Lessons for Educational Research from the COVID-19 Vaccines

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 130 biotech companies have launched major efforts to develop and test vaccines. Only four have been approved so far (Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca). Among the others, many have outright failed, and others are considered highly unlikely. Some of the failed vaccines are small, fringe companies, but they also include some of the largest and most successful drug companies in the world: Merck (U.S.), Glaxo-Smith-Kline (U.K.), and Sanofi (France).

Kamala Harris gets her vaccine.

Photo courtesy of NIH

If no further companies succeed, the score is something like 4 successes and 126 failures.  Based on this, is the COVID vaccine a triumph of science, or a failure? Obviously, if you believe that even one of the successful programs is truly effective, you would have to agree that this is one of the most extraordinary successes in the history of medicine. In less than one year, companies were able to create, evaluate, and roll out successful vaccines, already saving hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide.

Meanwhile, Back in Education . . .

The example of COVID vaccines contrasts sharply with the way research findings are treated in education. As one example, Borman et al. (2003) reviewed research on 33 comprehensive school reform programs. Only three of these had solid evidence of effectiveness, according to the authors (one of these was our program, Success for All; see Cheung et al., in press). Actually, few of the programs failed; most had just not been evaluated adequately. Yet the response from government and educational leaders was “comprehensive school reform doesn’t work” rather than, “How wonderful! Let’s use the programs proven to work.” As a result, a federal program supporting comprehensive school reform was canceled, use of comprehensive school reform plummeted, and most CSR programs went out of operation (we survived, just barely, but the other two successful programs soon disappeared).

Similarly, the What Works Clearinghouse, and our Evidence for ESSA website (www.evidenceforessa.org), are often criticized because so few of the programs we review turn out to have significant positive outcomes in rigorous studies.

The reality is that in any field in which rigorous experiments are used to evaluate innovations, most of the innovations fail. Mature science-focused fields, like medicine and agriculture, expect this and honor it, because the only way to prevent failures is to do no experiments at all, or only flawed experiments. Without rigorous experiments, we would have no reliable successes.  Also, we learn from failures, as scientists are learning from the findings of the evaluations of all 130 of the COVID vaccines.

Unfortunately, education is not a mature science-focused field, and in our field, failure to show positive effects in rigorous experiments leads to cover-ups, despair, abandonment of proven and promising approaches, or abandonment of rigorous research itself. About 20 years ago, a popular federally-funded education program was found to be ineffective in a large, randomized experiment. Supporters of this program actually got Congress to enact legislation that forbade the use of randomized experiments to evaluate this program!

Research has improved in the past two decades, and acceptance of research has improved as well. Yet we are a long way from medicine, for example, which accepts both success and failure as part of a process of using science to improve health. In our field, we need to commit to broad scale, rigorous evaluations of promising approaches, wide dissemination of programs that work, and learning from experiments that do not (yet) show positive outcomes. In this way, we could achieve the astonishing gains that take place in medicine, and learn how to produce these gains even faster using all the knowledge acquired in experiments, successful or not.

References

Borman, G. D., Hews, G. M., Overman, L. T., & Brown, S. (2003). Comprehensive school reform and achievement: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 12(2), 125-230.

Cheung, A., Xie, C., Zhang, T. & Slavin, R. E. (in press). Success for All: A quantitative synthesis of evaluations. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness.

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

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Prioritize Tutoring for Low-Achieving Readers

In speaking and writing about tutoring, I am often asked about where limited tutoring resources should be concentrated.  My answer is this: “Make certain that every single child in America who needs it gets enough tutoring to be proficient in phonics. All other priorities are tied for second place.”

There are many pragmatic reasons why early reading should be the focus. First, the largest number of proven tutoring programs focus on grades K-2 or K-3 reading, and these programs tend to have spectacular impacts on measures of reading comprehension as well as phonics. Second, reading is fundamental. Very few students end up in special education, or are held back in grade, due to failure in any other subject, for example. Most other subjects depend on reading, of course. But also, a student’s academic self-esteem depends primarily on his or her self-perception as a reader.

Note that “early reading” in this case does not only mean reading in grades K-3. The great majority of students who are failing in reading in grades 4-12 do not have solid phonics skills, typically taught in grades K-2. There are no proven middle school reading programs in the U.S., but there are two in England, and both were adapted from K-2 programs, with a strong focus on phonics.

My point about focusing on phonics first is influenced by the fact that very poor reading skills (defined here as scoring “below basic” on NAEP) are very widespread, especially among disadvantaged and minority students. On the 2019 4th grade NAEP, 34% of all students, but 52% of Black students and 45% of Hispanic students, scored below basic. At 8th grade, it’s 27% below basic for all, 46% for Black students, and 37% for Hispanic students. Using these numbers, I’d estimate that 9.5 million elementary and 7.3 million secondary students are scoring below basic on NAEP reading, and surely need tutoring. While we wait for someone to create and evaluate secondary reading tutoring programs, could we start with the 9.5 million elementary students? This is a mighty big job in itself. We could also use proven upper-elementary tutoring programs to work with some proportion of secondary students reading far below grade level.

Even leaving aside the importance of immediate capacity, demonstrated impact, and the obvious importance of reading in elementary schools, consider the huge role of the reading gap on the most important social problem in our nation: Inequality by race and social class. In large part, racial and social class disparities cause the reading gap, but they are also caused by reading gaps. And it is possible to close the reading gaps, alongside other efforts focusing on closing economic, housing, criminal justice, and other gaps. If we made sure that every American child could read at the fifth grade level by fifth grade, the reading gap would be no longer be a major problem.

The numbers I have been citing are from 2019, before the pandemic. Now things are much worse, and there are surely a lot more than 9.5 million elementary students and 7.3 million secondary students who would score below “basic” on NAEP. Fortunately, the American Rescue Plan Act is providing substantial resources to combat Covid learning losses, and low achievement in general. Covid or no Covid, we have an opportunity and a clear pressing need to close the reading gap and provide a strong foundation for reading for today’s students.

Note that I do not mean to minimize the importance of mathematics, or of secondary school reading and math. These are crucial as well, and we need to solve these problems too. But first out of the gate, in 2021-2022, let’s make sure we use the proven tools we have at hand to solve the problem we happen to be best placed to solve, which happens to be the most important educational problem we face at this moment.

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 thebee@bestevidence.org

Getting Proven Tutoring Programs Into Widespread Practice

Over the past 20 years, there has been a major increase in the number of educational programs that have been developed, evaluated in rigorous (usually randomized) experiments, found to make a substantial difference in achievement, and then offered to schools by non-profit or for-profit organizations. Educators can easily find out about these proven programs in the federal What Works Clearinghouse, our own Evidence for ESSA website, and other sources. Yet very few of these, no matter how effective, have been widely adopted by schools. In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) defined what it means for a program to have strong, moderate, or promising evidence of effectiveness, and encouraged or even (in some cases) incentivized use of these programs. Yet even with this, few of the roughly 120,000 U.S. elementary and secondary schools regularly use any of the more than 120 proven reading or mathematics programs that meet the requirements of Evidence for ESSA and show significant positive effects.

The evidence-to-practice connection in education is much in contrast to that in, say, medicine, where medications and treatments of all kinds that have proven in rigorous experiments that they can cure or prevent diseases are usually widely adopted by medical practitioners. The recent, rapid development and successful evaluations of Covid-19 vaccines are much in the news right now, but dozens of new drugs and other treatments are validated every year, and are then adopted widely. It is certainly true that vastly more money is invested in the whole evidence-to-practice process in medicine than is true in education, but even when educational programs are found effective in randomized experiments like those required in medicine, these programs rarely enter large-scale use. Further, evidence-to-practice is common in many other fields, such as agriculture and technology. But not education.

How Tutoring Might Change Evidence-to-Practice in Education

One of the problems of evidence-to-practice in education is that we lack clear examples where programs were proven effective and then universally applied and found effective at scale. For example, evidence-to-practice was haphazard in medicine until the 20th century, when sulfa drugs, penicillin, morphine, and cures for polio, among many others, solved massive societal problems, and established the idea that research in medicine could truly bring about major change. These breakthroughs were explicitly engineered to solve health problems of great concern to the public, just as the Covid-19 vaccines were explicitly engineered to solve the pandemic.

In education, we face similar problems in the post-Covid period. Millions of students have fallen far behind due to the closure of their schools. All sorts of solutions have been proposed, but only one, tutoring, has both a solid and substantial research base and a significant number of proven, practical, cost-effective solutions.

Perhaps this is our penicillin/polio/Covid moment. We face a problem that no one can deny, of a desperate need to enable millions of students who have lost ground in the pandemic to rapidly gain in reading and math achievement. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has provided billions of dollars to solve the problem, so for once, lack of money is not an obstacle. Due to developments in educational research over the past 20 years, we now have a set of tutoring models that have been proven effective in randomized experiments. If these programs can be rapidly scaled up and applied to enough students to make a meaningful difference among struggling students nationwide, then this may serve as the example we need to establish that development, research, and dissemination can solve societal problems in education.

ProvenTutoring

My colleagues and I are organizing a demonstration exactly along these lines. Fourteen proven tutoring programs for reading and mathematics have formed a coalition, which we call ProvenTutoring. The purpose of the coalition is to make the case for proven tutoring programs, and then provide schools, districts, and states a choice of proven programs. Whichever programs are selected will then provide tutors with first-class professional development to ensure that tutoring is done well and that students receive the maximum benefit possible.

The fourteen programs had to be proven to succeed with college-educated teaching assistants as tutors (because requiring certified teachers would be impossible in a time of teacher shortages, and because evidence finds that well-supported teaching assistants get results as good as those obtained by certified teachers). Each program had to have capacity to go to substantial scale. We estimate that we can collectively serve 100,000 tutors who can serve about four million children, if all goes well.

ProvenTutoring will soon launch a website (which we will call ProvenTutoring.org) and a nationwide communications campaign to focus schools on proven tutoring as a key part of their post Covid-19 plans to combat learning losses. We will offer school districts webinars on proven tutoring, and allow users to explore specific programs to make informed choices among them. We will maintain rigorous standards of training and implementation, to make sure that the quality of implementation in practice, at scale, will be no less than the quality of implementation in the controlled experiments that established their impact.

How Successful Tutoring Could Lead to Support for Evidence-to-Practice

When districts, states, and the nation evaluate reading and math outcomes of struggling students in schools that adopted proven tutoring programs, in comparison to schools that used their ARPA money on other approaches, the outcomes should be clear. If they are, this will be a wonderful development for struggling students, and a major boost for tutoring as an intervention. However, it may also provide the example educational research needs to establish its capacity to solve big practical problems.

If ProvenTutoring is as effective as we expect, perhaps it will occur to our profession that this same strategy could apply wherever we want. This could lead to accelerated investment by government in development and evaluation of replicable programs in every crucial area of education, where robust solutions are needed. Someday, could there be ProvenAlgebra.org? ProvenScience.org? ProvenGraduation.org? Proven programs for English learners? ProvenPreschool.org? ProvenClassroomManagement.org? ProvenCivics.org? Whatever problems most need to be solved, there is no reason we cannot solve them using the same evidence-to-practice strategies that medicine, agriculture, and other fields have used so successfully for many decades.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This blog was developed with support from 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 thebee@bestevidence.org

The American Rescue Plan Can Rescue Education, If We Use It to Fund What Works

The American Rescue Plan was passed in the U.S. Congress this week. This $1.9 trillion bill provides funding for a lot of things I care about as a citizen, but as an educator, I’d like to focus on the portion of it allocated to healing Covid learning loss. This is $29 billion, or roughly double the usual amount spent annually on Title I. This is a major investment in the students whose educations were harmed the most by Covid school closures. These are mostly disadvantaged students and rural students who could not gain access to remote teaching, or who did not have assistance at home to take advantage of remote instruction. Data from all over the country is showing the educational damage these children have sustained.

Clearly, the new money in the ARP could make a substantial difference in the achievement and adjustment of all students returning to in-person schooling. But if educational research tells us anything at all, it tells us these two things:

  1. Making a big difference in educational outcomes costs money.
  2. However, lots of well-meaning uses of money do not make any perceptible difference in outcomes.

Of course, the only way to tell effective uses of new funds from ineffective uses is through rigorous research.

One of the unusual aspects of the ARP education funding is that the legislation is not very specific about how the money is to be used. This is due in part to the fact the ARP was passed using a reconciliation procedure that does not allow for much specificity. The U.S. Department of Education will be drafting guidelines for the money soon, but these guidelines are likely to be relatively flexible, because the legislation itself was not very specific.

This flexibility is likely to allow anything from very good uses of money to very poor uses. My guess is that state and district leaders, and individual principals, will have plenty of freedom to use plenty of money. How novel!

I hope states and districts will use this opportunity to clearly define what is most important to accomplish in their post-Covid planning and then insist on choosing programs, practices, and policies based on the best evidence available. This time, educators will have the opportunity to use research-proven programs not because Congress or the U.S. Department of Education tells them to, but because they care about the learning and emotional well-being of their students.

In the period following the passage of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), state, district, and building leaders learned how to use services such as the What Works Clearinghouse and our www.evidenceforessa.org website to find out the strength of the evidence supporting various programs. I hope schools will continue to use these resources to select programs that have been proven effective. I’ve written many times about the importance of using proven tutoring programs, and this is indeed the most effective strategy by far for students who are far behind in reading or math. But there are many other approaches proven to be effective, especially for disadvantaged students. There is good evidence of effectiveness not only for classroom approaches to reading and math, but also programs for creative writing, science, social-emotional learning, early childhood education, and much more. The ARP funding allows schools to invest in proven programs and find out for themselves whether they work. ARP money will not be around forever, but wouldn’t it be a great use of the money to find out what works, so that when things return to normal, school and district leaders will know more than ever before what works and what doesn’t for their particular students and their particular schools?

In the first months after all schools open for in-person learning, schools are sure to be thinking in emergency mode, about investments in tutoring and other relatively expensive but highly effective strategies. But the damage Covid has done will have long-lasting impacts, and even if schools use proven tutoring methods to help the students at the greatest risk, it is also important to build for the long haul for all students, using proven programs of all kinds. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the terrible experience we have all been through leads to a more rational, evidence-driven approach to schooling, creating a lasting benefit not only for today’s children, but for future generations who will receive better educations than they would have before Covid?

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 thebee@bestevidence.org

Large-Scale Tutoring Could Fail. Here’s How to Ensure It Does Not.

I’m delighted to see that the idea of large-scale tutoring to combat Covid-19 losses has gotten so important in the policy world that it is attracting scoffers and doubters. Michael Goldstein and Bowen Paulle (2020) published five brief commentaries recently in The Gadfly, warning about how tutoring could fail, both questioning the underlying research on tutoring outcomes (maybe just publication bias?) and noting the difficulties of rapid scale up. They also quote without citation a comment by Andy Rotherham, who quite correctly notes past disasters when government has tried and failed to scale up promising strategies: “Ed tech, class size reduction, teacher evaluations, some reading initiatives, and charter schools.” To these, I would add many others, but perhaps most importantly Supplementary Educational Services (SES), a massive attempt to implement all sorts of after school and summer school programs in high-poverty, low-achieving schools, which had near-zero impact, on average.

So if you were feeling complacent that the next hot thing, tutoring, was sure to work, no matter how it’s done, then you have not been paying attention for the past 30 years.

But rather than argue with these observations, I’d like to explain that the plan I’ve proposed, which you will find here, is fundamentally different from any of these past efforts, and if implemented as designed, with adequate funding, is highly likely to work at scale.

1.  Unlike all of the initiatives Rotherham dismisses, unlike SES, unlike just about everything ever used at scale in educational policy, the evidence base for certain specific, well-evaluated programs is solid.  And in our plan, only the proven programs would be scaled.

A little known but crucial fact: Not all tutoring programs work. The details matter. Our recent reviews of research on programs for struggling readers (Neitzel et al., in press) and math (Pellegrini et al., in press) identify individual tutoring programs that do and do not work, as well as types of tutoring that work well and those that do not.

Our scale-up plan would begin with programs that already have solid evidence of effectiveness, but it would also provide funding and third-party, rigorous evaluations of scaled-up programs without sufficient evidence, as well as new programs, designed to add additional options for schools. New and insufficiently evaluated programs would be piloted and implemented for evaluation, but they would not be scaled up unless they have solid evidence of effectiveness in randomized evaluations.

If possible, in fact, we would hope to re-evaluate even the most successful evaluated programs, to make sure they work.

If we stick to repeatedly-proven programs, rigorously evaluated in large randomized experiments, then who cares whether other programs have failed in the past? We will know that the programs being used at scale do work. Also, all this research would add greatly to knowledge about effective and ineffective program components and applications to particular groups of students, so over time, we’d expect the individual programs, and the field as a whole, to gain in the ability to provide proven tutoring approaches at scale.

2.  Scale-up of proven programs can work if we take it seriously. It is true that scale-up has many pitfalls, but I would argue that when scale-up does not occur it is for one of two reasons. First, the programs being scaled were not adequately proven in the first place. Second, the funding provided for scale-up was not sufficient to allow the program developers to scale up under the conditions they know full well are necessary. As examples of the latter, programs that provided well-trained and experienced trainers in their initial studies are often forced by insufficient funding to use trainer-of-trainers models for greatly diminished amounts of training in scale-up. As a result, the programs that worked at small scale failed in large-scale replication. This happens all the time, and this is what makes policy experts conclude that nothing works at scale.

However, the lesson they should have learned instead is just that programs proven to work at small scale can succeed if the key factors that made them work at small scale are implemented with fidelity at large scale. If anything less is done in scale-up, you’re taking big risks.

If well-trained trainers are essential, then it is critical to insist on well-trained trainers. If a certain amount or quality of training is essential, it is critical to insist on it, and make sure it happens in every school using a given program. And so on. There is no reason to skimp on the proven recipe.

But aren’t all these trainers and training days and other elements unsustainable?  This is the wrong question. The right one is, how can we make tutoring as effective as possible, to justify its cost?

Tutoring is expensive, but most of the cost is in the salaries of the tutors themselves. As an analogy, consider horse racing.  Horse owners pay millions for horses with great potential. Having done so, do you think they skimp on trainers or training? Of course not. In the same way, a hundred teaching assistants tutors cost roughly $4 million per year in salaries and benefits alone. Let’s say top-quality training for this group costs $500,000 per year, while crummy training costs $50,000. If these figures are in the ballpark, would it be wise to spend $4,500,000 on a terrific tutoring program, or $4,050,000 on a crummy one?

Successful scale-up takes place all the time in business. How does Starbucks make sure your experience in every single store is excellent? Simple. They have well-researched, well specified, obsessively monitored standards and quality metrics for every part of their operation. Scale-up in education can work just the same way, and in comparison to the costs of front-line personnel, the costs of great are trivially greater than the cost of crummy.

3.  Ongoing research will, in our proposal, formatively evaluate the entire tutoring effort over time, and development and evaluation will continually add new proven programs.  

Ordinarily, big federal education programs start with all kinds of rules and regulations and funding schemes, and these are announced with a lot of hoopla and local and national meetings to explain the new programs to local educators and leaders. Some sort of monitoring and compliance mechanism is put in place, but otherwise the program steams ahead. Several years later, some big research firm gets a huge contract to evaluate the program. On average, the result is almost always disappointing. Then there’s a political fight about just how disappointing the results are, and life goes on.

 The program we have proposed is completely different. First, as noted earlier, the individual programs that are operating at large scale will all be proven effective to begin with, and may be evaluated and proven effective again, using the same methods as those used to validate new programs. Second, new proven programs would be identified and scaled up all the time. Third, numerous studies combining observations, correlational studies, and mini-experiments would be evaluating program variations and impacts with different populations and circumstances, adding knowledge of what is happening at the chalkface and of how and why outcomes vary. This explanatory research would not be designed to decide which programs work and which do not (that would be done in the big randomized studies), but to learn from practice how to improve outcomes for each type of school and application. The idea is to get smarter over time about how to make tutoring as effective as it can be, so when the huge summative evaluation takes place, there will be no surprises. We would already know what is working, and how, and why.

Our National Tutoring Corps proposal is not a big research project, or a jobs program for researchers. The overwhelming focus is on providing struggling students the best tutoring we know how to provide. But using a small proportion of the total allocation would enable us to find out what works, rapidly enough to inform practice. If this were all to happen, we would know more and be able to do more every year, serving more and more struggling students with better and better programs.

So rather than spending a lot of taxpayer money and hoping for the best, we’d make scale-up successful by using evidence at the beginning, middle, and end of the process, to make sure that this time, we really know what we are doing. We would make sure that effective programs remain successful at scale, rather than merely hoping they will.

References

Goldstein, M., & Paulle, B. (2020, Dec. 8) Vaccine-making’s lessons for high-dosage tutoring, Part 1. The Gadfly.

Goldstein, M., & Paulle, B. (2020, Dec. 11). Vaccine-making’s lessons for high-dosage tutoring, Part IV. The Gadfly.

Neitzel, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (in press). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Reading Research Quarterly.

Pellegrini, M., Neitzel, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. (in press). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. AERA Open.

Original photo by Catherine Carusso, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs

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 thebee@bestevidence.org

The Details Matter. That’s Why Proven Tutoring Programs Work Better than General Guidelines.

When I was in first grade, my beloved teacher, Mrs. Adelson, introduced a new activity. She called it “phonics.”  In “phonics,” we were given tiny pieces of paper with letters on them to paste onto a piece of paper, to make words. It was a nightmare. Being a boy, I could sooner sprout wings and fly than do this activity without smearing paste and ink all over the place. The little slips of paper stuck to my thumb rather than to the paper. This activity taught me no phonics or reading whatsoever, but did engender a longtime hatred of “phonics,” as I understood it.

Much, much later I learned that phonics was essential in beginning reading, so I got over my phonics phobia. And I learned an important lesson. Even if an activity focuses on an essential skill, this does not mean that just any activity with that focus will work. The details matter.

I’ve had reason to reflect on this early lesson many times recently, as I’ve spoken to various audiences about our National Tutoring Corps plan. Often, people will ask why it is important to use specific proven programs. Why not figure out the characteristics of proven programs, and encourage tutors to use those consensus strategies?

The answer is that because the details matter, tutoring according to agreed-upon practices is not going to be as effective as specific proven programs, on average. Mrs. Adelson had a correct understanding of the importance of phonics in beginning reading, but in the classroom, where the paste hits the page, her phonics strategy was awful. In tutoring, we might come to agreement about factors such as group size, qualifications of tutors, amount of PD, and so on, but dozens of details also have to be right. An effective tutoring program has to get right crucial features, such as the nature and quality of tutor training and coaching, student materials and software, instructional strategies, feedback and correction strategies when students make errors, frequency and nature of assessments, means of motivating and recognizing student progress, means of handling student absences, links between tutors and teachers and between tutors and parents, and much more. Getting any of these strategies wrong could greatly diminish the effectiveness of tutoring.

The fact that a proven program has shown positive outcomes in rigorous experiments supports confidence that the program’s particular constellation of strategies is effective. During any program’s development and piloting, developers have had to experiment with solutions to each of the key elements. They have had many opportunities to observe tutoring sessions, to speak with tutors, to look at formative data, and to decide on specific strategies for each of the problems that must be solved. A teacher or local professional developer has not had the opportunity to try out and evaluate specific components, so even if they have an excellent understanding of the main elements of tutoring, they could use or promote key components that are not effective or may even be counterproductive. There are now many practical, ready-to-implement, rigorously evaluated tutoring programs with positive impacts (Neitzel et al., in press). Why should we be using programs whose effects are unknown, when there are many proven alternatives?

Specificity is of particular importance in small-group tutoring, because very effective small group methods superficially resemble much less effective methods (see Borman et al., 2001; Neitzel et al., in press; Pellegrini et al., 2020). For example, one-to-four tutoring might look like traditional Title I pullouts, which are far less effective. Some “tutors” teach a class of four no differently than they would teach a class of thirty. Tutoring methods that incorporate computers may also superficially resemble computer assisted instruction, which is also far less effective. Tutoring derives its unique effectiveness from the ability of the tutor to personalize instruction for each child, to provide unique feedback to the specific problems each student faces. It also depends on close relationships between tutors and students. If the specifics are not carefully trained and implemented with understanding and spirit, small-group tutoring can descend into business-as-usual. Not that ordinary teaching and CAI are ineffective, but to successfully combat the effects of Covid-19 school closures and learning gaps in general, tutoring must be much more effective than similar-looking methods. And it can be, but only if tutors are trained and equipped to provide tutoring that has been proven to be effective.

Individual tutors can and do adapt tutoring strategies to meet the needs of particular students or subgroups, and this is fine if the tutor is starting from a well-specified and proven, comprehensive tutoring program and making modifications for well-justified reasons. But when tutors are expected to substantially invent or interpret general strategies, they may make changes that diminish program effectiveness. All too often, local educators seek to modify proven programs to make them easier to implement, less expensive, or more appealing to various stakeholders, but these modifications may leave out elements essential to program effectiveness.

The national experience of Supplementary Educational Services illustrates how good ideas without an evidence base can go wrong. SES provided mostly after-school programs of all sorts, including various forms of tutoring. But hardly any of these programs had evidence of effectiveness. A review of outcomes of almost 400 local SES grants found reading and math effect sizes near zero, on average (Chappell et al., 2011).

In tutoring, it is essential that every student receiving tutoring gets a program highly likely to measurably improve the student’s reading or mathematics skills. Tutoring is expensive, and tutoring is mostly used with students who are very much at risk. It is critical that we give every tutor and every student the highest possible probability of life-altering improvement. Proven, replicable, well-specified programs are the best way to ensure positive outcomes.

Mrs. Adelson was right about phonics, but wrong about how to teach it. Let’s not make the same mistake with tutoring.

References

Borman, G., Stringfield, S., & Slavin, R.E. (Eds.) (2001).  Title I: Compensatory education at the crossroads.  Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Chappell, S., Nunnery, J., Pribesh, S., & Hager, J. (2011). A meta-analysis of Supplemental Educational Services (SES) provider effects on student achievement. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 16(1), 1-23.

Neitzel, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (in press). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Reading Research Quarterly.

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

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

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 thebee@bestevidence.org

A “Called Shot” for Educational Research and Impact

In the 1932 World Series, Babe Ruth stepped up to the plate and pointed to the center field fence. Everyone there understood: He was promising to hit the next pitch over the fence.

And then he did.

That one home run established Babe Ruth as the greatest baseball player ever. Even though several others have long since beaten his record of 60 home runs, no one else ever promised to hit a home run and then did it.

Educational research needs to execute a “called shot” of its own. We need to identify a clear problem, one that must be solved with some urgency, one that every citizen understands and cares about, one that government is willing and able to spend serious money to solve. And then we need to solve it, in a way that is obvious to all. I think the clear need for intensive services for students whose educations have suffered due to Covid-19 school closures provides an opportunity for our own “called shot.”

In my recent Open Letter to President-Elect Biden, I described a plan to provide up to 300,000 well-trained college-graduate tutors to work with up to 12 million students whose learning has been devastated by the Covid-19 school closures, or who are far below grade level for any reason. There are excellent reasons to do this, including making a rapid difference in the reading and mathematics achievement of vulnerable children, providing jobs to hundreds of thousands of college graduates who may otherwise be unemployed, and starting the best of these non-certified tutors on a path to teacher certification. These reasons more than justify the effort. But in today’s blog, I wanted to explain a fourth rationale, one that in the long run may be the most important of all.

A major tutoring enterprise, entirely focusing on high-quality implementation of proven programs, could be the “called shot” evidence-based education needs to establish its value to the American public.

Of course, the response to the Covid-19 pandemic is already supporting a “called shot” in medicine, the rush to produce a vaccine. At this time we do not know what the outcome will be, but throughout the world, people are closely following the progress of dozens of prominent attempts to create a safe and effective vaccine to prevent Covid-19. If this works as hoped, this will provide enormous benefits for entire populations and economies worldwide. But it could also raise the possibility that we can solve many crucial medical problems much faster than we have in the past, without compromising on strict research standards. The funding of many promising alternatives, and rigorous testing of each before they are disseminated, is very similar to what I and my colleagues have proposed for various approaches to tutoring. In both the medical case and the educational case, the size of the problem justifies this intensive, all-in approach. If all goes well with the vaccines, that will be a “called shot” for medicine, but medicine has long since proven its capability to use science to solve big problems. Curing polio, eliminating smallpox, and preventing measles come to mind as examples. In education, we need to earn this confidence, with a “called shot” of our own.

Think of it. Education researchers and leaders who support them would describe a detailed and plausible plan to solve a pressing problem of education. Then we announce that given X amount of money and Y amount of time, we will demonstrate that struggling students can perform substantially better than they would have without tutoring.

We’d know this would work, because part of the process would be identifying a) programs already proven to be effective, b) programs that already exist at some scale that would be successfully evaluated, and c) newly-designed programs that would successfully be evaluated. In each case, programs would have to meet rigorous evaluation standards before qualifying for substantial scale-up. In addition, in order to obtain funding to hire tutors, schools would have to agree to ensure that tutors use the programs with an amount and quality of training, coaching, and support at least as good as what was provided in the successful studies.

Researchers and policy makers who believe in evidence-based reform could confidently predict substantial gains, and then make good on their promises. No intervention in all of education is as effective as tutoring. Tutoring can be expensive, but it does not require a lengthy, uncertain transformation of the entire school. No sensible researcher or reformer would think that tutoring is all schools should do to improve student outcomes, but tutoring should be one element of any comprehensive plan to improve schools, and it happens to respond to the needs of post-Covid education for something that can have a dramatic, relatively quick, and relatively reliable impact.

If all went well in a large-scale tutoring intervention, the entire field of research could gain new respect, a belief among educators and the public that outcomes could be made much better than they are now by systematic applications of research, development, evaluation, and dissemination.

It is important to note that in order to be perceived to work, the tutoring “called shot” need not be proven effective across the board. By my count, there are 18 elementary reading tutoring programs with positive outcomes in randomized evaluations (see below). Let’s say 12 of them are ready for prime time and are put to the test, and 5 of those work very well at scale. That would be a tremendous success, because if we know which five approaches worked, we could make substantial progress on the problem of elementary reading failure. Just as with Covid-19 vaccines, we shouldn’t care how many vaccines failed. All that matters is that one or more of them succeeds, and can then be widely replicated.

I think it is time to do something bold to capture people’s imaginations. Let’s (figuratively) point to the center field fence, and (figuratively) hit the next pitch over it. The conditions today for such an effort are as good as they will ever be, because of universal understanding that the Covid-19 school closures deserve extraordinary investments in proven strategies. Researchers working closely with educators and political leaders can make a huge difference. We just have to make our case and insist on nothing less than whatever it takes. If a “called shot” works for tutoring, perhaps we could use similar approaches to solve other enduring problems of education.

It worked for the Babe. It should work for us, too, with much greater consequences for our children and our society than a mere home run.

*  *  *

Note: A reader of my previous blog asked what specific tutoring programs are proven effective, according to our standards. I’ve listed below reading and math tutoring programs that meet our standards of evidence. I cannot guarantee that all of these programs would be able to go to scale. We are communicating with program providers to try to assess each program’s capacity and interest in going to scale. But these programs are a good place to start in understanding where things stand today.

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 thebee@bestevidence.org

An Open Letter To President-Elect Biden: A Tutoring Marshall Plan To Heal Our Students

Dear President-Elect Biden:

            Congratulations on your victory in the recent election. Your task is daunting; so much needs to be set right. I am writing to you about what I believe needs to be done in education to heal the damage done to so many children who missed school due to Covid-19 closures.

            I am aware that there are many basic things that must be done to improve schools, which have to continue to make their facilities safe for students and cope with the physical and emotional trauma that so many have experienced. Schools will be opening into a recession, so just providing ordinary services will be a challenge. Funding to enable schools to fulfill their core functions is essential, but it is not sufficient.

            Returning schools to the way they were when they closed last spring will not heal the damage students have sustained to their educational progress. This damage will be greatest to disadvantaged students in high-poverty schools, most of whom were unable to take advantage of the remote learning most schools provided. Some of these students were struggling even before schools closed, but when they re-open, millions of students will be far behind.

            Our research center at Johns Hopkins University studies the evidence on programs of all kinds for students who are at risk, especially in reading (Neitzel et al., 2020) and mathematics (Pellegrini et al., 2020). What we and many other researchers have found is that the most effective strategy for struggling students, especially in elementary schools, is one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring. Structured tutoring programs can make a large difference in a short time, exactly what is needed to help students quickly catch up with grade level expectations.

A Tutoring Marshall Plan

            My colleagues and I have proposed a massive effort designed to provide proven tutoring services to the millions of students who desperately need it. Our proposal, based on a similar idea by Senator Coons (D-Del), would ultimately provide funding to enable as many as 300,000 tutors to be recruited, trained in proven tutoring models, and coached to ensure their effectiveness. These tutors would be required to have a college degree, but not necessarily a teaching certificate. Research has found that such tutors, using proven tutoring models with excellent professional development, can improve the achievement of students struggling in reading or mathematics as much as can teachers serving as tutors.

            The plan we are proposing is a bit like the Marshall Plan after World War II, which provided substantial funding to Western European nations devastated by the war. The idea was to put these countries on their feet quickly and effectively so that within a brief period of years, they could support themselves. In a similar fashion, a Tutoring Marshall Plan would provide intensive funding to enable Title I schools nationwide to substantially advance the achievement of their students who suffered mightily from Covid-19 school closures and related trauma. Effective tutoring is likely to enable these children to advance to the point where they can profit from ordinary grade-level instruction. We fear that without this assistance, millions of children will never catch up, and will show the negative effects of the school closures throughout their time in school and beyond.

            The Tutoring Marshall Plan will also provide employment to 300,000 college graduates, who will otherwise have difficulty entering the job market in a time of recession. These people are eager to contribute to society and to establish professional careers, but will need a first step on that ladder. Ideally, the best of the tutors will experience the joys of teaching, and might be offered accelerated certification, opening a new source of teacher candidates who will have had an opportunity to build and demonstrate their skills in school settings. Like the CCC and WPA programs in the Great Depression, these tutors will not only be helped to survive the financial crisis, but will perform essential services to the nation while building skills and confidence.

            The Tutoring Marshall Plan needs to start as soon as possible. The need is obvious, both to provide essential jobs to college graduates and to provide proven assistance to struggling students.

            Our proposal, in brief, is to ask the U.S. Congress to fund the following activities:

Spring, 2021

  • Fund existing tutoring programs to build capacity to scale up their programs to serve thousands of struggling students. This would include funds for installing proven tutoring programs in about 2000 schools nationwide.
  • Fund rigorous evaluations of programs that show promise, but have not been evaluated in rigorous, randomized experiments.
  • Fund the development of new programs, especially in areas in which there are few proven models, such as programs for struggling students in secondary schools.

Fall, 2021 to Spring, 2022

  • Provide restricted funds to Title I schools throughout the United States to enable them to hire up to 150,000 tutors to implement proven programs, across all grade levels, 1-9, and in reading and mathematics. This many tutors, mostly using small-group methods, should be able to provide tutoring services to about 6 million students each year. Schools should be asked to agree to select from among proven, effective programs. Schools would implement their chosen programs using tutors who have college degrees and experience with tutoring, teaching, or mentoring children (such as AmeriCorps graduates who were tutors, camp counselors, or Sunday school teachers).
  • As new programs are completed and piloted, third-party evaluators should be funded to evaluate them in randomized experiments, adding to capacity to serve students in grades 1-9. Those programs that produce positive outcomes would then be added to the list of programs available for tutor funding, and their organizations would need to be funded to facilitate preparation for scale-up.
  • Teacher training institutions and school districts should be funded to work together to design accelerated certification programs for outstanding tutors.

Fall, 2022-Spring, 2023

  • Title I schools should be funded to enable them to hire a total of 300,000 tutors. Again, schools will select among proven tutoring programs, which will train, coach, and evaluate tutors across the U.S. We expect these tutors to be able to work with about 12 million struggling students each year.
  • Development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven programs should continue to enrich the number and quality of proven programs adapted to the needs of all kinds of Title I schools.

            The Tutoring Marshall Plan would provide direct benefits to millions of struggling students harmed by Covid-19 school closures, in all parts of the U.S. It would provide meaningful work with a future to college graduates who might otherwise be unemployed. At the same time, it could establish a model of dramatic educational improvement based on rigorous research, contributing to knowledge and use of effective practice. If all goes well, the Tutoring Marshall Plan could demonstrate the power of scaling up proven programs and using research and development to improve the lives of children.

References

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

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

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 thebee@bestevidence.org

The Case for Optimism

In the July 16 New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an article with a provocative title: “We Interrupt This Gloom to Offer…Hope.”

Kristof’s basic point is that things have gotten so awful in the U.S. that, in response, with any luck, we could soon be able to make progress on many issues that we could never make in normal times. He gives the example of the Great Depression, which made possible Social Security, rural electrification, and much more. And the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which led to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Civil Rights Act.

Could the crises we are going through right now have even more profound and long-lasting consequences? The Covid-19 pandemic is exposing the lack of preparedness and the profound inequities in our health systems that everyone knew about, but that our political systems could not fix. The Black Lives Matter movement is not new, but George Floyd’s killing and many other outrages caught on video are fueling substantial changes in attitudes among people of all races, making genuine progress possible. The shockingly unequal impacts of both Covid itself and its economic impacts are tearing away complacency about the different lives that are possible for rich and poor. The attacks by federal troops on peaceful demonstrators in Washington and Portland are likely to drive Americans to get back to the core principles in our Constitution, ones we too often take for granted. When this is all over, how can we just return to the way things were?

What is happening in education is appalling. Our inept response to the Covid pandemic makes it literally murder to open schools in many parts of the country. Some districts are already announcing that they will not open until January. With schools closed, or only partially open, students will be expected to learn remote, online lessons, which author Doug Lemov aptly describes as “like teaching through a keyhole.”

The statistics say that a tenth or a quarter or a half of students, depending on where they are, are not logging into online learning even once. For disadvantaged students and students in rural areas, this is due in part to a lack of access to equipment or broadband, and school districts are collectively spending billions to increase access to computers. But talk to just about any teacher or parent or student, including the most conscientious students with the best technology and the most supportive parents. They are barely going through the motions. The utter failure of online education in this crisis is a crisis in itself.

The ultimate result of the school closures and the apparent implosion of online teaching is that when schools do open, students will have fallen far behind. Gaps between middle class and disadvantaged students, awful in the best of times, will grow even larger.

So how can I possibly be optimistic?

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There are several things that I believe are highly likely to occur in the coming months in our country. First, once students are back in school, we will find out how far behind they have fallen, and we will have to declare an educational emergency, with adequate funding to match the seriousness of the problems. Then the following will have to happen.

  1. Using federal money, states and districts will contract with local agencies to hire an army of tutors to work individually or in small groups with struggling students, especially in elementary reading and mathematics, where there are many proven programs ready to go. Frankly, this is no longer optional. There is nothing nearly as effective as one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring. Nothing else can be put in place as quickly with as high a likelihood of working. As I’ve reported in previous blogs, England and the Netherlands have already announced national tutoring programs to combat the achievement gaps being caused by school closures. My own state, Maryland, has recently announced a $100 million program to provide tutoring statewide. Millions of recent college graduates will be without jobs in the recession that is certain to come. The best of them will be ideal candidates to serve as tutors.
  2. America is paying a heavy price for ignoring its scientists, and science itself. Although there has been rapid growth in the evidence base and in the availability of proven programs, educational research and proven programs are still paid little attention in school policies and practices. In the education crisis we face, perhaps this will change. Might it be possible that schools could receive incentive funding to enable them to adopt proven programs known to make substantial differences in learning from Pre-K to 12th grade and beyond? In normal times, people can ignore evidence about what works in reading or mathematics or science or social-emotional learning. But these are not normal times. No school should be forced to use any particular program, but government can use targeted funding and encouragement to enable schools to select and effectively implement programs of their choice.
  3. In emergencies, government often accelerates funding for research and development to quickly find solutions for pressing national problems. This is happening now as labs nationwide are racing to develop Covid vaccines and cures, for example. As we declare an education emergency, we should be investing in research and development to respond to high-priority needs. For example, there are several proven programs for elementary students struggling in reading or mathematics. Yet we have few if any proven tutoring programs for middle or high schools. Middle school tutoring methods have been proven effective in England, so we know this can work, but we need to adapt and evaluate English models for the U.S., or evaluate existing U.S. programs that are promising but unevaluated, or develop new models for the U.S. If we are wise, we will do all three of these things. In the education emergency we face, it is not the time to fiddle around the edges. It is time to use our national innovative capacity to identify and solve big problems.

If America does declare a national education emergency, if it does mobilize an army of tutors using proven programs, if it invests in creating and evaluating new, ever more effective programs to solve educational problems and incentivizes schools to use them, an amazing thing will happen. In addition to solving our immediate problems, we will have learned how to make our schools much more effective, even in normal times.

Yes, things will someday get back to normal. But if we do the right things to solve our crises, we will not just be returning to normal. We will be returning to better. Maybe a lot better.

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 thebee@bestevidence.org

Are the Dutch Solving the Covid Slide with Tutoring?

For a small country, the Netherlands has produced a remarkable number of inventions. The Dutch invented the telescope, the microscope, the eye test, Wi-Fi, DVD/Blue-Ray, Bluetooth, the stock market, golf, and major improvements in sailboats, windmills, and water management. And now, as they (like every other country) are facing major educational damage due to school closures in the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the Dutch who are the first to apply tutoring on a large scale to help students who are furthest behind. The Dutch government recently announced a plan to allocate the equivalent of $278 million to provide support to all students in elementary, secondary, and vocational schools who need it. Schools can provide the support in different ways (e.g., summer schools, extended school days), but it is likely that a significant amount of the money will be spent on tutoring. The Ministry of Education proposed to recruit student teachers to provide tutoring, who will have to be specially trained for this role.

blog_6-18-20_Dutchclass_500x333The Dutch investment would be equivalent to a U.S. investment of about $5.3 billion, because of our much larger population. That’s a lot of tutors. Including salaries, materials, and training, I’d estimate this much money would support about 150,000 tutors. If each could work in small groups with 50 students a year, they might serve about 7,500,000 students each year, roughly one in every seven American children. That would be a pretty good start.

Where would we get all this money? Because of the recession we are in now, millions of recent college graduates will not be able to find work. Many of these would make great tutors. As in any recession, the federal government will seek to restart the economy by investing in people. In this particular recession, it would be wise to devote part of such investments to support enthusiastic young people to learn and apply proven tutoring approaches coast to coast.

Imagine that we created an American equivalent of the Dutch tutoring program. How could such a huge effort be fielded in time to help the millions of students who need substantial help? The answer would be to build on organizations that already exist and know how to recruit, train, mentor, and manage large numbers of people. The many state-based AmeriCorps agencies would be a great place to begin, and in fact there has already been discussion in the U.S. Congress about a rapid expansion of AmeriCorps for work in health and education roles to heal the damage of Covid-19. The former governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, is funding a statewide tutoring plan in collaboration with Boys and Girls Clubs. Other national non-profit organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, City Year, and Communities in Schools could each manage recruitment, training, and management of tutors in particular states and regions.

It would be critical to make certain that the tutoring programs used under such a program are proven to be effective, and are ready to be scaled up nationally, in collaboration with local agencies with proven track records.

All of this could be done. Considering the amounts of money recently spent in the U.S. to shore up the economy, and the essential need both to keep people employed and to make a substantial difference in student learning, $5.3 billion targeted to proven approaches seems entirely reasonable.

If the Dutch can mount such an effort, there is no reason we could not do the same. It would be wonderful to help both unemployed new entrants to the labor force and students struggling in reading or mathematics. A double Dutch treat!

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 thebee@bestevidence.org