Florence Nightingale, Statistician

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

CREDO (2013). National charter school study. At http://credo.stanford.edu

CREDO (2015). Urban charter school study. At http://credo.stanford.edu

 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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Why Can’t Education Progress Like Medicine Does?

I recently saw an end-of-year article in The Washington Post called “19 Good Things That Happened in 2019.” Four of them were medical or public health breakthroughs. Scientists announced a new therapy for cystic fibrosis likely to benefit 90% of people with this terrible disease, incurable for most patients before now. The World Health Organization announced a new vaccine to prevent Ebola. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that deaths of children before their fifth birthday have now dropped from 82 per thousand births in 1990 to 37 in 2019. The Centers for Disease Control reported a decline of 5.1 percent in deaths from drug overdoses in just one year, from 2017 to 2018.

Needless to say, breakthroughs in education did not make the list. In fact, I’ll bet there has never been an education breakthrough mentioned on such lists.

blog_1-9-20_kiddoctor_337x500 I get a lot of criticism from all sides for comparing education to medicine and public health. Most commonly, I’m told that it’s ever so much easier to give someone a pill than to change complex systems of education. That’s true enough, but not one of the 2019 medical or public health breakthroughs was anything like “taking a pill.” The cystic fibrosis cure involves a series of three treatments personalized to the genetic background of patients. It took decades to find and test this treatment. A vaccine for Ebola may be simple in concept, but it also took decades to develop. Also, Ebola occurs in very poor countries, where ensuring universal coverage with a vaccine is very complex. Reducing deaths of infants and toddlers took massive coordinated efforts of national governments, international organizations, and ongoing research and development. There is still much to do, of course, but the progress made so far is astonishing. Similarly, the drop in deaths due to overdoses required, and still requires, huge investments, cooperation between government agencies of all sorts, and constant research, development, and dissemination. In fact, I would argue that reducing infant deaths and overdose deaths strongly resemble what education would have to do to, for example, eliminate reading failure or enable all students to succeed at middle school mathematics. No one distinct intervention, no one miracle pill has by itself improved infant mortality or overdose mortality, and solutions for reading and math failure will similarly involve many elements and coordinated efforts among many government agencies, private foundations, and educators, as well as researchers and developers.

The difference between evidence-based reform in medicine/public health and education is, I believe, a difference in societal commitment to solving the problems. The general public, especially political leaders, tend to be rather complacent about educational failures. One of our past presidents said he wanted to help, but said, “We have more will than wallet” to solve educational problems. Another focused his education plans on recruiting volunteers to help with reading. These policies hardly communicate seriousness. In contrast, if medicine or public health can significantly reduce death or disease, it’s hard to be complacent.

Perhaps part of the motivational difference is due to the situations of powerful people. Anyone can get a disease, so powerful individuals are likely to have children or other relatives or friends who suffer from a given disease. In contrast, they may assume that children failing in school have inadequate parents or parents who need improved job opportunities or economic security or decent housing, which will take decades, and massive investments to solve. As a result, governments allocate little money for research, development, or dissemination of proven programs.

There is no doubt in my mind that we could, for example, eliminate early reading failure, using the same techniques used to eliminate diseases: research, development, practical experiments, and planful, rapid scale-up. It’s all a question of resources, political leadership, collaboration among many critical agencies and individuals, and a total commitment to getting the job done. The year reading failure drops to near zero nationwide, perhaps education will make the Washington Post list of “50 Good Things That Happened in 2050.”

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 Replicability: Why We Don’t Celebrate Viking Day

I was recently in Oslo, Norway’s capital, and visited a wonderful museum displaying three Viking ships that had been buried with important people. The museum had all sorts of displays focused on the amazing exploits of Viking ships, always including the Viking landings in Newfoundland, about 500 years before Columbus. Since the 1960s, most people have known that Vikings, not Columbus, were the first Europeans to land in America. So why do we celebrate Columbus Day, not Viking Day?

Given the bloodthirsty actions of Columbus, easily rivaling those of the Vikings, we surely don’t prefer one to the other based on their charming personalities. Instead, we celebrate Columbus Day because what Columbus did was far more important. The Vikings knew how to get back to Newfoundland, but they were secretive about it. Columbus was eager to publicize and repeat his discovery. It was this focus on replication that opened the door to regular exchanges. The Vikings brought back salted cod. Columbus brought back a new world.

In educational research, academics often imagine that if they establish new theories or demonstrate new methods on a small scale, and then publish their results in reputable journals, their job is done. Call this the Viking model: they got what they wanted (promotions or salt cod), and who cares if ordinary people found out about it? Even if the Vikings had published their findings in the Viking Journal of Exploration, this would have had roughly the same effect as educational researchers publishing in their own research journals.

Columbus, in contrast, told everyone about his voyages, and very publicly repeated and extended them. His brutal leadership ended with him being sent back to Spain in chains, but his discoveries had resounding impacts that long outlived him.

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Educational researchers only want to do good, but they are unlikely to have any impact at all unless they can make their ideas useful to educators. Many educational researchers would love to make their ideas into replicable programs, evaluate these programs in schools, and if they are found to be effective, disseminate them broadly. However, resources for the early stages of development and research are scarce. Yes, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and Education Innovation Research (EIR) fund a lot of development projects, and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) provides small grants for this purpose to for-profit companies. Yet these funders support only a tiny proportion of the proposals they receive. In England, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) spends a lot on randomized evaluations of promising programs, but very little on development or early-stage research. Innovations that are funded by government or other funding very rarely end up being evaluated in large experiments, fewer still are found to be effective, and vanishingly few eventually enter widespread use. The exceptions are generally programs crated by large for-profit companies, large and entrepreneurial non-profits, or other entities with proven capacity to develop, evaluate, support, and disseminate programs at scale. Even the most brilliant developers and researchers rarely have the interest, time, capital, business expertise, or infrastructure to nurture effective programs through all the steps necessary to bring a practical and effective program to market. As a result, most educational products introduced at scale to schools come from commercial publishers or software companies, who have the capital and expertise to create and disseminate educational programs, but serve a market that primarily wants attractive, inexpensive, easy-to-use materials, software, and professional development, and is not (yet) willing to pay for programs proven to be effective. I discussed this problem in a recent blog on technology, but the same dynamics apply to all innovations, tech and non-tech alike.

How Government Can Promote Proven, Replicable Programs

There is an old saying that Columbus personified the spirit of research. He didn’t know where he was going, he didn’t know where he was when he got there, and he did it all on government funding. The relevant part of this is the government funding. In Columbus’ time, only royalty could afford to support his voyage, and his grant from Queen Isabella was essential to his success. Yet Isabella was not interested in pure research. She was hoping that Columbus might open rich trade routes to the (east) Indies or China, or might find gold or silver, or might acquire valuable new lands for the crown (all of these things did eventually happen). Educational research, development, and dissemination face a similar situation. Because education is virtually a government monopoly, only government is capable of sustained, sizable funding of research, development, and dissemination, and only the U.S. government has the acknowledged responsibility to improve outcomes for the 50 million American children ages 4-18 in its care. So what can government do to accelerate the research-development-dissemination process?

  1. Contract with “seed bed” organizations capable of identifying and supporting innovators with ideas likely to make a difference in student learning. These organizations might be rewarded, in part, based on the number of proven programs they are able to help create, support, and (if effective) ultimately disseminate.
  2. Contract with independent third-party evaluators capable of doing rigorous evaluations of promising programs. These organizations would evaluate promising programs from any source, not just from seed bed companies, as they do now in IES, EIR, and EEF grants.
  3. Provide funding for innovators with demonstrated capacity to create programs likely to be effective and funding to disseminate them if they are proven effective. Developers may also contract with “seed bed” organizations to help program developers succeed with development and dissemination.
  4. Provide information and incentive funding to schools to encourage them to adopt proven programs, as described in a recent blog on technology.  Incentives should be available on a competitive basis to a broad set of schools, such as all Title I schools, to engage many schools in adoption of proven programs.

Evidence-based reform in education has made considerable progress in the past 15 years, both in finding positive examples that are in use today and in finding out what is not likely to make substantial differences. It is time for this movement to go beyond its early achievements to enter a new phase of professionalism, in which collaborations among developers, researchers, and disseminators can sustain a much faster and more reliable process of research, development, and dissemination. It’s time to move beyond the Viking stage of exploration to embrace the good parts of the collaboration between Columbus and Queen Isabella that made a substantial and lasting change in the whole world.

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.

Nobel Experiments

The world of evidence-based policy just got some terrific news. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, of MIT, and Michael Kremer of Harvard, were recently awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.

This award honors extraordinary people doing extraordinary work to alleviate poverty in developing countries. I heard Esther Duflo speak at the Society for Research on Effective Education, and saw her amazing Ted Talk on the research that won the Nobel (delivered before they knew this was going to happen). I strongly suggest you view her speech, at https://www.ted.com/talks/esther_duflo_social_experiments_to_fight_poverty?language=en

But the importance of this award goes far beyond its recognition of the scholars who received it. It celebrates the same movement toward evidence-based policy represented by the Institute for Education Sciences, Education Innovation Research, the Arnold Foundation, and others in the U.S., the Education Endowment Foundation in the U.K., and this blog. It also celebrates the work of researchers in education, psychology, sociology, as well as economics, who are committed to using rigorous research to advance human progress. The Nobel awardees represent the international development wing of this movement, largely funded by the World Bank, the InterAmerica Development Bank, and other international aid organizations.

In her Ted Talk, Esther Duflo explains the grand strategy she and her colleagues pursue. They take major societal problems in developing countries, break them down into solvable parts, and then use randomized experiments to test solutions to those parts. Along with Dr. Banerjee (her husband) and Michael Kremer, she first did a study that found that ensuring that students in India had textbooks made no difference in learning. They then successfully tested a plan to provide inexpensive tutors and, later, computers, to help struggling readers in India (Banerjee, Cole, Duflo, & Linden, 2007). One fascinating series of studies tested the cost-effectiveness of various educational treatments in developing countries. The winner? Curing children of intestinal worms. Based on this and other research, the Carter Foundation embarked on a campaign that has virtually eradicated Guinea worm worldwide.

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Dr. Duflo and her colleagues later tested variations in programs to provide malaria-inhibiting bed nets in developing countries in which malaria is the number one killer of children, especially those less than five years old. Were outcomes best if bed nets (retail cost= $3) were free, or only discounted to varying degrees? Many economists and policy makers worried that people who paid nothing for bed nets would not value them, or might use them for other purposes. But the randomized study found that without question, free bed nets were more often obtained and used than were discounted ones, potentially saving thousands of children’s lives.

For those of us who work in evidence-based education, the types of experiments being done by the Nobel laureates are entirely familiar, even though they have practical aspects quite different from the ones we encounter when we work in the U.S. or the U.K., for example. However, we are far from a majority among researchers in our own countries, and we face major struggles to continue to insist on randomized experiments as the criterion of effectiveness. I’m sure people working in international development face equal challenges. This is why this Nobel Prize in economics means a lot to all of us. People pay a lot of attention to Nobel Prizes, and there isn’t one in educational research, so having a Nobel shared by economists whose main contribution is in the use of randomized experiments to solve questions of great practical and policy importance, including studies in education itself, may be the closest we’ll ever get to Nobel recognition for the principle espoused by many in applied research in psychology, sociology, and education, as it is by many economists.

Nobel Prizes are often used to send a message, to support important new developments in research as well as to recognize deserving researchers who are leaders in this area. This was clearly the case with this award. The Nobel announcement makes it clear how the work of the Nobel laureates has transformed their field, to the point that “their experimental research methodologies entirely dominate developmental economics.”  I hope this event will add further credibility and awareness to the idea that rigorous evidence is a key lever for change that matters in the lives of people

 

Reference

Banerjee, A., Cole, S., Duflo, E., & Linden, L. (2007). Remedying education: Evidence from two randomized experiments in India. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122 (3), 1235-1264.

 

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 Reviews of Research in Education

Not so long ago, every middle class home had at least one encyclopedia. Encyclopedias were prominently displayed, a statement to all that this was a house that valued learning. People consulted the encyclopedia to find out about things of interest to them. Those who did not own encyclopedias found them in the local library, where they were heavily used. As a kid, I loved everything about encyclopedias. I loved to read them, but also loved their musty small, their weight, and their beautiful maps and photos.

There were two important advantages of an encyclopedia. First, it was encyclopedic, so users could be reasonably certain that whatever information they wanted was in there somewhere. Second, they were authoritative. Whatever it said in the encyclopedia was likely to be true, or at least carefully vetted by experts.

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In educational research, and all scientific fields, we have our own kinds of encyclopedias. One consists of articles in journals that publish reviews of research. In our field, the Review of Educational Research plays a pre-eminent role in this, but there are many others. Reviews are hugely popular. Invariably, review journals have a much higher citation count than even the most esteemed journals focusing on empirical research. In addition to journals, reviews appear I edited volumes, in online compendia, in technical reports, and other sources. At Johns Hopkins, we produce a bi-weekly newsletter, Best Evidence in Brief (BEiB; https://beibindex.wordpress.com/) that summarizes recent research in education. Two years ago we looked at analytics to find out the favorite articles from BEiB. Although BEiB mostly summarizes individual studies, almost all of its favorite articles were summaries of the findings of recent reviews.

Over time, RER and other review journals become “encyclopedias” of a sort.  However, they are not encyclopedic. No journal tries to ensure that key topics will all be covered over time. Instead, journal reviewers and editors evaluate each review sent to them on its own merits. I’m not criticizing this, but it is the way the system works.

Are reviews in journals authoritative? They are in one sense, because reviews accepted for publication have been carefully evaluated by distinguished experts on the topic at hand. However, review methods vary widely and reviews are written for many purposes. Some are written primarily for theory development, and some are really just essays with citations. In contrast, one category of reviews, meta-analyses, go to great lengths to locate and systematically include all relevant citations. These are not pure types, and most meta-analyses have at least some focus on theory building and discussion of current policy or research issues, even if their main purpose is to systematically review a well-defined set of studies.

Given the state of the art of research reviews in education, how could we create an “encyclopedia” of evidence from all sources on the effectiveness of programs and practices designed to improve student outcomes? The goal of such an activity would be to provide readers with something both encyclopedic and authoritative.

My colleagues and I created two websites that are intended to serve as a sort of encyclopedia of PK-12 instructional programs. The Best Evidence Encyclopedia (BEE; www.bestevidence.org) consists of meta-analyses written by our staff and students, all of which use similar inclusion criteria and review methods. These are used by a wide variety of readers, especially but not only researchers. The BEE has meta-analyses on elementary and secondary reading, reading for struggling readers, writing programs, programs for English learners, elementary and secondary mathematics, elementary and secondary science, early childhood programs, and other topics, so at least as far as achievement outcomes are concerned, it is reasonably encyclopedic. Our second website is Evidence for ESSA, designed more for educators. It seeks to include every program currently in existence, and therefore is truly encyclopedic in reading and mathematics. Sections on social emotional learning, attendance, and science are in progress.

Are the BEE and Evidence for ESSA authoritative as well as encyclopedic? You’ll have to judge for yourself. One important indicator of authoritativeness for the BEE is that all of the meta-analyses are eventually published, so the reviewers for those journals could be considered to be lending authority.

The What Works Clearinghouse (https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/) could be considered authoritative, as it is a carefully monitored online publication of the U.S. Department of Education. But is it encyclopedic? Probably not, for two reasons. One is that the WWC has difficulty keeping up with new research. Secondly, the WWC does not list programs that do not have any studies that meet its standards. As a result of both of these, a reader who types in the name of a current program may find nothing at all on it. Is this because the program did not meet WWC standards, or because the WWC has not yet reviewed it? There is no way to tell. Still, the WWC makes important contributions in the areas it has reviewed.

Beyond the websites focused on achievement, the most encyclopedic and authoritative source is Blueprints (www.blueprintsprograms.org). Blueprints focuses on drug and alcohol abuse, violence, bullying, social emotional learning, and other topics not extensively covered in other review sources.

In order to provide readers with easy access to all of the reviews meeting a specified level of quality on a given topic, it would be useful to have a source that briefly describes various reviews, regardless of where they appear. For example, a reader might want to know about all of the meta-analyses that focus on elementary mathematics, or dropout prevention, or attendance. These would include review articles published in scientific journals, technical reports, websites, edited volumes, and so on. To be cited in detail, the reviews should have to meet agreed-upon criteria, including a restriction to experimental-control comparison, a broad and well-documented search for eligible studies, documented efforts to include all studies (published or unpublished) that fall within well-specified parameters (e.g., subjects, grade levels, and start and end dates of studies included). Reviews that meet these standards might be highlighted, though others, including less systematic reviews, should be listed as well, as supplementary resources.

Creating such a virtual encyclopedia would be a difficult but straightforward task. At the end, the collection of rigorous reviews would offer readers encyclopedic, authoritative information on the topics of their interest, as well as providing something more important that no paper encyclopedias ever included: contrasting viewpoints from well-informed experts on each topic.

My imagined encyclopedia wouldn’t have the hypnotic musty smell, the impressive heft, or the beautiful maps and photos of the old paper encyclopedias. However, it would give readers access to up-to-date, curated, authoritative, quantitative reviews of key topics in education, with readable and appealing summaries of what was concluded in qualifying reviews.

Also, did I mention that unlike the encyclopedias of old, it would have to be free?

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.

Do School Districts Really Have Difficulty Meeting ESSA Evidence Standards?

The Center for Educational Policy recently released a report on how school districts are responding to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requirement that schools seeking school improvement grants select programs that meet ESSA’s strong, moderate, or promising standards of evidence. Education Week ran a story on the CEP report.

The report noted that many states, districts, and schools are taking the evidence requirements seriously, and are looking at websites and consulting with researchers to help them identify programs that meet the standards. This is all to the good.

However, the report also notes continuing problems districts and schools are having finding out “what works.” Two particular problems were cited. One was that districts and schools were not equipped to review research to find out what works. The other was that rural districts and schools found few programs proven effective in rural schools.

I find these concerns astounding. The same concerns were expressed when ESSA was first passed, in 2015. But that was almost four years ago. Since 2015, the What Works Clearinghouse has added information to help schools identify programs that meet the top two ESSA evidence categories, strong and moderate. Our own Evidence for ESSA, launched in February, 2017, has up-to-date information on virtually all PK-12 reading and math programs currently in dissemination. Among hundreds of programs examined, 113 meet ESSA standards for strong, moderate, or promising evidence of effectiveness. WWC, Evidence for ESSA, and other sources are available online at no cost. The contents of the entire Evidence for ESSA website were imported into Ohio’s own website on this topic, and dozens of states, perhaps all of them, have informed their districts and schools about these sources.

The idea that districts and schools could not find information on proven programs if they wanted to do so is difficult to believe, especially among schools eligible for school improvement grants. Such schools, and the districts in which they are located, write a lot of grant proposals for federal and state funding. The application forms for school improvement grants always explain the evidence requirements, because that is the law. Someone in every state involved with federal funding knows about the WWC and Evidence for ESSA websites. More than 90,000 unique users have used Evidence for ESSA, and more than 800 more sign on each week.

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As to rural schools, it is true that many studies of educational programs have taken place in urban areas. However, 47 of the 113 programs qualified by Evidence for ESSA were validated in at least one rural study, or a study including a large enough rural sample to enable researchers to separately report program impacts for rural students. Also, almost all widely disseminated programs have been used in many rural schools. So rural districts and schools that care about evidence can find programs that have been evaluated in rural locations, or at least that were evaluated in urban or suburban schools but widely disseminated in rural schools.

Also, it is important to note that if a program was successfully evaluated only in urban or suburban schools, the program still meets the ESSA evidence standards. If no studies of a given outcome were done in rural locations, a rural school in need of better outcomes could, in effect, be asked to choose between a program proven to work somewhere and probably used in dissemination in rural schools, or they could choose a program not proven to work anywhere. Every school and district has to make the best choices for their kids, but if I were a rural superintendent or principal, I’d read up on proven programs, and then go visit some rural schools using that program nearby. Wouldn’t you?

I have no reason to suspect that the CEP survey is incorrect. There are many indications that district and school leaders often do feel that the ESSA evidence rules are too difficult to meet. So what is really going on?

My guess is that there are many district and school leaders who do not want to know about evidence on proven programs. For example, they may have longstanding, positive relationships with representatives of publishers or software developers, or they may be comfortable and happy with the materials and services they are already using, evidence-proven or not. If they do not have evidence of effectiveness that would pass muster with WWC or Evidence for ESSA, the publishers and software developers may push hard on state and district officials, put forward dubious claims for evidence (such as studies with no control groups), and do their best to get by in a system that increasingly demands evidence that they lack. In my experience, district and state officials often complain about having inadequate staff to review evidence of effectiveness, but their concern may be less often finding out what works as it is defending themselves from publishers, software developers, or current district or school users of programs, who maintain that they have been unfairly rated by WWC, Evidence for ESSA, or other reviews. State and district leaders who stand up to this pressure may have to spend a lot of time reviewing evidence or hearing arguments.

On the plus side, at the same time that publishers and software producers may be seeking recognition for their current products, many are also sponsoring evaluations of some of their products that they feel are mostly likely to perform well in rigorous evaluations. Some may be creating new programs that resemble programs that have met evidence standards. If the federal ESSA law continues to demand evidence for certain federal funding purposes, or even to expand this requirement to additional parts of federal grant-making, then over time the ESSA law will have its desired effect, rewarding the creation and evaluation of programs that do meet standards by making it easier to disseminate such programs. The difficulties the evidence movement is experiencing are likely to diminish over time as more proven programs appear, and as federal, state, district, and school leaders get comfortable with evidence.

Evidence-based reform was always going to be difficult, because of the amount of change it entails and the stakes involved. But sooner or later, it is the right thing to do, and leaders who insist on evidence will see increasing levels of learning among their students, at minimal cost beyond what they already spend on untested or ineffective approaches. Medicine went through a similar transition in 1962, when the U.S. Congress first required that medicines be rigorously evaluated for effectiveness and safety. At first, many leaders in the medical profession resisted the changes, but after a while, they came to insist on them. The key is political leadership willing to support the evidence requirement strongly and permanently, so that educators and vendors alike will see that the best way forward is to embrace evidence and make it work for kids.

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 the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Why Not the Best?

In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the first practical lightbulb. The main problem he faced was in finding a filament that would glow, but not burn out too quickly. To find it, he tried more than 6000 different substances that had some promise as filaments. The one he found was carbonized cotton, which worked far better than all the others (tungsten, which we use now, came much later).

Of course, the incandescent light changed the world. It replaced far more expensive gas lighting systems, and was much more versatile. The lightbulb captured the evening and nighttime hours for every kind of human activity.

blog_9-19-19_lightbulb_500x347Yet if the lightbulb had been an educational innovation, it probably would have been proclaimed a dismal failure. Skeptics would have noted that only one out of six thousand filaments worked. Meta-analysts would have averaged the effect sizes for all 6000 experiments and concluded that the average effect size across the 6000 filaments was only +0.000000001. Hardly worthwhile. If Edison’s experiments were funded by government, politicians would have complained that 5,999 of Edison’s filaments were a total waste of taxpayers’ money. Economists would have computed benefit-cost ratios and concluded that even if Edison’s light worked, the cost of making the first one was astronomical, not to mention the untold cost of setting up electrical generation and wiring systems.

This is all ridiculous, you must be saying. But in the world of evidence-based education, comparable things happen all the time. In 2003, Borman et al. did a meta-analysis of 300 studies of 29 comprehensive (whole-school) reform designs. They identified three as having solid evidence of effectiveness. Rather than celebrating and disseminating those three (and continuing research and development to identify more of them), the U.S. Congress ended its funding for dissemination of comprehensive school reform programs. Turn out the light before you leave, Mr. Edison!

Another common practice in education is to do meta-analyses averaging outcomes across an entire category of programs or policies, and ignoring the fact that some distinctively different and far more effective programs are swallowed up in the averages. A good example is charter schools. Large-scale meta-analyses by Stanford’s CREDO (2013) found that the average effect sizes for charter schools are effectively zero. A 2015 analysis found better, but still very small effect sizes in urban districts (ES = +0.04 in reading, +0.05 in math). The What Works Clearinghouse published a 2010 review that found slight negative effects of middle school charters. These findings are useful in disabusing us of the idea that charter schools are magic, and get positive outcomes just because they are charter schools. However, they do nothing to tell us about extraordinary charter schools using methods that other schools (perhaps including non-charters) could also use. There is more positive evidence relating to “no-excuses” schools, such as KIPP and Success Academies, but among the thousands of charters that now exist, is this the only type of charter worth replicating? There must be some bright lights among all these bulbs.

As a third example, there are now many tutoring programs used in elementary reading and math with struggling learners. The average effect sizes for all forms of tutoring average about +0.30, in both reading and math. But there are reading tutoring approaches with effect sizes of +0.50 or more. If these programs are readily available, why would schools adopt programs less effective than the best? The average is useful for research purposes, and there are always considerations of costs and availability, but I would think any school would want to ignore the average for all types of programs and look into the ones that can do the most for their kids, at a reasonable cost.

I’ve often heard teachers and principals point out that “parents send us the best kids they have.” Yes they do, and for this reason it is our responsibility as educators to give those kids the best programs we can. We often describe educating students as enlightening them, or lifting the lamp of learning, or fiat lux. Perhaps the best way to fiat a little more lux is to take a page from Edison, the great luxmeister: Experiment tirelessly until we find what works. Then use the best we have.

Reference

Borman, G.D., Hewes, G. M., Overman, L.T., & Brown, S. (2003). Comprehensive school reform and achievement: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 73(2), 125-230.

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.