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

Tutoring Could Change Everything

Starting in the 1990s, futurists and technology fans began to say, “The Internet changes everything.” And eventually, it did. The Internet has certainly changed education, although it is unclear whether these changes have improved educational effectiveness.

Unlike the Internet, tutoring has been around since hunters and gatherers taught their children to hunt and gather. Yet ancient as it is, making one-to-one or small group tutoring widely available in Title I schools could have profound impacts on the most nettlesome problems of education.

            If the National Tutoring Corps proposal I’ve been discussing in recent blogs (here , here, and here) is widely implemented and successful, it could have both obvious and not-so-obvious impacts on many critical aspects of educational policy and practice. In this blog, I’ll discuss these revolutionary and far-reaching impacts.

Direct and Most Likely Impacts

Struggling Students

            Most obviously, if the National Tutoring Corps is successful, it will be because it has had an important positive impact on the achievement of students who are struggling in reading and/or mathematics. At 100,000 tutors, we expect as many as four million low-achieving students in Title I schools will benefit, about 10% of all U.S. students in grades 1-9, but, say, 50% of the students in the lowest 20% of their grades.

Title I

            In a December 20 tweet, former Houston superintendent Terry Grier suggested: “Schools should utilize all or most of their Title I money to implement tutoring programs…to help K-2 students catch up on lost literacy skills.”

            I’d agree, except that I’d include later grades and math as well as reading if there is sufficient funding. The purpose of Title I is to accelerate the achievement of low-achieving, disadvantaged students. If schools were experienced with implementing proven tutoring programs, and knew them from their own experience to be effective and feasible, why would such programs not become the main focus of Title I funding, as Grier suggests?

Special Education

            Students with specific learning disabilities and other “high-incidence” disabilities (about half of all students in special education) are likely to benefit from structured tutoring in reading or math. If we had proven, reliable, replicable tutoring models, with which many schools will have had experience, then schools might be able to greatly reduce the need for special education for students whose only problem is difficulty in learning reading or mathematics. For students already in special education, their special education teachers may adopt proven tutoring methods themselves, and may enable students with specific learning disabilities to succeed in reading and math, and hopefully to exit special education.

Increasing the Effectiveness of Other Tutoring and Supportive Services

            Schools already have various tutoring programs, including volunteer programs. In schools involved in the National Tutoring Corps, we recommend that tutoring by paid, well-trained tutors go to the lowest achievers in each grade. If schools also have other tutoring resources, they should be concentrated on students who are below grade level, but not struggling as much as the lowest achievers. These additional tutors might use the proven effective programs provided by the National Tutoring Corps, offering a consistent and effective approach to all students who need tutoring. The same might apply to other supportive services offered by the school.

Less Obvious But Critical Impacts

A Model for Evidence-to-Practice

            The success of evidence-based tutoring could contribute to the growth of evidence-based reform more broadly. If the National Tutoring Corps is seen to be effective because of its use of already-proven instructional approaches, this same idea could be used in every part of education in which robust evidence exists. For example, education leaders might reason that if use of evidence-based tutoring approaches had a big effect on students struggling in reading and math, perhaps similar outcomes could be achieved in algebra, or creative writing, or science, or programs for English learners.

Increasing the Amount and Quality of Development and Research on Replicable Solutions to Key Problems in Education

            If the widespread application of proven tutoring models broadly improves student outcomes, then it seems likely that government, private foundations, and perhaps creators of educational materials and software might invest far more in development and research than they do now, to discover new, more effective educational programs.

Reductions in Achievement Gaps

            If it were widely accepted that there were proven and practical means of significantly improving the achievement of low achievers, then there is no excuse for allowing achievement gaps to continue. Any student performing below the mean could be given proven tutoring and should gain in achievement, reducing gaps between low and high achievers.

Improvements in Behavior and Attendance

            Many of the students who engage in disruptive behavior are those who struggle academically, and therefore see little value in appropriate behavior. The same is true of students who skip school. Tutoring may help prevent behavior and attendance problems, not just by increasing the achievement of struggling students, but also by giving them caring, personalized teaching with a tutor who forms positive relationships with them and encourages attendance and good behavior.

Enhancing the Learning Environment for Students Who Do Not Need Tutoring

            It is likely that a highly successful tutoring initiative for struggling students could enhance the learning environment for the schoolmates of these students who do not need tutoring. This would happen if the tutored students were better behaved and more at peace with themselves, and if teachers did not have to struggle to accommodate a great deal of diversity in achievement levels within each class.

            Of course, all of these predictions depend on Congress funding a national tutoring plan based on the use of proven programs, and on implementation at scale actually producing the positive impacts that they have so often shown in research. But I hope these predictions will help policy makers and educational leaders realize the potential positive impacts a tutoring initiative could have, and then do what they can to make sure that the tutoring programs are effectively implemented and produce their desired impact. Then, and only then, will tutoring truly change everything.

Clarification:

Last week’s blog, on the affordability of tutoring, stated that a study of Saga Math, in which there was a per-pupil cost of $3,600, was intended as a demonstration, and was not intended to be broadly replicable.  However, all I meant to say is that Saga was never intended to be replicated AT THAT PRICE PER STUDENT.  In fact, a much lower-cost version of Saga Math is currently being replicated.  I apologize if I caused any confusion.

Photo credit: Deeper Learning 4 All, (CC BY-NC 4.0)

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

Is a National Tutoring Corps Affordable?

Tutoring is certainly in the news these days. The December 30 Washington Post asked its journalists to predict what the top policy issues will be for the coming year. In education, Laura Meckler focused her entire prediction on just one issue: Tutoring. In an NPR interview (Kelly, 2020) with John King, U. S. Secretary of Education at the end of the Obama Administration and now President of Education Trust, the topic was how to overcome the losses students are certain to have sustained due to Covid-19 school closures. Dr. King emphasized tutoring, based on its strong evidence base. McKinsey (Dorn et al., 2020) did a report on early information on how much students have lost due to the school closures and what to do about it. “What to do” primarily boiled down to tutoring. Earlier articles in Education Week (e.g., Sawchuk, 2020) have also emphasized tutoring as the leading solution. Two bills introduced in the Senate by Senator Coons (D-Delaware) proposed a major expansion of AmeriCorps, mostly to provide tutoring and school health aides to schools suffering from Covid-19 school closures.

            All of this is heartening, but many of these same sources are warning that all this tutoring is going to be horrifically expensive and may not happen because we cannot afford it. However, most of these estimates are based on a single, highly atypical example. A Chicago study (Cook et al., 2015) of a Saga (or Match Education) math tutoring program for ninth graders estimated a per-pupil cost of one-to-two tutoring all year of $3,600 per student, with an estimate that at scale, the costs could be as low as $2,500 per student. Yet these estimates are unique to this single program in this single study. The McKinsey report applied the lower figure ($2,500 per student) to cost out tutoring for half of all 55 million students in grades k-12. They estimated an annual cost of $66 billion, just for math tutoring!

            Our estimate is that the cost of a robust national tutoring plan would be more like $7.0 billion in 2021-2022. How could these estimates be so different?  First, the Saga study was designed as a one-off demonstration that disadvantaged students in high school could still succeed in math. No one expected that Saga Math could be replicated at a per-pupil cost of $3,600 (or $2,500). In fact, a much less expensive form of Saga Math is currently being disseminated. In fact, there are dozens of cost-effective tutoring programs widely used and evaluated since the 1980s in elementary reading and math. One is our own Tutoring With the Lightning Squad (Madden & Slavin, 2017), which provides tutors in reading for groups of four students and costs about $700 per student per year. There are many proven small-group tutoring programs known to make a substantial difference in reading or math performance, (see Neitzel et al., in press; Nickow et al., 2020; Pellegrini et al., in press). These programs, most of which use teaching assistants as tutors, cost more like $1,500 per student, on average, based on the average cost of five tutoring programs used in Baltimore elementary schools (Tutoring With the Lightning Squad, Reading Partners, mClass Tutoring, Literacy Lab, and Springboard).

            Further, it is preposterous to expect to serve 27.5 million students (half of all students in k-12) all in one year. At 40 students per tutor, this would require hiring 687,500 tutors!

            Our proposal (Slavin et al., 2020) for a National Tutoring Corps proposes hiring 100,000 tutors by September, 2021, to provide proven one-to-one or (mostly) one-to-small group tutoring programs to about 4 million grade 1 to 9 students in Title I schools. This number of tutors would serve about 21% of Title I students in these grades in 2021-2022, at a cost of roughly $7.0 billion (including administrative costs, development, evaluation, and so on). This is less than what the government of England is spending right now on a national tutoring program, a total of £1 billion, which translates to $7.8 billion (accounting for the differences in population).

            Our plan would gradually increase the numbers of tutors over time, so in later years costs could grow, but they would never surpass $10 billion, much less $66 billion just for math, as estimated by McKinsey.

            In fact, even with all the money in the world, it would not be possible to hire, train, and deploy 687,500 tutors any time soon, at least not tutors using programs proven to work. The task before us is not to just throw tutors into schools to serve lots of kids. Instead, it should be to provide carefully selected tutors with extensive professional development and coaching to enable them to implement tutoring programs that have been proven to be effective in rigorous, usually randomized experiments. No purpose is served by deploying tutors in such large numbers so quickly that we’d have to make serious compromises with the amount and quality of training. Poorly-implemented tutoring would have minimal outcomes, at best.

            I think anyone would agree that insisting on high quality at substantial scale, and then growing from success to success as tutoring organizations build capacity, is a better use of taxpayers’ money than starting too large and too fast, with unproven approaches.

            The apparent enthusiasm for tutoring is wonderful. But misplaced dollars will not ensure the outcomes we so desperately need for so many students harmed by Covid-19 school closures. Let’s invest in a plan based on high-quality implementation of proven programs and then grow it as we learn more about what works and what scales in sustainable forms of tutoring.

Photo credit: Deeper Learning 4 All, (CC BY-NC 4.0)

References

Cook, P. J., et al. (2016) Not too late: Improving academic outcomes for disadvantaged youth. Available at https://www.ipr.northwestern.edu/documents/working-papers/2015/IPR-WP-15-01.pdf

Dorn, E., et al. (2020). Covid-19 and learning loss: Disparities grow and students need help. New York: McKinsey & Co.

Kelly, M. L. (2020, December 28). Schools face a massive challenge to make up for learning lost during the pandemic. National Public Radio.

Madden, N. A., & Slavin, R. E. (2017). Evaluations of technology-assisted small-group tutoring for struggling readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 33(4), 327–334. https://doi.org/10.1080/10573569.2016.1255577

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.

Nickow, A. J., Oreopoulos, P., & Quan, V. (2020). The transformative potential of tutoring for pre-k to 12 learning outcomes: Lessons from randomized evaluations. Boston: Abdul Latif Poverty Action Lab.

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

Sawchuk, S. (2020, August 26). Overcoming Covid-19 learning loss. Education Week 40(2), 6.

Slavin, R. E., Madden, N. A., Neitzel, A., & Lake, C. (2020). The National Tutoring Corps: Scaling up proven tutoring for struggling students. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, Center for Research and Reform in Education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Original photo by Catherine Carusso, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

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

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

Tutors to Teachers: Could a National Tutoring Corps Help Hard-to-Staff Schools?

We are continuing to work with colleagues to propose to the incoming Biden administration a plan to fund tutors to elementary and secondary schools to work with students who are far behind in reading or math. Today, I wanted to expand on one aspect of our proposal.

As it currently stands, we are proposing that the federal government provide Title I schools with funds to hire tutors, who will be required to have a college degree and experience with children. If this proposal becomes reality, it would include a plan to help schools identify particularly effective tutors and offer them a rapid path to teacher certification.

One assumption behind this part of our proposal is that most tutors will be recent college graduates who do not have teaching certificates, most probably majoring in something other than education. Many of the tutors are sure to discover the joys of teaching. At the same time, school leaders are sure to notice that many of their tutors are doing an exceptional job. Our proposal is simply to facilitate a process in which excellent, successful tutors can become teachers.

There are several important advantages to schools and to society of this new source of teacher candidates. First, tutors would be concentrated in high-poverty inner-city or distant rural Title I schools. Such schools typically have difficulty recruiting top candidates. Often, the top candidates they do get are from the local area, often graduates of the very schools in which they hope to teach. We have noticed that tutor applicants (with college degrees) usually come from the local area.

Second, schools often struggle to find as many minority candidates as they would like. Tutors, in our experience, better represent the demographics of their schools than do teachers. Among the many college-graduate applications we typically get to work in Baltimore, about 80% are Black, and about 80% of hires have also been Black. This matches the percent Black of Baltimore City Public Schools students, but not of its teachers, 40% of whom are Black. If our Baltimore experience is typical, hiring tutors and then encouraging and supporting them to go for a teaching certificate may be one way to bring talented Black teachers into teaching.

We have seen a similar dynamic in majority-Hispanic districts and in rural districts. Local tutors with a strong tie to a local area, who have demonstrated their skills as tutors, may be an ideal group from which to recruit applicants whose commitment to teaching in that place is strong, and likely to be lifelong.

Many years ago, we were working on a study of our Success for All program in Baltimore, and in one inner-city school we noticed an extraordinary Black teacher. We got to know her, and discovered that she grew up near the school she taught in, and attended that very school. As a teacher, she could have chosen to live almost anywhere, but she chose to live in the house she grew up in, in an inner-city neighborhood. This was where she wanted to teach, where she wanted to make her contribution to her community. We’ve encountered many amazing teachers in rural places who are also teaching in the schools they attended. I cannot say exactly how this part of our tutoring plan will be accomplished, or what its effects might be on the teaching staffs of high-poverty schools. But bringing local college graduates into local schools as tutors and then helping the best of them to become teachers would be an important additional outcome of our National Tutoring Corps plan.

Photo credit: Shenandoah University Office of Marketing and Communications, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://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

A “Called Shot” for Educational Research and Impact

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

And then he did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

Dear President-Elect Biden:

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

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

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

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

A Tutoring Marshall Plan

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

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

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

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

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

Spring, 2021

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

Fall, 2021 to Spring, 2022

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

Fall, 2022-Spring, 2023

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Healing Covid-19’s Educational Losses: What is the Evidence?

I’ve written several blogs (here, here, here, here, here, and here) on what schools can do when they finally open permanently, to remedy what will surely be serious harm to the educational progress of millions of students. Without doubt, the students who are suffering the most from lengthy school closures are disadvantaged students, who are most likely to lack access to remote technology or regular support when their schools have been closed.

 Recently, there have been several articles circulated in the education press (e.g., Sawchuk, 2020) and newsletters laying out the options schools might consider to greatly improve the achievement of students who lost the most, and are performing far behind grade level.

The basic problem is that if schools simply start off with usual teaching for each grade level, this may be fine for students at or just below grade level, but for those who are far below level, this is likely to add catastrophe to catastrophe. Students who cannot read the material they are being taught, or who lack the prerequisite skills for their grade level, will experience failure and frustration. So the challenge is to provide students who are far behind with intensive, additional services likely to quickly accelerate their progress, so that they can then profit from ordinary, at-grade-level lessons.

In the publications I’ve seen, there have been several solutions frequently put forward. I thought this might be a good time to review the most common prescriptions in terms of their evidence basis in rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental research.

Extra Time

One proposal is to extend the school day or school year to provide additional time for instruction. This sounds logical; if the problem is time out of school, let’s add time in school.

The effects of extra time depend, of course, on what schools provide during that additional time. Simply providing more clock hours in which typical instruction is provided makes little difference. For example, in a large Florida study (Figlio, Holden, & Ozek, 2018), high-poverty schools were given a whole hour every day for a year, for additional reading instruction. This had a small impact on reading achievement (ES=+0.09) at a cost of about $800 per student, or $300,000-$400,000 per school. Also, in a review of research on secondary reading programs by Baye, Lake, Inns & Slavin (2019), my colleagues and I examined whether remedial programs were more effective if they were provided during additional time (one class period a day more than what the control group received for one or more years) or if they were provided during regular class time (the same amount of time the control group also received). The difference was essentially zero. The extra time did not matter. What did matter was what the schools provided (here and here).

After-School Programs

Some sources suggest providing after-school programs for students experiencing difficulties. A review of research on this topic by Kidron & Lindsay (2014) examined effects of after-school programs on student achievement in reading and mathematics. The effects were essentially zero. One problem is that students often did not attend regularly, or were poorly motivated when they did attend.

Summer School

As noted in a recent blog, positive effects of summer school were found only when intensive phonics instruction was provided in grades K or 1, but even in these cases, positive effects did not last to the following spring. Summer school is also very expensive.

Tutoring

By far the most effective approach for students struggling in reading or mathematics is tutoring (see blogs here, here, and here). Outcomes for one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring average +0.20 to +0.30 in both reading and mathematics, and there are several particular programs that routinely report outcomes of +0.40 or more. Using teaching assistants with college degrees as tutors can make tutoring very cost-effective, especially in small-group programs.

Whole-School Reforms

There are a few whole-school reforms that can have substantial impacts on reading and mathematics achievement. A recent review of our elementary school reform model, Success for All (Cheung et al., 2020), found an average effect size of +0.24 for all students across 17 studies, and an average of +0.54 for low achievers.

A secondary reform model called BARR has reported positive reading and mathematics outcomes for ninth graders (T. Borman et al., 2017)

Conclusion

Clearly, something needs to be done about students returning to in-person education who are behind grade level in reading and/or mathematics. But resources devoted to helping these students need to be focused on approaches proven to work. This is not the time to invest in plausible but unproven programs. Students need the best we have that has been repeatedly shown to work.

References

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

Borman, T., Bos, H., O’Brien, B. C., Park, S. J., & Liu, F. (2017). i3 BARR validation study impact findings: Cohorts 1 and 2. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

Cheung, A., Xie, C., Zhang, T., Neitzel, A., & Slavin, R. E. (2020). Success for All: A quantitative synthesis of evaluations. Manuscript submitted for publication. (Contact us for a copy.)

Figlio, D. N., Holden, K. L., & 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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2018.06.003

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.

Sawchuk, S. (2020, August 26). Overcoming Covid-19 learning loss. Education Week, 40 (2), 6.

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

Extraordinary Gains: Making Them Last

One of the great frustrations of evidence-based reform in education is that while we do have some interventions that have a strong impact on students’ learning, these outcomes usually fade over time. The classic example is intensive, high-quality preschool programs. There is no question about the short-term impacts of quality preschool, but after fifty years, the Perry Preschool study remains the only case in which a randomized experiment found long-term positive impacts of preschool. I think the belief in the Perry Preschool’s long-term impacts conditioned many of us to expect amazing long-term impacts of early interventions of all kinds, but the Perry Preschool evaluation was flawed in several ways, and later randomized studies such as the Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten Program do not find such lasting impacts. There have been similar difficulties documenting long-term impacts of the Reading Recovery tutoring program. I have been looking at research on summer school (Neitzel et al., 2020), and found a few summer programs for kindergarteners and first graders that had exceptional impacts on end-of-summer reading effects, but these had faded by the following spring.

A little coaching can go a long way.

Advocates for these and other intensive interventions frequently express an expectation that resource-intensive interventions at key developmental turning points can transform the achievement trajectories of students performing below grade level or otherwise at risk. Many educators and researchers believe that after successful early intervention, students can participate in regular classroom teaching and will continue to advance with their agemates. However, for many students, this is unlikely.  For example, imagine a struggling third grade girl reading at the first grade level. After sixteen weeks of daily 30-minute tutoring, she has advanced to grade level reading. However, after finishing her course of tutoring, the girl may experience slow progress. She will probably not forget what she has learned, but other students, who reached grade level reading without tutoring, may make more rapid progress than she does, because whatever factors caused her to be two years below grade level in the third grade may continue to slow her progress even after tutoring succeeds. By sixth grade, without continuing intervention, she might be well below grade level again, perhaps better off than she would have been without tutoring, but not at grade level.

But what if we knew, as the evidence clearly suggests, that one year of Perry Preschool or 60 lessons of Reading Recovery or seven weeks of intensive reading summer school was not sufficient to ensure long-lasting gains in achievement? What could we do to see that successful investments in intensive early interventions are built upon in subsequent years, so that formerly at-risk students not only maintain what they learned, but continue afterwards to make exceptional gains?

Clearly, we could build on early gains by continuing to provide intensive intervention every year, if that is what is needed, but that would be extremely expensive. Instead, imagine that each school had within it a small group of teachers and teacher assistants, whose job was to provide initial tutoring for students at risk, and then to monitor students’ progress and to strategically intervene to keep students on track. For the moment, I’ll call them an Excellence in Learning Team (XLT). This team would keep close track of the achievement of all at-risk and formerly at-risk students on frequent assessments, at least in reading and math. These staff members would track students’ trajectories toward grade level performance. If students fall off of that trajectory, members of the XLT would provide tutoring to the students, as long as necessary. My assumption is that a student who made brilliant progress with 60 tutoring sessions, for example, would not need another 60 sessions each year to stay on track toward grade level, but that perhaps 10 or 20 sessions would be sufficient.

 The XLT would need effective, targeted tools to quickly and efficiently help students whose progress is stumbling. For example, XLT tutors might have available computer-assisted tutoring modules to assist students who, for example, mastered phonics, but are having difficulty with fluency, or multi-syllabic words, or comprehension of narrative or factual text. In mathematics, they might have specific computer-assisted tutoring modules on place value, fractions, or word problems. The idea is precision and personalization, so that the time of every XLT member is used to maximum effect. From the students’ perspective, assistance from the XLT is not a designation (like special or remedial education), but rather time-limited assistance to enable all students to achieve ambitious and challenging goals.

XLT, would be most effective, I believe, if students have started with intensive tutoring, intensive summer school, or other focused interventions that can bring about rapid progress. This is essential early in students’ progression. Rapid progress at the outset not only sets students up for success, in an academic sense, but it also convinces the student and his or her teachers that he or she is capable of extraordinary progress. Such confidence is crucial.

As an analogy to what I am describing here, consider how you cook a stew. You first bring the stew to a boil, and then simmer for a long time. If you only brought the stew to a boil and then turned off the stove, the stew would never cook. If you only set the stove on simmer, but did not first bring the stew to a boil, it might take hours to cook, if it ever did. It is the sequence of intense energy followed by less intense but lengthy support that does the job. Or consider a rocket to the moon, which needs enormous energy to reach escape velocity, followed by continued but less intense energy to complete the trip.  In education, high-quality preschool or tutoring or intensive summer school can play the part of the boil, but this needs to be followed by long-term, lower-intensity, precisely targeted support.

I would love to see a program of research designed to figure out how to implement long-term support to enable at-risk students to experience rapid success and then build on that success for many years. This is how we will finally leverage our demonstrated ability to make big differences in intensive early intervention, by linking it to multi-year, life-changing services that ensure students’ success in the long term, where it really matters.

References

Neitzel, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2020). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Available at *www.bestevidence.org. Manuscript submitted for publication. *This new review of research on elementary programs for struggling readers had to be taken down because it is under review at a journal.  For a copy of the current draft, contact Amanda Neitzel (aneitzel@jhu.edu).

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