

The Farmer and the Moon Rocks: What Did the Moon Landing Do For Him?

Many, many years ago, during the summer after my freshman year in college, I hitchhiked from London to Iran.  This was the summer of 1969, so Apollo 11 was also traveling.   I saw television footage of the moon landing in Heraklion, Crete, where a television store switched on all of its sets and turned them toward the sidewalk.  A large crowd watched the whole thing.  This was one of the few times I recall when it was really cool to be an American abroad.

After leaving Greece, I went on to Turkey, and then Iran.  In Teheran, I got hold of an English-language newspaper.  It told an interesting story.  In rural Iran, many people believed that the moon was a goddess.  Obviously, a spaceship cannot land on a goddess, so many people concluded that the moon landing must be a hoax.

A reporter from the newspaper interviewed a number of people about the moon landing.  Some were adamant that the landing could not have happened.  However, one farmer was more pragmatic.  He asked the reporter, “I hear the astronauts brought back moon rocks.  Is that right?”

“That’s what they say!” replied the reporter.

“I am fixing my roof, and I could sure use a few of those moon rocks.  Do you think they might give me some?”

blog_8-1-19_moonfarmer_500x432 (002)

The moon rock story illustrates a daunting problem in the dissemination of educational research. Researchers do high-quality research on topics of great importance to the practice of education. They publish this research in top journals, and get promotions and awards for it, but in most cases, their research does not arouse even the slightest bit of interest among the educators for whom it was intended.

The problem relates to the farmer repairing his roof.  He had a real problem to solve, and he needed help with it.  A reporter comes and tells him about the moon landing. The farmer does not think, “How wonderful!  What a great day for science and discovery and the future of mankind!”  Instead, he thinks, “What does this have to do with me?”  Thinking back on the event, I sometimes wonder if he really expected any moon rocks, or if he was just sarcastically saying, “I don’t care.”

Educators care deeply about their students, and they will do anything they can to help them succeed.  But if they hear about research that does not relate to their children, or at least to children like theirs, they are unlikely to care very much.  Even if the research is directly applicable to their students, they are likely to reason, perhaps from long experience, that they will never get access to this research, because it costs money or takes time or upsets established routines or is opposed by powerful groups or whatever.  The result is status quo as far as the eye can see, or implementation of small changes that are currently popular but unsupported by evidence of effectiveness.  Ultimately, the result is cynicism about all research.

Part of the problem is that education is effectively a government monopoly, so entrepreneurship or responsible innovation are difficult to start or maintain.  However, the fact that education is a government monopoly can also be made into a positive, if government leaders are willing to encourage and support evidence-based reform.

Imagine that government decided to provide incentive funding to schools to help them adopt programs that meet a high standard of evidence.  This has actually happened under the ESSA law, but only in a very narrow slice of schools, those very low achieving schools that qualify for school improvement.  Imagine that the government provided a lot more support to schools to help them learn about, adopt, and effectively implement proven programs, and then gradually expanded the categories of schools that could qualify for this funding.

Going back to the farmer and the moon rocks, such a policy would forge a link between exciting research on promising innovations and the real world of practice.  It could cause educators to pay much closer attention to research on practical programs of relevance to them, and to learn how to tell the difference between valid and biased research.  It could help educators become sophisticated and knowledgeable consumers of evidence and of programs themselves.

One of the best examples of the transformation such policies could bring about is agriculture.  Research has a long history in agriculture, and from colonial times, government has encouraged and incentivized farmers to pay attention to evidence about new practices, new seeds, new breeds of animals, and so on.  By the late 19th century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was sponsoring research, distributing information designed to help farmers be more productive, and much more.  Today, research in agriculture is a huge enterprise, constantly making important discoveries that improve productivity and reduce costs.  As a result, world agriculture, especially American agriculture, is able to support far larger populations at far lower costs than anyone ever thought possible.  The Iranian farmer talking about the moon rocks could not see how advances in science could possibly benefit him personally.  Today, however, in every developed economy, farmers have a clear understanding of the connection between advances in science and their own success.  Everyone knows that agriculture can have bad as well as good effects, as when new practices lead to pollution, but when governments decide to solve those problems, they turn to science. Science is not inherently good or bad, but if it is powerful, then democracies can direct it to do what is best for people.

Agriculture has made dramatic advances over the past hundred years, and continues to make rapid progress by linking science to practice.  In education, we are just starting to make the link between evidence and practice.  Isn’t it time to learn from the experiences of medicine, technology, and agriculture, among many other evidence based fields, to achieve more rapid progress in educational practice and outcomes?

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 Progress

My grandfather (pictured below with my son Ben around 1985) was born in 1900, and grew up in Argentina. The world he lived in as a child had no cars, no airplanes, few cures for common diseases, and inefficient agriculture that bound the great majority of the world to farming. By the time he died, in 1996, think of all the astonishing progress he’d seen in technology, medicine, agriculture, and much else.

Pictured are Bob Slavin’s grandfather and son, both of whom became American citizens: one born before the invention of airplanes, the other born before the exploration of Mars.

I was born in 1950. The progress in technology, medicine, and agriculture, and many other fields, continues to be extraordinary.

In most of our society and economy, we confidently expect progress. When my father needed a heart valve, his doctor suggested that he wait as long as possible because new, much better heart valves were coming out soon. He could, and did, bet his life on progress, and it paid off.

But now consider education. My grandfather attended school in Argentina, where he was taught in rows by teachers who did most of the talking. My father went to school in New York City, where he was taught in rows by teachers who did most of the talking. I went to school in Washington, DC, where I was taught in rows by teachers who did most of the talking. My children went to school in Baltimore, where they mostly sat at tables, and did use some technology, but still, the teachers did most of the talking.


My grandchildren are now headed toward school (the oldest is four). They will use a lot of technology, and will sit at tables more than my own children did. But the basic structure of the classroom is not so different from Argentina, 1906. All who eagerly await the technology revolution are certainly seeing many devices in classroom use. But are these devices improving outcomes on, for example, reading and math? Our reviews of research on all types of approaches used in elementary and secondary schools are not finding strong benefits of technology. Across all subjects and grade levels, the average effect size is similar, ranging from +0.07 (elementary math) to +0.09 (elementary reading). If you like “additional months of learning,” these effects equate to one month in a year. Ok, better than zero, but not the revolution we’ve been waiting for.

There are other approaches much more effective than technology, such as tutoring, forms of cooperative learning, and classroom management strategies. At, you can see descriptions and outcomes of more than 100 proven programs. But these are not widely used. Your children or grandchildren, or other children you care about, may go 13 years from kindergarten to 12th grade without ever experiencing a proven program. In our field, progress is slow, and dissemination of proven programs is slower.

Education is the linchpin for our economy and society. Everything else depends on it. In all of the developed world, education is richly funded, yet very, very little of this largesse is invested in innovation, evaluations of innovative methods, or dissemination of proven programs. Other fields have shown how innovation, evaluation, and dissemination of proven strategies can become the engine of progress. There is absolutely nothing inevitable about the slow pace of progress in education. That slow pace is a choice we have made, and keep making, year after year, generation after generation. I hope we will make a different choice in time to benefit my grandchildren, and the children of every family in the world. It could happen, and there are many improvements in educational research and development to celebrate. But how long must it take before the best of educational innovation becomes standard practice?

 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, Standards, and Chicken Feathers

In 1509, John Damian, an alchemist in the court of James IV of Scotland proclaimed that he had developed a way for humans to fly. He made himself some wings from chicken feathers and jumped from the battlements of Stirling Castle, the Scottish royal residence at the time. His flight was brief but not fatal.  He landed in a pile of manure, and only broke his thigh.  Afterward, he explained that the problem was that he used the wrong kind of feathers.  If only he had used eagle feathers, he could have flown, he asserted.  Fortunately for him, he never tried flying again, with any kind of feathers.


The story of John Damian’s downfall is humorous, and in fact the only record of it is a contemporary poem making fun of it. Yet there are important analogies to educational policy today from this incident in Scottish history. These are as follows:

  1. Damian proclaimed the success of his plan for human flight before he or anyone else had tried it and found it effective.
  2. After his flight ended in the manure pile, he proclaimed (again without evidence) that if only he’d used eagle feathers, he would have succeeded. This makes sense, of course, because eagles are much better flyers than chickens.
  3. He was careful never to actually try flying with eagle feathers.

All of this is more or less what we do all the time in educational policy, with one big exception.  In education, based on Damian’s experience, we might have put forward policies stating that from now on human powered flight must only be done with eagle feathers, not chicken feathers.

What I am referring to in education is our obsession with standards as a basis for selecting textbooks, software, and professional development, and the relative lack of interest in evidence. Whole states and districts spend a lot of time devising standards and then reviewing materials and services to be sure that they align with these standards. In contrast, the idea of checking to see that texts, software, and PD have actually been evaluated and found to be effective in real classrooms with real teachers and students has been a hard slog.

Shouldn’t textbooks and programs that meet modern standards also produce higher student performance on tests closely aligned with those standards? This cannot be assumed. Not long ago, my colleagues and I examined every reading and math program rated “meets expectations” (the highest level) on EdReports, a website that rates programs in terms of their alignment with college- and career-ready standards.  A not so grand total of two programs had any evidence of effectiveness on any measure not made by the publishers. Most programs rated “meets expectations” had no evidence at all, and a smaller number had been evaluated and found to make no difference.

I am not in any way criticizing EdReports.  They perform a very valuable service in helping schools and districts know which programs meet current standards. It makes no sense for every state and district to do this for themselves, especially in the cases where there are very few or no proven programs. It is useful to at least know about programs aligned with standards.

There is a reason that so few products favorably reviewed on EdReports have any positive outcomes in rigorous research. Most are textbooks, and very few textbooks have evidence of effectiveness. Why? The fact is that standards or no standards, EdReports or no EdReports, textbooks do not differ very much from each other in aspects that matter for student learning. Textbooks differ (somewhat) in content, but if there is anything we have learned from our many reviews of research on what works in education, what matters is pedagogy, not content. Yet since decisions about textbooks and software depend on standards and content, decision makers almost invariably select textbooks and software that have never been successfully evaluated.

Even crazy John Damian did better than we do. Yes, he claimed success in flying before actually trying it, but at last he did try it. He concluded that his flying plan would have worked if he’d used eagle feathers, but he never imposed this untested standard on anyone.

Untested textbooks and software probably don’t hurt anyone, but millions of students desperately need higher achievement, and focusing resources on untested or ineffective textbooks, software, and PD does not move them forward. The goal of education is to help all students succeed, not to see that they use aligned materials. If a program has been proven to improve learning, isn’t that a lot more important than proving that it aligns with standards? Ideally, we’d want schools and districts to use programs that are both proven effective and aligned with standards, but if no programs meet both criteria, shouldn’t those that are proven effective be preferred? Without evidence, aren’t we just giving students and teachers eagle feathers and asking them to take a leap of faith?

Photo credit: Humorous portrayal of a man who flies with wings attached to his tunic, Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress

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.


Miss Evers’ Boys (And Girls)

Most people who have ever been involved with human subjects’ rights know about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. This was a study of untreated syphilis, in which 622 poor, African American sharecroppers, some with syphilis and some without, were evaluated over 40 years.

The study, funded and overseen by the U.S. Public Health Service, started in 1932. In 1940, researchers elsewhere discovered that penicillin cured syphilis. By 1947, penicillin was “standard of care” for syphilis, meaning that patients with syphilis received penicillin as a matter of course, anywhere in the U.S.

But not in Tuskegee. Not in 1940. Not in 1947. Not until 1972, when a whistle-blower made the press aware of what was happening. In the meantime, many of the men died of syphilis, 40 of their wives contracted the disease, and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis. The men had never even been told the nature of the study, they were not informed in 1940 or 1947 that there was now a cure, and they were not offered that cure. Leaders of the U.S. Public Health Service were well aware that there was a cure for syphilis, but for various reasons, they did not stop the study. Not in 1940, not in 1947, not even when whistle-blowers told them what was going on. They stopped it only when the press found out.


In 1997 a movie on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was released. It was called Miss Evers’ Boys. Miss Evers (actually, Eunice Rivers) was the African-American public health nurse who was the main point of contact for the men over the whole 40 years. She deeply believed that she, and the study, were doing good for the men and their community, and she formed close relationships with them. She believed in the USPHS leadership, and thought they would never harm her “boys.”

The Tuskegee study was such a crime and scandal that it utterly changed procedures for medical research in the U.S. and most of the world. Today, participants in research with any level of risk, or their parents if they are children, must give informed consent for participation in research, and even if they are in a control group, they must receive at least “standard of care”: currently accepted, evidence-based practices.

If you’ve read my blogs, you’ll know where I’m going with this. Failure to use proven educational treatments, unlike medical ones, is rarely fatal, at least not in the short term. But otherwise, our profession carries out Tuskegee crimes all the time. It condemns failing students to ineffective programs and practices when effective ones are known. It fails to even inform parents or children, much less teachers and principals, that proven programs exist: Proven, practical, replicable solutions for the problems they face every day.

Like Miss Rivers, front-line educators care deeply about their charges. Most work very hard and give their absolute best to help all of their children to succeed. Teaching is too much hard work and too little money for anyone to do it for any reason but for the love of children.

But somewhere up the line, where the big decisions are made, where the people are who know or who should know which programs and practices are proven to work and which are not, this information just does not matter. There are exceptions, real heroes, but in general, educational leaders who believe that schools should use proven programs have to fight hard for this position. The problem is that the vast majority of educational expenditures—textbooks, software, professional development, and so on—lack even a shred of evidence. Not a scintilla. Some have evidence that they do not work. Yet advocates for those expenditures (such as sales reps and educators who like the programs) argue strenuously for programs with no evidence, and it’s just easier to go along. Whole states frequently adopt or require textbooks, software, and services of no known value in terms of improving student achievement. The ESSA evidence standards were intended to focus educators on evidence and incentivize use of proven programs, at least for the lowest-achieving 5% of schools in each state, but so far it’s been slow going.

Yet there are proven alternatives. Evidence for ESSA ( lists more than 100 PK-12 reading and math programs that meet the top three ESSA evidence standards. The majority meet the top level, “Strong.” And most of the programs were researched with struggling students. Yet I am not perceiving a rush to find out about proven programs. I am hearing a lot of new interest in evidence, but my suspicion, growing every day, is that many educational leaders do not really care about the evidence, but are instead just trying to find a way to keep using the programs and providers they already have and already like, and are looking for evidence to justify keeping things as they are.

Every school has some number of struggling students. If these children are provided with the same approaches that have not worked with them or with millions like them, it is highly likely that most will fail, with all the consequences that flow from school failure: Retention. Assignment to special education. Frustration. Low expectations. Dropout. Limited futures. Poverty. Unemployment. There are 50 million children in grades PK to 12 in the U.S. This is the grinding reality for perhaps 10 to 20 million of them. Solutions are readily available, but not known or used by caring and skilled front-line educators.

In what way is this situation unlike Tuskegee in 1940?

 Photo credit: By National Archives Atlanta, GA (U.S. government) ([1], originally from National Archives) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

First There Must be Love. Then There Must be Technique.

I recently went to Barcelona. This was my third time in this wonderful city, and for the third time I visited La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s breathtaking church. It was begun in the 1880s, and Gaudi worked on it from the time he was 31 until he died in 1926 at 74. It is due to be completed in 2026.

Every time I go, La Sagrada Familia has grown even more astonishing. In the nave, massive columns branching into tree shapes hold up the spectacular roof. The architecture is extremely creative, and wonders lie around every corner.


I visited a new museum under the church. At the entrance, it had a Gaudi quote:

First there must be love.

Then there must be technique.

This quote sums up La Sagrada Familia. Gaudi used complex mathematics to plan his constructions. He was a master of technique. But he knew that it all meant nothing without love.

In writing about educational research, I try to remind my readers of this from time to time. There is much technique to master in creating educational programs, evaluating them, and fairly summarizing their effects. There is even more technique in implementing proven programs in schools and classrooms, and in creating policies to support use of proven programs. But what Gaudi reminds us of is just as essential in our field as it was in his. We must care about technique because we care about children. Caring about technique just for its own sake is of little value. Too many children in our schools are failing to learn adequately. We cannot say, “That’s not my problem, I’m a statistician,” or “that’s not my problem, I’m a policymaker,” or “that’s not my problem, I’m an economist.” If we love children and we know that our research can help them, then it’s all of our problems. All of us go into education to solve real problems in real classrooms. That’s the structure we are all building together over many years. Building this structure takes technique, and the skilled efforts of many researchers, developers, statisticians, superintendents, principals, and teachers.

Each of us brings his or her own skills and efforts to this task. None of us will live to see our structure completed, because education keeps growing in techniques and capability. But as Gaudi reminds us, it’s useful to stop from time to time and remember why we do what we do, and for whom.

Photo credit: By Txllxt TxllxT [CC BY-SA 4.0  (], from Wikimedia Commons

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.

Lessons from China

blog_3-22-18_Confucius_344x500Recently I gave a series of speeches in China, organized by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Nanjing Normal University. I had many wonderful and informative experiences, but one evening stood out.

I was in Nanjing, the ancient capital, and it was celebrating the weeks after the Chinese New Year. The center of the celebration was the Temple of Confucius. In and around it were lighted displays exhorting Chinese youth to excel on their exams. Children stood in front of these displays to have their pictures taken next to characters saying “first in class,” never second. A woman with a microphone recited blessings and hopes that students would do well on exams. After each one, students hit a huge drum with a long stick, as an indication of accepting the blessing. Inside the temple were thousands of small silk messages, bright red, expressing the wishes of parents and students that students will do well on their exams. Chinese friends explained what was going on, and told me how pervasive this spirit was. Children all know a saying to the effect that the path to riches and a beautiful wife was through books. I heard that perhaps 70% of urban Chinese students go to after-school cram schools to ensure their performance on exams.

The reason Chinese parents and students take test scores so seriously is obvious in every aspect of Chines culture. On an earlier trip to China I toured a beautiful house, from hundreds of years ago, in a big city. The only purpose of the house was to provide a place for young men of a large clan to stay while they prepared for their exams, which determined their place in the Confucian hierarchy.

As everyone knows, Chinese students do, in fact, do very well on their exams. I would note that these data come in particular from urban Eastern China, such as Shanghai. I’d heard about but did not fully understand policies that contribute to these outcomes. In all big cities in China, students can only attend schools in their city neighborhoods, where the best schools in the country are, if they were born there or own apartments. In a country where a small apartment in a big city can easily cost a half million dollars (U.S.), this is no small selection factor. If parents work in the city but do not own an apartment, their children may have to remain in the village or small city they came from, living with grandparents and attending non-elite schools. Chinese cities are growing so fast that the majority of their inhabitants come from the rest of China. This matters because admirers of Chinese education often cite the amazing statistics from the rich and growing Eastern Chinese cities, not the whole country. It’s as though the U.S. only reported test scores on international comparisons from suburbs in the Northeastern states from Maryland to New England, the wealthiest and highest-achieving part of our country.

I do not want to detract in any way from the educational achievements of the Chinese, but just to put it in context. First, the Chinese themselves have doubts about test scores as the only important indicators, and admire Western education for its broader focus. But just sticking to test scores, China and other Confucian cultures such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore have been creating a culture valuing test scores since Confucius, about 2500 years ago. It would be a central focus of Chinese culture even if PISA and TIMSS did not exist to show it off to the world.

My only point is that when American or European observers hold up East Asian achievements as a goal to aspire to, these achievements do not exist in a cultural vacuum. Other countries can potentially achieve what China has achieved, in terms of test scores and other indicators, but they cannot achieve it in the same way. Western culture is just not going to spend the next 2500 years raising its children the way the Chinese do. What we can do, however, is to use our own strengths, in research, development, and dissemination, to progressively enhance educational outcomes. The Chinese can and will do this, too; that’s what I was doing traveling around China speaking about evidence-based reform. We need not be in competition with any nation or society, as expanding educational opportunity and success throughout the world is in the interests of everyone on Earth. But engaging in fantasies about how we can move ahead by emulating parts of Chinese culture that they have been refining since Confucius is not sensible.

Precisely because of their deep respect for scholarship and learning and their eagerness to continue to improve their educational achievements, the Chinese are ideal collaborators in the worldwide movement toward evidence-based reform in education. Colleagues at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Nanjing Normal University are launching Chinese-language and Asian-focused versions of our newsletter on evidence in education, Best Evidence in Brief (BEiB). We and our U.K. colleagues have been distributing BEIB for several years. We welcome the opportunity to share ideas and resources with our Chinese colleagues to enrich the evidence base for education for children everywhere.

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.