Out to Launch

Dear Reader,

Every Thursday for the past nine years, except for major holidays, I have produced my blog on educational research and practice.  However, this week, I am running my blog on Monday.  Why?  Because on Monday, we are launching our tutoring website, the one I’ve been hinting about for weeks.  And for some technical reasons I do not even understand, the website has to go out on the same day as my blog.   Yes, I should have scheduled the launch for a Thursday, but here we are.  

I can guarantee you that this website will completely change your perception of life, the universe, and everything, or at the very least about tutoring.  

After Monday, my blogs will return to normal.  Perhaps even better than normal.

Thank you for your patience and understanding.  

-Bob

Message From NorthBay: All Students Can Learn to Read

Last July, I wrote a blog about a Year 6 (fifth grade) student in England, “Richard,” who just happened to transfer to one of our Success for All schools in spring, 2020. The school staff tested him. He had no reading skills at all. None.

Because they only had a few months to prepare him to go to secondary school, the staff decided to use our Tutoring With the Lightning Squad program with Richard for 90 minutes a day for three weeks (it’s usually used 30 minutes a day for at least 60 days). He gained 2.2 grade levels. To his delight, he could read The Hodgeheg, and was looking forward to reading Harry Potter books!

Photo credit: NorthBay Media Arts

Recently, I discovered that the gains Richard made were not unique to him.

Last summer, we were approached by John Erickson, the founder of NorthBay Education, which had a campus called NorthBay at the top of the Chesapeake. For many years, NorthBay has provided week-long outdoor education and social and emotional learning experiences for sixth graders across Maryland. However, due to Covid, this was impossible, so Erickson and NorthBay Director of Education, Rick Garber, wanted to use their staff and campus to provide an extended educational experience for students who were particularly vulnerable due to their life circumstances. Erickson and Garber wanted us (at Johns Hopkins University and the Success for All Foundation) to provide daily tutoring in reading to these students. We were delighted to agree, so in October, the program got under way. The students had to participate in remote instruction, like other Baltimore students, for six hours a day, and then had a half-hour tutoring session taught by NorthBay staff, trained by SFA coaches. The students stayed all week at the camp, and then went home over each weekend.

I can’t say that all went smoothly, but after a while NorthBay was operating well.

There were two sessions, October to January and February to June. Some students stayed for only the first session and were replaced by others. Others dropped out for a variety of reasons along the way.

I just received the test scores for the 31 students who were pretested in October and posttested on March 2, on the Gray Silent Reading Test (GSRT). Because of all the coming and going, we cannot say anything scientific about the data. We do not know if the gains were representative of all students who attended, and there was no control group. However, something extraordinary happened, and I wanted to share it.

At pretest, eight of the sixth grade students tested at the beginning first grade level (1.0), and one at 1.2. The average for these nine former non-readers at posttest was 4.1. That’s a gain of 3 grade levels in four months. Every non-reader but one reached a grade equivalent of at least 3.0. The exception got to 2.8. One got to 5.8, and one to 9.2!

I had been impressed that Richard, in England, went from zero to Hodgeheg in three weeks, but he was getting the equivalent of three tutoring sessions a day. In four months, with one session a day, every one of the nine non-reading NorthBay students went from zero to Hodgeheg, and some from zero to Harry Potter.

Other students also made astonishing gains. One went from 1.8 to 5.8. One, from 2.0 to 5.0. One from 3.0 to 7.5. One from 3.5 to 9.8.

There were many things going on in this experience, of course. The students were living at a beautiful, peaceful place for four months, with caring staff, good food, and great outdoor activities. They were experiencing the Baltimore City online curriculum, with good computer linkages and plenty of on-site assistance. Tutoring is not all they were getting.

The most important conclusion from the NorthBay experience is that these kids, mostly from very difficult backgrounds, could learn to read. The NorthBay experience suggests that they always could have learned to read under the right circumstances. Had they had the opportunity to make these gains earlier in elementary school, and reached the third grade level or better by, say, third grade, perhaps they would now be at grade level in sixth grade.

The message of NorthBay is that the problems kids face in learning to read are not usually due to anything wrong with the kids. It is not due to anything wrong with the capable and heroic teachers who have done their very best. It is the system, far beyond Baltimore, that does not allocate the funding needed to provide every struggling reader whatever is necessary to learn to read.

Today, Baltimore City Public Schools is about to receive significant funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and other sources. They cannot send everyone to NorthBay, though that would be wonderful. But they can use the new funds to create the teaching and tutoring resources that made such a difference. And so can any school or district in America.

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, send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

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

Summer 2021 Re-Imagined: A Grand Opening to a Successful Year

If you follow my blogs, you’ll note that I have been writing recently about the ineffectiveness of summer school (here, here, and here). Along with colleagues, I wrote a review of research on summer school, which is summarized here. The reason for the ineffectiveness of summer school, I proposed, is that when summer school resembles regular school, it can be boring. Kids are sitting in school while their friends are playing outside. As a result, attendance in summer school programs intended to help struggling students can be very poor, and the motivation of those who do attend may also be poor.

However, there are two major exceptions to the otherwise dismal outcomes of studies of summer school. One is a Los Angeles study by Schacter & Jo (2005), and the other is a study by Zvoch & Stevens (2013), done in a small city in the Northwest.

Both of these studies focused on disadvantaged students in grades 1 or K-1. Both provided small-group tutoring interventions. Schacter & Jo (2005) gave students phonics instruction in groups of 15, followed by small-group tutoring. The Gates-MacGinitie reading effect size was +1.16. Zvoch & Stevens (2013) also provided group phonics instruction followed by tutoring to groups of 3 to 5. The effect size on DIBELS measures was +0.69.

The large effect sizes seen in these two studies contrast sharply with all the other studies of summer classroom programs, which had a mean effect size near zero. What this suggests is that the best instructional use of summer may be to provide one-to-one or small-group tutoring to struggling students.

In summer, 2021, the rationale for summertime tutoring is particularly strong. If current trends maintain, most teachers will have received Covid vaccines by summer, and increasing numbers of schools will open by the end of the current semester. To close schools that could be open for summer vacation seems a waste. Also, assuming the American Rescue Plan is passed (as expected), it will make a great deal of money available to serve students who have lost ground due to Covid school closures, so schools will be able to afford to pay for tutoring during the summer.

The problem with summer school is that it cannot be made mandatory, and many students will not want to attend. However, in summer 2021, providing tutoring during the summer for students who do choose to attend (and keep attending regularly) could be of great value, even if most students who need tutoring do not attend. The reason is that there are so many students who will need tutoring in September, 2021, that not all of them can be tutored right away. Providing tutoring in the summer gives some students a full dose of tutoring before school officially opens, so that schools will not be under pressure to tutor more students than they are able to serve in fall, 2021.

How Can Summer Tutoring Work?

Summertime allows schools to provide more hours of tutoring each day than would be possible during the school year. For example, teaching and tutoring were provided 2 hours a day for 7 weeks in the Schacter & Jo (2005) study, and 3½ hours per day for 5 weeks in the Zvoch & Stevens (2013) study. If tutoring were alternated with sports or music or other fun activities, one might imagine providing two or three tutoring sessions each day, for as many as 8 weeks during the summer.

These sessions might be offered during a half day, so teachers and teaching assistants might teach one morning and one afternoon session each day. In fact, tutors might provide three two-hour sessions, and reach even more students.

The tutoring methods should be ones proven effective in rigorous experiments. While any whole-class teaching should be done by teachers, teaching assistants can be trained to be excellent tutors. They will need extensive training and in-class coaching, but this is worthwhile, especially because most of these tutors will continue working with additional students during the school day starting in the fall.

Tutoring in summer 2021 will provide a pilot opportunity for schools and districts to hit the ground running in September. It will provide time and resources for providers of tutoring to greatly increase their scale of operations. And it may attract students who have been out of school for many months by offering small group, supportive tutoring with caring tutors, to help ease the transition back into school.

Summertime need not be a time for summertime blues. Instead, it can serve as a “grand opening” for a successful re-entry to school for millions of students.

References

Schacter, J., & Jo, B. (2005). Learning when school is not in session: A reading summer day-camp intervention to improve the achievement of exiting first-grade students who are economically disadvantaged. Journal of Research in Reading, 28, 158-169. Doi:10.111/j.1467-9817.2005.00260.x

Zvoch, K., & Stevens, J. J. (2013). Summer school effects in a randomized field trial. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(1), 24-32. Doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2012,05.002

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 Role of Research and Development in Post-Covid Education

Everyone knows that during World War II, the pace of innovation greatly accelerated. Computers, rocketry, jets, sonar, radar, microwaves, aerosol cans, penicillin, and morphine were among the many wartime developments. What unites these innovations, of course, is that each was developed to solve an urgent problem important to the war effort, and all of them later tuned out to have revolutionary benefits for civilian use. Yet these advances could not have taken place so quickly if not for the urgent need for innovations and the massive resources devoted to them.

Crisis can be the catalyst for innovation.

Today, we face Covid, a dire medical crisis, and investments of massive resources have produced vaccines in record time. However, the Covid pandemic has also created an emergency in education, as millions of children are experiencing educational losses due to school closures. The Institute for Education Sciences (IES) has announced a grants program to respond to the Covid crisis, but at the usual pace, the grants will only lead to practical solutions in many years when (we fervently hope) the crisis will be over.

I would argue that in this perilous time, research in education should focus on urgent practical problems that could have a significant impact within, say, the next year or two on the problems of students who are far below grade level in essential skills because of Covid school closures, or for other reasons:

1. Tutoring. Yes, of course I was going to start with tutoring. The biggest problem in tutoring is that while we have many proven programs for elementary reading, especially for grades K-3, we have far fewer proven programs ready for prime time in the upper elementary grades, and none at all in middle or high school reading. Studies in England have found positive effects of tutoring in their equivalent of middle school, but none of these exist in the U.S. In mathematics, there are few proven tutoring programs in elementary school, and just one I know of for middle school, and one for high school.

How could research funding produce new tutoring programs for middle and high school reading, and for math at all grade levels, in such a short time?  Simple. First, there are already tutoring programs for reading and math at all grade levels, but few have been successfully evaluated, or (in most cases) ever evaluated at all in rigorous experiments. So it would be important to fund evaluations of particularly promising programs that are already working at significant scale.

Another means of rapidly discovering effective tutoring programs would be to fund programs that have been successful in certain grade levels to quickly create programs for adjacent grades. For example, a program proven effective in grades 2-3 should be able to be significantly modified to work in grades 4-5. One that works in grades 4-5 could be modified for use in middle school. Programs proven effective in reading might be modified for use in mathematics at the same grade level, or vice versa. Many programs with successful programs in some grade levels have the staff and experience to quickly create programs in adjacent grade levels.

Also, it might be possible for developers of successful classwide technology programs to create and pilot tutoring models using similar software, but adding the assistance of a tutor for groups of one to four students, perhaps in collaboration with experts on tutoring.

2. Approaches other than tutoring.  There are many effective reading and math programs of all kinds, not just tutoring, that have proven their effectiveness (see www.evidenceforessa.org). Such programs might be ready to go as they are, and others could be evaluated in a form appropriate to the current emergency. Very few programs other than tutoring obtain effect sizes like those typical of the best tutoring programs, but classwide programs with modest effect sizes serve many more students than tutoring programs do. Also, classroom programs might be evaluated for their capacity to maintain gains made due to tutoring.

Tutoring or non-tutoring programs that already exist at scale, or that could be quickly adapted from proven programs, might be ready for rigorous, third-party evaluations as soon as fall, 2021. These programs should be evaluated using rigorous, third-party evaluations, with all programs at a given grade level using identical procedures and measures. In this way, it should be possible to have many new, proven programs by the end of the 2021-2022 school year, ready for dissemination in fall, 2022. This would be in time to greatly add capacity to serve the millions of students who need proven programs to help them make rapid progress toward grade level.

A research program of this kind could be expensive, and it may not provide theoretical breakthroughs. However, given the substantial and obvious need, and the apparent willingness of government to provide major resources to combat Covid learning losses, such a research effort might be feasible. If it were to take place, it might build excitement about R & D as a practical means of enhancing student achievement. And if even a quarter of the experiments found sizable positive impacts, this would add substantially to our armamentarium of proven strategies for struggling students.

There is an old saying in social work: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” As in World War II, the educational impacts of the Covid pandemic present educational research with a crisis that we must solve, but if we can solve any portion of this problem, this will create benefits for generations of children long after Covid has faded into a distant memory.

Photo credit: User Messybeast on en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

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

Avoiding the Errors of Supplemental Educational Services (SES)

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” –Albert Einstein

Last Friday, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed a $1.9 trillion recovery bill. Within it is the Learning Recovery Act (LRA). Both the overall bill and the Learning Recovery Act are timely and wonderful. In particular, the LRA emphasizes the importance of using research-based tutoring to help students who are struggling in reading or math. The linking of evidence to large-scale federal education funding began with the 2015 ESSA definition of proven educational programs, and the LRA would greatly increase the importance of evidence-based practices.

But if you sensed a “however” coming, you were right. The “however” is that the LRA requires investments of substantial funding in “school extension programs,” such as “summer school, extended day, or extended school year programs” for vulnerable students.

This is where the Einstein quote comes in. “School extension programs” sound a lot like Supplemental Educational Services (SES), part of No Child Left Behind that offered parents and children an array of services that had to be provided after school or in summer school.

The problem is, SES was a disaster. A meta-analysis of 28 studies of SES by Chappell et al. (2011) found a mean effect size of +0.04 for math and +0.02 for reading. A sophisticated study by Deke et al. (2014) found an effect size of +0.05 for math and -0.03 for reading. These effect sizes are just different flavors of zero. Zero was the outcome whichever way you looked at the evidence, with one awful exception: The lowest achievers, and special education students, actually performed significantly less well in the Deke et al. (2014) study if they were in SES than if they qualified but did not sign up. The effect sizes for these students were around -0.20 for reading and math. Heinrich et al. (2009) also reported that the lowest achievers were least likely to sign up for SES, and least likely to attend regularly if they did. All three major studies found that outcomes did not vary much depending on which type of provider or program they received. Considering that the per-pupil cost was estimated at $1,725 in 2021 dollars, these outcomes are distressing, but more important is the fact that despite the federal government’s willingness to spend quite a lot on them, millions of struggling students in desperate need of effective assistance did not benefit.

Why did SES fail? I have two major explanations. Heinrich et al. (2009), who added questionnaires and observations to find out what was going on, discovered that at least in Milwaukee, attendance in SES after-school programs was appalling (as I reported in my previous blog). In the final year studied, only 16% of eligible students were attending (less than half signed up at all, and of those, average attendance in the remedial program was only 34%). Worse, the students in greatest need were least likely to attend.

From their data and other studies they cite, Heinrich et al. (2010) paint a picture of students doing boring, repetitive worksheets unrelated to what they were doing in their school-day classes. Students were incentivized to sign up for SES services with incentives, such as iPods, gift cards, or movie passes. Students often attended just enough to get their incentives, but then stopped coming. In 2006-2007, a new policy limited incentives to educationally-related items, such as books and museum trips, and attendance dropped further. Restricting SES services to after-school and summertime, when attendance is not mandated and far from universal, means that students who did attend were in school while their friends were out playing. This is hardly a way to engage students’ motivation to attend or to exert effort. Low-achieving students see after school and summertime as their free time, which they are unlikely to give up willingly.

Beyond the problems of attendance and motivation in extended time, there was another key problem with SES. This was that none of the hundreds of programs offered to students in SES were proven to be effective beforehand (or ever) in rigorous evaluations. And there was no mechanism to find out which of them were working well, until very late in the program’s history. As a result, neither schools nor parents had any particular basis for selecting programs according to their likely impact. Program providers probably did their best, but there was no pressure on them to make certain that students benefited from SES services.

As I noted in my previous blog, evaluations of SES do not provide the only evidence that after school and summer school programs rarely work for struggling students. Reviews of summer school programs by Xie et al. (in press) and of after school programs (Dynarski et al., 2002; Kidron & Lindsay, 2014) have found similar outcomes, always for the same reasons: poor attendance and poor motivation of students in school when they would otherwise have free time.

Designing an Effective System of Services for Struggling Students

There are two policies that are needed to provide a system of services capable of substantially improving student achievement. One is to provide services during the ordinary school day and year, not in after school or summer school. The second is to strongly emphasize the use of programs proven to be highly effective in rigorous research.

Educational services provided during the school day are far more likely to be effective than those provided after school or in the summer. During the day, everyone expects students to be in school, including the students themselves. There are attendance problems during the regular school day, of course, especially in secondary schools, but these problems are much smaller than those in non-school time, and perhaps if students are receiving effective, personalized services in school and therefore succeeding, they might attend more regularly. Further, services during the school day are far easier to integrate with other educational services. Principals, for example, are far more likely to observe tutoring or other services if they take place during the day, and to take ownership for ensuring their effectiveness. School day services also entail far fewer non-educational costs, as they do not require changing bus schedules, cleaning and securing schools more hours each day, and so on.

The problem with in-school services is that they can disrupt the basic schedule. However, this need not be a problem. Schools could designate service periods for each grade level spread over the school day, so that tutors or other service providers can be continuously busy all day. Students should not be taken out of reading or math classes, but there is a strong argument that a student who is far below grade level in reading or math needs a reading or math tutor using a proven tutoring model far more than other classes, at least for a semester (the usual length of a tutoring sequence).

If schools are deeply reluctant to interrupt any of the ordinary curriculum, then they might extend their day to offer art, music, or other subjects during the after-school session. These popular subjects might attract students without incentives, especially if students have a choice of which to attend. This could create space for tutoring or other services during the school day. A schedule like this is virtually universal in Germany, which provides all sports, art, music, theater, and other activities after school, so all in-school time is available for academic instruction.

Use of proven programs makes sense throughout the school day. Tutoring should be the main focus of the Learning Recovery Act, because in this time of emergency need to help students recover from Covid school closures, nothing less will do. But in the longer term, adoption of proven classroom programs in reading, math, science, writing, and other subjects should provide a means of helping students succeed in all parts of the curriculum (see www.evidenceforessa.org).

In summer, 2021, there may be a particularly strong rationale for summer school, assuming schools are otherwise able to open.  The evidence is clear that doing ordinary instruction during the summer will not make much of a difference, but summer could be helpful if it is used as an opportunity to provide as many struggling students as possible in-person, one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring in reading or math.  In the summer, students might receive tutoring more than once a day, every day for as long as six weeks.  This could make a particularly big difference for students who basically missed in-person kindergarten, first, or second grade, a crucial time for learning to read.  Tutoring is especially effective in those grades in reading, because phonics is relatively easy for tutors to teach.  Also, there is a large number of effective tutoring programs for grades K-2.  Early reading failure is very important to prevent, and can be prevented with tutoring, so the summer months may get be just the right time to help these students get a leg up on reading.

The Learning Recovery Act can make life-changing differences for millions of children in serious difficulties. If the LRA changes its emphasis to the implementation of proven tutoring programs during ordinary school times, it is likely to accomplish its mission.

SES served a useful purpose in showing us what not to do. Let’s take advantage of these expensive lessons and avoid repeating the same errors. Einstein would be so proud if we heed his advice.

Correction

My recent blog, “Avoiding the Errors of Supplemental Educational Services,” started with a summary of the progress of the Learning Recovery Act.  It was brought to my attention that my summary was not correct.  In fact, the Learning Recovery Act has been introduced in Congress, but is not part of the current reconciliation proposal moving through Congress and has not become law. The Congressional action cited in my last blog was referring to a non-binding budget resolution, the recent passage of which facilitated the creation of the $1.9 trillion reconciliation bill that is currently moving through Congress. Finally, while there is expected to be some amount of funding within that current reconciliation bill to address the issues discussed within my blog, reconciliation rules will prevent the Learning Recovery Act from being included in the current legislation as introduced.

References

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

Deke, J., Gill, B. Dragoset, L., & Bogen, K. (2014). Effectiveness of supplemental educational services. Journal of Research in Educational Effectiveness, 7, 137-165.

Dynarski, M. et al. (2003). When schools stay open late: The national evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Programs (First year findings). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Heinrich, C. J., Meyer, R., H., & Whitten, G. W. (2010). Supplemental Education Services under No Child Left Behind: Who signs up and what do they gain? Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 32, 273-298.

Kidron, Y., & Lindsay, J. (2014). The effects of increased learning time on student academic and nonacademic outcomes: Findings from a meta‑analytic review (REL 2014-015). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia.

Xie, C., Neitzel, A., Cheung, A., & Slavin, R. E. (2020). The effects of summer programs on K-12 students’ reading and mathematics achievement: A meta-analysis. 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

Highlight Tutoring Among Post-Covid Solutions

I recently saw a summary of the education section of the giant, $1.9 trillion proposed relief bill now before Congress. Like all educators, I was delighted to see the plan to provide $130 billion to help schools re-open safely, and to fund efforts to remedy the learning losses so many students have experienced due to school closures.

However, I was disappointed to see that the draft bill suggests that educators can use whatever approaches they like, and it specifically mentioned summer school and after school programs as examples.

Clearly, the drafters of this legislation have not been reading my blogs! On September 10th I wrote a blog reviewing research on summer school and after school programs as well as tutoring and other approaches. More recently, I’ve been doing further research on these recommendations for schools to help struggling students. I put my latest findings into two tables, one for reading and one for math. These appear below.

As you can see, not all supplemental interventions for struggling students are created equal. Proven tutoring models (ones that were successfully evaluated in rigorous experiments) are far more effective than other strategies. The additional successful strategy is our own Success for All whole-school reform approach (Cheung et al., in press), but Success for All incorporates tutoring as a major component.

However, it is important to note that not all tutoring programs are proven to be effective. Programs that do not provide tutors with structured materials and guidance with extensive professional development and in-class coaching, or use unpaid tutors whose attendance may be sporadic, have not produced the remarkable outcomes typical of other tutoring programs.

Tutoring

As Tables 1 and 2 show, proven tutoring programs produce substantial positive effects on reading and math achievement, and nothing else comes close (see Gersten et al., 2020; Neitzel et al., in press; Nickow et al. 2020; Pellegrini et al., 2021; Wanzek et al., 2016).

Tables 1 and 2 only include results from programs that use teaching assistants, AmeriCorps members (who receive stipends), and unpaid volunteer tutors. I did not include programs that use teachers as tutors, because in the current post-Covid crisis, there is a teacher shortage, so it is unlikely that many certified teachers will serve as tutors. Also, research in both reading and math finds little difference in student outcomes between teachers and teaching assistants or AmeriCorps members, so there is little necessity to hire certified teachers as tutors. Unpaid tutors have not been as effective as paid tutors.

Both one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring by teaching assistants can be effective. One-to-one is somewhat more effective in reading, on average (Neitzel et al., in press), but in math there is no difference in outcomes between one-to-one and one-to-small group (Pellegrini et al., 2021).

Success for All

Success for All is a whole-school reform approach. A recent review of 17 rigorous studies of Success for All found an effect size of +0.51 for students in the lowest 25% of their grades (Cheung et al., in press). However, such students typically receive one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring for some time period during grades 1 to 3. Success for All also provides all teachers professional development and materials focusing on phonics in grades K-2 and comprehension in grades 2-6, as well as cooperative learning in all grades, parent support, social-emotional learning instruction, and many other elements. So Success for All is not just a tutoring approach, but tutoring plays a central role for the lowest-achieving students.

Summer School

A recent review of research on summer school by Xie et al. (2020) found few positive effects on reading or math achievement. In reading, there were two major exceptions, but in both cases the students were in grades K to 1, and the instruction involved one-to-small group tutoring in phonics. In math, none of the summer school studies involving low-achieving students found positive effects.

After School

A review of research on after-school instruction in reading and math found near-zero impacts in both subjects (Kidron & Lindsay, 2014).

Extended Day

A remarkable study of extended day instruction was carried out by Figlio et al. (2018). Schools were randomly assigned to receive one hour of additional reading instruction for a year, or to serve as a control group. The outcomes were positive but quite modest (ES=+0.09) considering the considerable expense.

Technology

Studies of computer-assisted instruction and other digital approaches have found minimal impacts for struggling students (Neitzel et al., in press; Pellegrini et al., 2021).

Policy Consequences

The evidence is clear that any effort intended to improve the achievement of students struggling in reading or mathematics should make extensive use of proven tutoring programs. Students who have fallen far behind in reading or math need programs known to make a great deal of difference in a modest time period, so struggling students can move toward grade level, where they can profit from ordinary teaching. In our current crisis, it is essential that we follow the evidence to give struggling students the best possible chance of success.

References

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

Figlio, D., Holden, K., & Ozek, U. (2018). Do students benefit from longer school days? Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida’s additional hour of literacy instruction. Economics of Education Review, 67, 171-183.

Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Newman-Gonchar, R., Dimino, J., & Jayanthi, M. (2020). Meta-analysis of the impact of reading interventions for students in the primary grades. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 13(2), 401–427.

Kidron, Y., & Lindsay, J. (2014). The effects of increased learning time on student academic and nonacademic outcomes: Findings from a meta‑analytic review (REL 2014-015). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia.

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. (2021). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. AERA Open, 7 (1), 1-29.

Wanzek, J., Vaughn, S., Scammacca, N., Gatlin, B., Walker, M. A., & Capin, P. (2016). Meta-analyses of the effects of tier 2 type reading interventions in grades K-3. Educational Psychology Review, 28(3), 551–576. doi:10.1007/s10648-015-9321-7

Xie, C., Neitzel, A., Cheung, A., & Slavin, R. E. (2020). The effects of summer programs on K-12 students’ reading and mathematics achievement: A meta-analysis. 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

Building Back Better

Yesterday, President Joe Biden took his oath of office. He is taking office at one of the lowest points in all of American history. Every American, whatever their political beliefs, should be wishing him well, because his success is essential for the recovery of our nation.

In education, most schools remain closed or partially open, and students are struggling with remote learning. My oldest granddaughter is in kindergarten. Every school day, she receives instruction from a teacher she has never met. She has never seen the inside of “her school.” She is lucky, of course, because she has educators as grandparents (us), but it is easy to imagine the millions of kindergartners who do not even have access to computers, or do not have help in learning to read and learning mathematics. These children will enter first grade with very little of the background they need, in language and school skills as well as in content.

Of course, the problem is not just kindergarten. All students have missed a lot of school, and they will vary widely in their experiences during that time. Think of second graders who essentially missed first grade. Students who missed the year when they are taught biology. Students who missed the fundamentals of creative writing. Students who should be in Algebra 2, except that they missed Algebra 1.

Hopefully, providing vaccines as quickly as possible to school staffs will enable most schools to open this spring. But we have a long, long way to go to get back to normal, especially with disadvantaged students. We cannot just ask students on their first day back to open their math books to the page they were on in March, 2020, when school closed.

Students need to be assessed when they return, and if they are far behind in reading or math, given daily tutoring, one-to-one or one-to-small group. If you follow this blog, you’ve heard me carry on at length about this.

Tutoring services, using tutoring programs proven to be effective, will be of enormous help to students who are far behind grade level (here, here, here). But the recovery from Covid-19 school closures should not be limited to repairing the losses. Instead, I hope the Covid-19 crisis can be an opportunity to reconsider how to rebuild our school system to enhance the school success of all students.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that schooling in America was ailing long before Covid-19. It wasn’t doing so badly for middle class children, but it was failing disadvantaged students. These very same students have suffered disproportionately from Covid-19. So in the process of bringing these children back into school, let’s not stop with getting back to normal. Let’s figure out how to create schools that use the knowledge we have gained over the past 20 years, and knowledge we can develop in the coming years, to transform learning for our most vulnerable children.

Building Back Better

Obviously, the first thing we have to do this spring is reopen schools and make them as healthy, happy, welcoming, and upbeat as possible. We need to make sure that schools are fully staffed and fully equipped. We do need to “build back” before we can “build back better.” But we cannot stop there. Below, I discuss several things that would greatly transform education for disadvantaged students.

1.  Tutoring

Yes, tutoring is the first thing we have to do to build better. Every child who is significantly below grade level needs daily one-to-small group or one-to-one tutoring, until they reach a pre-established level of performance, depending on grade level, in reading and math.

However, I am not talking about just any tutoring. Not all tutoring works. But there are many programs that have been proven to work, many times. These are the tutoring programs we need to start with as soon as possible, with adequate training resources to ensure student success.

Implementing proven tutoring programs on a massive scale is an excellent “build back” strategy, the most effective and cost-effective strategy we have. However, tutoring should also be the basis for a key “build better” strategy

2.  Establishing success as a birthright and ensuring it using proven programs of all kinds.

We need to establish adequate reading and mathematics achievement as the birthright of every child. We can debate about what that level might be, but we must hold ourselves accountable for the success of every child. And we need to accomplish this not just by using accountability assessments and hoping for the best, but by providing proven programs to all students who need them for as long as they need them.

As I’ve pointed out in many blogs (here, here, here), we now have many programs proven effective in rigorous experiments and known to improve student achievement (see www.evidenceforessa.org). Every child who is performing below level, and every school serving many children below grade level, should have resources and knowledge to adopt proven programs. Teachers and tutors need to be guaranteed sufficient professional development and in-class coaching to enable them to successfully implement proven programs. Years ago, we did not have sufficient proven programs, so policy makers kept coming up with evidence-free policies, which have just not worked as intended. But now, we have many programs ready for widespread dissemination. To build better, we have to use these tools, not return to near universal use of instructional strategies, materials, and technology that have never been successfully evaluated. Instead, we need to use what works, and to facilitate adoption and effective implementation of proven programs.

3.  Invest in development and evaluation of promising programs.

How is it that in a remarkably short time, scientists were able to develop vaccines for Covid-19, vaccines that promise to save millions of lives? Simple. We invested billions in research, development, and evaluations of alternative vaccines. Effective vaccines are very difficult to make, and the great majority failed.  But at this writing, two U.S. vaccines have succeeded, and this is a mighty good start. Now, government is investing massively in rigorous dissemination of these vaccines.

Total spending on all of education research dedicated to creating and evaluating educational innovations is a tiny fraction of what has been spent and will be spent on vaccines. But can you imagine that it is impossible to improve reading, math, science, and other outcomes, with clear goals and serious resources? Of course it could be done. A key element of “building better” could be to substantially scale up use of proven programs we have now, and to invest in new development and evaluation to make today’s best obsolete, replaced by better and better approaches. The research and evaluation of tutoring proves this could happen, and perhaps a successful rollout of tutoring will demonstrate what proven programs can do in education.

4.  Commit to Success

Education goes from fad to fad, mandate to mandate, without making much progress. In order to “build better,” we all need to commit to finding what works, disseminating it broadly, and then finding even better solutions, until all children are succeeding. This must be a long-term commitment, but if we are investing adequately and see that we are improving outcomes each year, then it is clear we can do it.            

With a change of administrations, we are going to hear a lot about hope. Hope is a good start, but it is not a plan. Let’s plan to build back better, and then for the first time in the history of education, make sure our solutions work, for all of our children.

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