Achieving Breakthroughs in Education By Transforming Effective But Expensive Approaches to be Affordable at Scale

It’s summer in Baltimore. The temperatures are beastly, the humidity worse. I grew up in Washington, DC, which has the same weather. We had no air conditioning, so summers could be torture. No one could sleep, so we all walked around like zombies, yearning for fall.

Today, however, summers in Baltimore are completely bearable. The reason, of course, is air conditioning. Air conditioning existed when I was a kid, but hardly anyone could afford it.  I think the technology has gradually improved, but there was no scientific or technical breakthrough, as far as I know.  Yet somehow, all but the poorest families can afford air conditioning, so summer in Baltimore can be survived. Families that cannot afford air conditioning need assistance, especially for health reasons, but this number is small.

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The story of air conditioning resembles that of much other technology. What happens is that a solution is devised for a very important problem.  The solution is too expensive for ordinary people to use, so initially, it is used in circumstances that justify the cost.  For example, early automobiles were far too expensive for the general public, but they were used for important applications in which the benefits were particularly obvious, such as delivery trucks and cars for doctors and veterinarians.  Also, wealthy individuals and race car drivers could afford the early autos.  These applications provided experience with the manufacture, use, and repair of automobiles and encouraged investments in infrastructure, paving the way (so to speak) for mass production of cars (such as the Model T) that could be afforded by a much larger portion of the population and economy.  Modest improvements are constantly being made, but the focus is on making the technology less expensive, so it can be more widely used.  In medicine, penicillin was invented in the 1920s, but not until the advent of World War II was it made inexpensive enough for practical use.  It saved millions of lives not because it had been invented, but because the Merck Company was commissioned to find a way to make it practicable (the solution involved growing penicillin on rotting squash).

Innovations in education can work in a similar way.  One obvious example is instructional technology, which existed before the 1970s but is only now becoming universally available, mostly because it is falling in price.  However, what education has rarely done is to create expensive but hugely effective interventions and then figure out how to do them cheaply, without reducing their impact.

Until now.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you can guess where I am going: Tutoring.  As everyone knows, one-to one tutoring by certified teachers is extremely effective.  No surprise there. As you regulars will also know, rigorous research over the past 20 years has established that tutoring by well-trained, well-supervised teaching assistants using proven methods routinely produces outcomes just as good as tutoring by certified teachers, at half the cost.  Further, one-to-small group tutoring, up to one to four, can be almost as effective as one-to-one tutoring in reading, and equally effective in mathematics (see www.bestevidence.org).

One-to-four tutoring by teaching assistants requires about one-eighth of the cost of one-to-one tutoring by teachers.  The mean outcomes for both types of tutoring are about an effect size of +0.30, but several programs are able to produce effect sizes in excess of +0.50, the national mean difference on NAEP between disadvantaged and middle-class students.  (As a point of comparison, average effects of technology applications with elementary struggling readers average +0.05 in reading, and in math, they average +0.07 for all elementary students.  Urban charter schools average +0.04 in reading, +0.05 in math).

Reducing the cost of tutoring should not be seen as a way for schools to save money.  Instead, it should be seen as a way to provide the benefits of tutoring to much larger numbers of students.  Because of its cost, tutoring has been largely restricted to the primary grades (especially first), to perhaps a semester of service, and to reading, but not math.  If tutoring is much less expensive but equally effective, then tutoring can be extended to older students and to math.  Students who need more than a semester of tutoring, or need “booster shots” to maintain their gains into later grades, should be able to receive the tutoring they need, for as long as they need it.

Tutoring has been how rich and powerful people educated their children since the beginning of time.  Ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians had their children tutored if they could afford it.  The great Russian educational theorist, Lev Vygotsky, never saw the inside of a classroom as a child, because his parents could afford to have him tutored.  As a slave, Frederick Douglass received one-to-one tutoring (secretly and illegally) from his owner’s wife, right here in Baltimore.  When his master found out and forbade his wife to continue, Douglass sought further tutoring from immigrant boys on the docks where he worked, in exchange for his master’s wife’s fresh-cooked bread.  Helen Keller received tutoring from Anne Sullivan.  Tutoring has long been known to be effective.  The only question is, or should be, how do we maximize tutoring’s effectiveness while minimizing its cost, so that all students who need it can receive it?

If air conditioning had been like education, we might have celebrated its invention, but sadly concluded that it would never be affordable by ordinary people.  If penicillin had been like education, it would have remained a scientific curiosity until today, and millions would have died due to the lack of it.  If cars had been like education, only the rich would have them.

Air conditioning for all?  What a cool idea.  Cost-effective tutoring for all who need it?  Wouldn’t that be smart?

Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Pat Halton [Public domain]

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.

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Educational Policies vs. Educational Programs: Evidence from France

Ask any parent what their kids say when they ask them what they did in school today. Invariably, they respond, “Nuffin,” or some equivalent. My four-year-old granddaughter always says, “I played with my fwends.” All well and good.

However, in educational policy, policy makers often give the very same answer when asked, “What did the schools not using the (insert latest policy darling) do?”

“Nuffin’”. Or they say, “Whatever they usually do.” There’s nothing wrong with the latter answer if it’s true. But given the many programs now known to improve student achievement (see www.evidenceforessa.org), why don’t evaluators compare outcomes of new policy initiatives to those of proven educational programs known to improve the same outcomes the policy innovation is supposed to improve, perhaps at far lower cost per student? The evaluations should also compare to “business as usual,” but adding proven programs to evaluations of large policy innovations would help avoid declaring policy innovations to be successful when they are in fact just slightly more effective than “business as usual,” and much less effective or less cost-effective than alternative proven approaches? For example, when evaluating charter schools, why not routinely compare them to whole-school reform models that have similar objectives? When evaluating extending the school day or school year to help high-poverty schools, why not compare these innovations to using the same amount of additional money to hiring tutors to use proven tutoring models to help struggling students? In evaluating policies in which students are held back if they do not read at grade level by third grade, why not compare these approaches to intensive phonics instruction and tutoring in grades K-3, which are known to greatly improve student reading achievement?

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There is nuffin like a good fwend.

As one example of research comparing a policy intervention to a promising educational intervention, I recently saw a very interesting pair of studies from France. Ecalle, Gomes, Auphan, Cros, & Magnan (2019) compared two interventions applied in special priority areas with high poverty levels. Both interventions focused on reading in first grade.

One of the interventions involved halving class size, from approximately 24 students to 12. The other provided intensive reading instruction in small groups (4-6 children) to students who were struggling in reading, as well as less intensive interventions to larger groups (10-12 students). Low achievers got two 30-minute interventions each day for a year, while the higher-performing readers got one 30-minute intervention each day. In both cases, the focus of instruction was on phonics. In all cases, the additional interventions were provided by the students’ usual teachers.

The students in small classes were compared to students in ordinary-sized classes, while the students in the educational intervention were compared to students in same-sized classes who did not get the group interventions. Similar measures and analyses were used in both comparisons.

The results were nearly identical for the class size policy and the educational intervention. Halving class size had effect sizes of +0.14 for word reading and +0.22 for spelling. Results for the educational intervention were +0.13 for word reading, +0.12 for spelling, +0.14 for a group test of reading comprehension, +0.32 for an individual test of comprehension, and +0.19 for fluency.

These studies are less than perfect in experimental design, but they are nevertheless interesting. Most importantly, the class size policy required an additional teacher for each class of 24. Using Maryland annual teacher salaries and benefits ($84,000), that means the cost in our state would be about $3500 per student. The educational intervention required one day of training and some materials. There was virtually no difference in outcomes, but the differences in cost were staggering.

The class size policy was mandated by the Ministry of Education. The educational intervention was offered to schools and provided by a university and a non-profit. As is so often the case, the policy intervention was simplistic, easy to describe in the newspaper, and minimally effective. The class size policy reminds me of a Florida program that extended the school schedule by an hour every day in high-poverty schools, mainly to provide more time for reading instruction. The cost per child was about $800 per year. The outcomes were minimal (ES=+0.05).

After many years of watching what schools do and reviewing research on outcomes of innovations, I find it depressing that policies mandated on a substantial scale are so often found to be ineffective. They are usually far more expensive than much more effective, rigorously evaluated programs that are, however, a bit more difficult to describe, and rarely arouse great debate in the political arena. It’s not that anyone is opposed to the educational intervention, but it is a lot easier to carry a placard saying “Reduce Class Size Now!” than to carry one saying “Provide Intensive Phonics in Small Groups with More Supplemental Teaching for the Lowest Achievers Now!” The latter just does not fit on a placard, and though easy to understand if explained, it does not lend itself to easy communication. Actually, there are much more effective first grade interventions than the one evaluated in France (see www.evidenceforessa.org). At a cost much less than $3500 per student, several one-to-one tutoring programs using well-trained teaching assistants as tutors would have been able to produce an effect size of more than +0.50 for all first graders on average. This would even fit on a placard: “Tutoring Now!”

I am all in favor of trying out policy innovations. But when parents of kids in a proven-program comparison group are asked what they did in school today, they shouldn’t say “nuffin’”. They should say, “My tooter taught me to read. And I played with my fwends.”

References

Ecalle, J., Gomes, C., Auphan, P., Cros, L., & Magnan, A. (2019). Effects of policy and educational interventions intended to reduce difficulties in literacy skills in grade 1. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 61, 12-20.

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.

Is ES=+0.50 Achievable?: Schoolwide Approaches That Might Meet This Standard

In a recent blog, “Make No Small Plans,” I proposed a system innovators could use to create very effective schoolwide programs.  I defined these as programs capable of making a difference in student achievement large enough to bring entire schools serving disadvantaged students to the levels typical of middle class schools.  On average, that would mean creating school models that could routinely add an effect size of +0.50 for entire disadvantaged schools.  +0.50, or half a standard deviation, is roughly the average difference between students who qualify for free lunch and those who do not, between African American and White students, and between Hispanic and non-Hispanic White students.

Today, I wanted to give some examples of approaches intended to meet the +0.50 goal. From prior work, my colleagues and I already have created a successful schoolwide reform model, Success for All, which, with adequate numbers of tutors (as many as six per school) achieved reading effect sizes in high-poverty Baltimore elementary schools of over +0.50 for all students and +0.75 for the lowest-achieving quarter of students (Madden et al, 1993).   These outcomes maintained through eighth grade, and showed substantial reductions in grade retentions and special education placements (Borman & Hewes, 2003).  Steubenville, in Ohio’s Rust Belt, uses Success for All in all of its Title I elementary schools, providing several tutors in each.  Each year, Steubenville schools score among the highest in Ohio on state tests, exceeding most wealthy suburban schools.  Other SFA schools with sufficient tutors are also exemplary in achievement gains.  Yet these schools face a dilemma.  Most cannot afford significant numbers of tutors.  They still get excellent results, but less than those typical of SFA schools that do have sufficient tutors.

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We are now planning another approach, also intended to produce schoolwide effect sizes of at least +0.50 in schools serving disadvantaged students.   However, in this case our emphasis is on tutoring, the most effective strategy known for improving the achievement of struggling readers (Inns et al., 2019).  We are calling this approach the Reading Safety Net.  Main components of this plan are as follows:

Tutoring

Like the most successful forms of Success for All, the Reading Safety Net places a substantial emphasis on tutoring.  Tutors will be well-qualified teaching assistants with BAs but not teaching certificates, extensively trained to provide one-to-four tutoring.   Tutors will use a proven computer-assisted model in which students do a lot of pair teaching.  This is what we now call our Tutoring With the Lightning Squad model, which achieved outcomes of +0.40 and +0.46 in two studies in the Baltimore City Public Schools (Madden & Slavin, 2017).  A high-poverty school of 500 students might engage about five tutors, providing extensive tutoring to the majority of students, for as many years as necessary.  One additional tutor or teacher will supervise the tutors and personally work with students having the most serious problems.   We will provide significant training and follow-up coaching to ensure that all tutors are effective.

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Attendance and Health

Many students fail in reading or other outcomes because they have attendance problems or certain common health problems. We propose to provide a health aide to help solve these problems.

Attendance

Many students, especially those in high-poverty schools, fail because they do not attend school regularly. Yet there are several proven approaches for increasing attendance, and reducing chronic truancy (Shi, Inns, Lake, and Slavin, 2019).  Health aides will help teachers and other staff organize and manage effective attendance improvement approaches.

Vision Services

My colleagues and I have designed strategies to help ensure that all students who need eyeglasses receive them. A key problem in this work is ensuring that students who receive glasses use them, keep them safe, and replace them if they are lost or broken. Health aides will coordinate use of proven strategies to increase regular use of needed eyeglasses.

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Asthma and other health problems

Many students in high-poverty schools suffer from chronic illnesses.  Cures or prevention are known for these, but the cures may not work if medications are not taken daily.   For example, asthma is common in high-poverty schools, where it is the top cause of hospital referrals and a leading cause of death for school-age children.  Inexpensive inhalers can substantially improve children’s health, yet many children do not regularly take their medicine. Studies suggest that having trained staff ensure that students take their medicine, and watch them doing so, can make a meaningful difference.  The same may be true of other chronic, easily treated diseases common among children but often not consistently treated in inner-city schools.  Health aides with special supplemental training may be able to play a key on-the-ground role in helping ensure effective treatment for asthma and other diseases.

Potential Impact

The Reading Safety Net is only a concept at present.  We are seeking funding to support its further development and evaluation.  As we work with front line educators, colleagues, and others to further develop this model, we are sure to find ways to make the approach more effective and cost-effective, and perhaps extend it to solve other key problems.

We cannot yet claim that the Reading Safety Net has been proven effective, although many of its components have been.  But we intend to do a series of pilots and component evaluations to progressively increase the impact, until that impact attains or surpasses the goal of ES=+0.50.  We hope that many other research teams will mobilize and obtain resources to find their own ways to +0.50.  A wide variety of approaches, each of which would be proven to meet this ambitious goal, would provide a range of effective choices for educational leaders and policy makers.  Each would be a powerful, replicable tool, capable of solving the core problems of education.

We know that with sufficient investment and encouragement from funders, this goal is attainable.  If it is in fact attainable, how could we accept anything less?

References

Borman, G., & Hewes, G. (2003).  Long-term effects and cost effectiveness of Success for All.  Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24 (2), 243-266.

Inns, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2019). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Madden, N. A., & Slavin, R. E. (2017). Evaluations of Technology-Assisted Small-Group Tutoring for Struggling Readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 1-8.

Madden, N. A., Slavin, R. E., Karweit, N. L., Dolan, L., & Wasik, B. (1993). Success for All:  Longitudinal effects of a schoolwide elementary restructuring program. American Educational Reseach Journal, 30, 123-148.

Shi, C., Inns, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. E. (2019). Effective school-based programs for K-12 students’ attendance: A best-evidence synthesis. Baltimore, MD: Center for Research and Reform in Education, Johns Hopkins University.

 

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.

Make No Small Plans

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood, and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram, once recorded, will never die…”

-Daniel Burnham, American architect, 1910

More than 100 years ago, architect Daniel Burnham expressed an important insight. “Make no little plans,” he said. Many people have said that, one way or another. But Burnham’s insight was that big plans matter because they “have magic to stir men’s blood.” Small plans do not, and for this reason may never even be implemented. Burnham believed that even if big plans fail, they have influence into the future, as little plans do not.

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Make no small plans.

In education, we sometimes have big plans. Examples include comprehensive school reform in the 1990s, charter schools in the 2000s, and evidence-based reform today. None of these have yet produced revolutionary positive outcomes, but all of them have captured the public imagination. Even if you are not an advocate of any of these, you cannot ignore them, as they take on a life of their own. When conditions are right, they will return many times, in many forms, and may eventually lead to substantial impacts. In medicine, it was demonstrated in the mid-1800s that germs caused disease and that medicine could advance through rigorous experimentation (think Lister and Pasteur, for example). Yet sterile procedures in operations and disciplined research on practical treatments took 100 years to prevail. The medical profession resisted sterile procedures and evidence-based medicine for many years. Sterile procedures and evidence-based medicine were big ideas. It took a long time for them to take hold, but they did prevail, and remained big ideas through all that time.

Big Plans in Education

In education, as in medicine long ago, we have thousands of important problems, and good work continues (and needs to continue) on most of them. However, at least in American education, there is one crucial problem that dwarfs all others and lends itself to truly big plans. This is the achievement gap between students from middle class backgrounds and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. As noted in my April 25 blog, the achievement gap between students who qualify for free lunch and those who do not, between African American and White students, and between Hispanic students and non-Hispanic White students, all average an effect size of about 0.50. This presents a serious challenge. However, as I pointed out in that blog, there are several programs in existence today capable of adding an effect size of +0.50 to the reading or math achievement of students at risk. All programs that can do this involve one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring. Tutoring is expensive, but recent research has found that well-trained and well-supervised tutors with BAs, but not necessarily teaching certificates, can obtain the same outcomes as certified teachers do, at half the cost. Using our own Success for All program with six tutors per school (K-5), high-poverty African American elementary schools in Baltimore obtained effect sizes averaging +0.50 for all students and +0.75 for students in the lowest 25% of their grades (Madden et al., 1993). A follow-up to eighth grade found that achievement outcomes maintained and both retentions and special education placements were cut in half (Borman & Hewes, 2003). We have not had the opportunity to once again implement Success for All with so much tutoring included, but even with fewer tutors, Success for All has had substantial impacts. Cheung et al. (2019) found an average effect size of +0.27 across 28 randomized and matched studies, a more than respectable outcome for a whole-school intervention. For the lowest-achieving students, the average was +0.56.

Knowing that Success for All can achieve these outcomes is important in itself, but it is also an indication that substantial positive effects can be achieved for whole schools, and with sufficient tutors, can equal the entire achievement gaps according to socio-economic status and race. If one program can do this, why not many others?

Imagine that the federal government or other large funders decided to support the development and evaluation of several different ideas. Funders might establish a goal of increasing reading achievement by an effect size of +0.50, or as close as possible to this level, working with high-poverty schools. Funders would seek organizations that have already demonstrated success at an impressive level, but not yet +0.50, who could describe a compelling strategy to increase their impact to +0.50 or more. Depending on the programs’ accomplishments and needs, they might be funded to experiment with enhancements to their promising model. For example, they might add staff, add time (e.g., continue for multiple years), or add additional program components likely to strengthen the overall model. Once programs could demonstrate substantial outcomes in pilots, they might be funded to do a cluster randomized trial. If this experiment shows positive effects approaching +0.50 or more, the developers might receive funding for scale-up. If the outcomes are substantially positive but significantly less than +0.50, the funders might decide to help the developers make changes leading up to a second randomized experiment.

There are many details to be worked out, but the core idea could capture the imagination and energy of educators and public-spirited citizens alike. This time, we are not looking for marginal changes that can be implemented cheaply. This time, we will not quit until we have many proven, replicable programs, each of which is so powerful that it can, over a period of years, remedy the entire achievement gap. This time, we are not making changes in policy or governance and hoping for the best. This time, we are going directly to the schools where the disadvantaged kids are, and we are not declaring victory until we can guarantee such students gains that will give them the same outcomes as those of the middle class kids in the suburbs.

Perhaps the biggest idea of all is the idea that we need big ideas with big outcomes!

Anyway, this is my big plan. What’s yours?

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Note: Just as I was starting on this blog, I got an email from Ulrich Boser at the Center for American Progress. CAP and the Thomas Fordham Foundation are jointly sponsoring an “Education Moonshot,” including a competition with a grand prize of $10,000 for a “moonshot idea that will revolutionize schooling and dramatically improve student outcomes.” For more on this, please visit the announcement site. Submissions are due August 1st at this online portal and involve telling them in 500 words your, well, big plan.

 

References

Borman, G., & Hewes, G. (2003).  Long-term effects and cost effectiveness of Success for All.  Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24 (2), 243-266.

Cheung, A., Xie, C., Zhuang, T., & Slavin, R. E. (2019). Success for All: A quantitative synthesis of evaluations. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Madden, N.A., Slavin, R.E., Karweit, N.L., Dolan, L.J., & Wasik, B.A. (1993).  Success for All:  Longitudinal effects of a restructuring program for inner-city elementary schools.  American Educational Research Journal, 30, 123-148.

 

 

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.

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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 www.evidenceforessa.org, 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.

Don’t Just Do Something. Do Something Effective.

I recently visited York, England, where my wife and I worked part-time for about 8 years. York is world famous for its huge cathedral, intact medieval walls, medieval churches, and other medieval sights. But on this trip we had some time for local touring, and chose to visit a more modern place, but one far ghastlier than a ton of dungeons.

The place is the York Cold War Bunker. Built in 1961 and operated to 1991, it was intended to monitor the results of a nuclear attack on Britain. Volunteers, mostly women, were trained to detect the locations, sizes, and radiation levels of nuclear bombs dropped on Britain. This was a command bunker that collected its own data, with a staff of 60, but also monitored dozens of three-man bunkers all over the North of England, all collecting similar data. The idea was that a national network of these bunkers would determine where in the country it was safe to go after a nuclear war. The bunker had air, water, and food for 30 days, after which the volunteers had to leave. And most likely die of radiation poisoning.

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The very interesting docent informed us of one astounding fact. When the bunker network was planned in 1957, the largest nuclear weapons were like those used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, less than one megaton in yield. By 1961, when the bunkers started operation, the largest bombs were 50-megaton behemoths.

The day the Soviet Union successfully tested its 50-megaton bomb, the bunkers were instantly obsolete. Not only would a single bomb create fatal levels of radiation all over Britain, but it would also likely destroy the telephone and radio systems on which the bunkers depended.

Yet for 30 years, this utterly useless system was maintained, with extensive training, monitoring, and support.

There must have been thousands of military leaders, politicians, scientists, and ordinary readers of Popular Science, who knew full well that the bunkers were useless from the day they opened. The existence of the bunkers was not a secret, and in fact it was publicized. Why were they maintained? And what does this have to do with educational research?

The Cold War Bunkers illustrate an aspect of human nature that is important in understanding all sorts of behavior. When a catastrophe is impending, people find it comforting to do something, even if that something is known (by some at least) to be useless or even counterproductive. The British government could simply not say to its citizens that in case of a nuclear war, everyone was toast. Full stop. Instead, they had to offer hope, however slim. Around the same time the (doomed) bunkers were going into operation in Britain, my entire generation of students was learning to crawl under our desks for protection in case of nuclear attack. I suppose it made some people think that, well, at least something was being done. It scared the bejabbers out of us kids, but no one asked us.

In education, we face many very difficult, often terrifying problems. Every one of them has one or more widespread solutions. But do these solutions work?

Consider DARE, for Drug Awareness and Resistance Education, a well-researched example of what might be called “do-something-itis.” Research on DARE has never found positive effects on drug or alcohol abuse, and sometimes finds negative effects. In the case of DARE, there are many alternative drug and alcohol prevention programs that have been proven effective. Yet DARE continues, giving concerned educators and parents a comforting sense that something is being done to prevent drug and alcohol abuse among their teenagers.

Another good example of “do-something-itis” is benchmark assessments, where students take brief versions of their state tests 4-5 times a year, to give teachers and principals early warnings about areas in which students might be lagging or need additional, targeted assistance. This sounds like a simple, obvious strategy to improve test scores. However, in our reviews of research on studies of elementary and secondary reading and elementary mathematics, the effects of using benchmark assessments average an effect size close to 0.00. Yet I’m sure that schools will still be using benchmark assessments for many years, because with all the importance placed on state tests, educators will always feel better doing something focused on the problem. Of course, they should do something, actually quite a lot, but why not use “somethings” proven to work instead of benchmark assessments proven not to work?

In education, there are many very serious problems, and, in response, each one is given a solution that seems to address it. Often, the solutions are unresearched, or researched and found to be ineffective. A unifying attribute of these solutions is that they are simple and easy to understand, so most people are satisfied that at least something is being done. One example is the many states that threaten to retain third graders if they are not reading adequately (typically, at “proficient” levels on state tests) to address the serious gaps in literacy in the high school. Yet in most states, the programs used to improve student reading in grades K-3 are not proven to be effective. Often, the solution provided is a single reading teacher to provide one-to-one tutoring to students in K-3. One-to-one tutoring is very effective for the students who get it, but an average U.S. school has 280 students in grades K-3, about half of whom (on average) are unlikely to score proficient at third grade. Obviously, one tutor working one-to-one cannot do much for 140 students. Again, there are effective and cost-effective alternatives, such as proven one-to-small group tutoring by teaching assistants, but few states or schools use proven strategies of this kind.

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. School systems can be seen as a huge network of dedicated people working very hard to accomplish crucial goals. Sort of like Cold War Bunkers. Yet many of their resources, talents, and efforts are underutilized, because most school systems insist on using programs and practices that appear to be doing something to prevent or solve major problems, but that have not been proven to do so.

It is time for our field to begin to focus the efforts and abilities of its talented, hard-working teachers and principals on solutions that are not just doing something, but are doing something effective. Every year, research identifies more and more effective programs known to work from rigorous experiments. This research progressively undermines the argument that doing something is at least better than doing nothing in the face of serious problems. In most areas of education, doing nothing is not the relevant option. If we do know how to solve these problems, then the alternative to doing something (of unknown value) is not doing nothing. Instead, the cure for do-something-itis is doing something that works.

Photo credit: Nilfanion [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

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.

Systems

What came first? The can or the can opener?

The answer to this age-old question is that the modern can and can opener were invented at exactly the same moment. This had to be true because a can without a can opener (yes, they existed) is of very little value, and a can opener without a can is the sound of one hand clapping (i.e., less than worthless).

The can and the can opener are together a system. Between them, they make it possible to preserve, transport, and distribute foods.

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In educational innovation, we frequently talk as though individual variables are sufficient to improve student achievement. You hear things like “more time-good,” “more technology-good,” and so on. Any of these factors can be effective as part of a system of innovations, or useless or harmful without other aligned components. As one example, consider time. A recent Florida study provided an extra hour each day for reading instruction, 180 hours over the course of a year, at a cost per student of $800 per student, or $300,000-$400,000 per school. The effect on reading performance, compared to schools that did not receive additional time, was very small (effect size =+0.09). In contrast, time used for one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring by teaching assistants for example, can have a much larger impact on reading in elementary schools (effect size=+0.29), at about half the cost. As a system, cost-effective tutoring requires a coordinated combination of time, training for teaching assistants, use of proven materials, and monitoring of progress. Separately, each of these factors is nowhere near as effective as all of them taken together in a coordinated system. Each is a can with no can opener, or a can opener with no can: The sound of one hand clapping. Together, they can be very effective.

The importance of systems explains why programs are so important. Programs invariably combine individual elements to attempt to improve student outcomes. Not all programs are effective, of course, but those that have been proven to work have hit upon a balanced combination of instructional methods, classroom organization, professional development, technology, and supportive materials that, if implemented together with care and attention, have been proven to work. The opposite of a program is a “variable,” such as “time” or “technology,” that educators try to use with few consistent, proven links to other elements.

All successful human enterprises, such as schools, involve many individual variables. Moving these enterprises forward in effectiveness can rarely be done by changing one variable. Instead, we have to design coordinated plans to improve outcomes. A can opener can’t, a can can’t, but together, a can opener and a can can.

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.