Large-Scale Tutoring in England: Countering Effects of School Closures

The government of England recently announced an investment of £1 billion to provide tutoring and other services to help the many students whose educational progress has been interrupted by Covid-19 school closures. This is the equivalent of $1.24 billion, and adjusting for the difference in populations, it is like a U.S. investment of $7.44 billion, even larger than the equivalent of the similar Dutch investment recently announced.

Both England and the Netherlands have Covid-19 disease and death rates like those of the U.S., and all three countries are unsure of when schools might open in the fall, and whether they will open fully or partially when they do. All three countries have made extensive use of online learning to help students keep up with core content. However, participation rates in online learning have been low, especially for disadvantaged students, who often lack access to equipment and assistance at home. For this reason, education leaders in all of these countries are very concerned that academic achievement will be greatly harmed, and that gaps between middle class and disadvantaged students will grow. The difference is that Dutch and English schools are taking resolute action to remedy this problem, primarily by providing one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring nationwide. The U.S. has not yet done this, except for an initiative in Tennessee.

blog_6-25-20_brittutor_500x425The English initiative has two distinct parts. £650 million will go directly to schools, with an expectation that they will spend most of it on one-to-four tutoring to students who most need it. The schools will mostly use the money to hire and train tutors, mainly student teachers and teaching assistants.

The remaining £350 million will go to fund an initiative led by the Education Endowment Foundation. In this National Tutoring Programme (NTP), 75% of the cost of tutoring struggling students will be subsidized. The tutoring may be either one-to-one or one-to-small group, and will be provided by organizations with proven programs and proven capacity to deliver tutoring at scale in primary and secondary schools. EEF is also carrying out evaluations of promising tutoring programs in various parts of England.

What Do the English and Dutch Tutoring Initiatives Mean for the U.S.?

The English and Dutch tutoring initiatives serve as an example of what wealthy nations can do to combat the learning losses of their students in the Covid-19 emergency. By putting these programs in place now, these countries have allowed time to organize their ambitious plans for fall implementation, and to ensure that the money will be wisely spent. In particular, the English National Tutoring Programme has a strong emphasis on the use of tutoring programs with evidence of effectiveness. In fact, the £350 million NTP could turn out to be the largest pragmatic education investment ever made anywhere designed to put proven programs into widespread use, and if all goes well, this aspect of the NTP could have important implications for evidence-based reform more broadly.

The U.S. is only now beginning to seriously consider tutoring as a means of accelerating the learning of students whose learning progress has been harmed by school closures. There have been proposals to invest in tutoring in both houses of Congress, but these are not expected to pass. Unless our leaders embrace the idea of intensive services to help struggling students soon, schools will partially or fully open in the fall into a very serious crisis. The economy will be in recession and schools will be struggling just to keep qualified teachers in every classroom. The amount of loss in education levels will become apparent. Yet there will not be well-worked-out or well-funded means of enabling schools to remedy the severe losses sure to exist, especially for disadvantaged students. These losses could have long-term negative effects on students’ progress, as poor basic skills reduce students’ abilities to learn advanced content, and undermine their confidence and motivation. Tutoring or other solutions would still be effective if applied later next school year, but by then the problems will be even more difficult to solve.

Perhaps national or state governments or large private foundations could at least begin to pilot and evaluate tutoring programs capable of going to scale. This would be immediately beneficial to the students involved and would facilitate effective implementation and scale-up when government makes the needed resources available. But action is needed now. Gaps in achievement between middle class and disadvantaged students were already the most important problem in American education, and the problem has certainly worsened. This is the time to see that all students receive whatever it takes to get back on a track to success.

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

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

Are the Dutch Solving the Covid Slide with Tutoring?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Large-Scale Tutoring as a Solution for School Closure Losses: Is the Idea Taking Hold?

What will America’s schools be like when they reopen in fall, 2020?  There are many things we don’t know, and conditions will vary considerably from state to state and school to school.  To begin with, we need to strengthen our schools, to be sure they have the teachers and administrators and supplies they need to do their essential work.  However, schools will need more than just a return to the status quo.  One thing we can absolutely predict is that millions of children will have fallen far behind in their educational progression. In particular, many elementary students in the early stages of learning reading and mathematics will need effective and rapid assistance tailored to their needs to get back on track.  Dedicated teachers and other educators will do everything in their power to bring students back up to speed, but without additional assistance, it will be very difficult to overcome the losses so many children have experienced.  States and school districts will be struggling economically, so no matter how clearly they understand what needs to be done, they will need help.  Yet at the same time, there will be large numbers of capable people eager to help struggling children who will be on the sidelines, without jobs that enable them to make the difference they want to make.

If you have been following my blogs for the past month or so (here, here, here, and here), you will be aware that I have been writing quite a bit about the idea of recruiting, training, and deploying large numbers of tutors to work in schools that have been closed for many months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  Our research and reviews of research have found that several one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring approaches that use teaching assistants (usually people with college degrees but not teaching certificates) have demonstrated effect sizes of +0.40 or more, roughly equivalent to five additional months of learning over a school year.  No other type of educational service comes close to these impacts.  My argument has been that in the recession we will be facing when school opens in the fall, it would be good for the economy as well as essential for students to have government fund thousands of tutors to work with students who have fallen far behind grade level in reading or mathematics.

This idea may be taking hold.  For example, the State of Tennessee recently announced a plan to work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters to recruit and train people to serve as tutors, as a response to the school closures (here and here). On May 15, the House of Representatives passed the Heroes Act, which includes substantial additional funding for K-12 education.  This includes “initiatives to reduce education gaps.”  This could certainly include tutoring.  I heard that there was talk in the Senate about funding that could also support tutoring.  None of these federal initiatives are certain, but at this point, what is important is that solutions of this kind are in discussion.

blog_5-28-20_tutor_500x333          In addition, other observers are also proposing large-scale tutoring as a solution for the educational damage done by school closures (and as a means of providing essential employment to thousands of recent college graduates otherwise unable to enter the job market).  Jill Barshay wrote about this in a recent article in the Hechinger Report.  Matthew Kraft and Michael Goldstein wrote on the topic in a recent Brookings blog.  Susan Dynarski wrote an op-ed on the proposal in the New York Times.

One concern I have heard expressed about the tutoring plan is that with all the uncertainties about the progression of Covid-19 and plans to re-open schools, it is not clear whether schools will re-open on time or not, and whenever they do open, they may use double sessions or other means to reduce the number of children being taught at a given time, to allow for social distancing within schools.  If neither cures nor vaccines are available by the fall, late or partial school openings are indeed possible.  We and other tutoring providers are developing and piloting distance tutoring models, and are willing to share them with other tutoring providers, should this be necessary.  And if schools do not open in September at all, then the need for intensive solutions such as tutoring are that much greater, whenever schools open.

If large-scale tutoring is to be used as part of recovery plans for schools, then preparations need to be begun as soon as possible, to coordinate the efforts of various providers, and then begin to recruit and train tutors, trainers, and others whose efforts will be needed to make this all work.  It would be wonderful if some number of tutors could be ready to go, starting with the elementary grades, soon after students arrive in school, and then expand services to add capacity to serve additional children in need over the 2020-2021 school year.

In the late 1930s, the extraordinary potential of penicillin to treat wounds and diseases was known by scientists and government officials in Britain, and they knew that war was coming and that penicillin could save millions of lives.  However, no one knew how to mass produce enough penicillin to matter.  The British contracted with an American company to work rapidly on the problem, and by the start of World War II, there was enough penicillin for a start, and massive manufacturing capacity to make more.  In a way, we are in a similar situation with tutoring.  We know what has to be done to provide millions of American children with the most effective service known to put them back on track, and it is clearly going to be necessary to do so.  Yet we have a lot of work to do to make this happen in time.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused great devastation in our economy, our society, and our schools.  There are many things we must do to repair these losses.  In each arena, we have to use the best methods we have to cost-effectively solve problems caused by the crisis.  In our field of education, there are many things that must be done, but tutoring, to ensure that students can catch up to grade level, should be part of this great effort.

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

Recovery 2020

After a harsh winter, spring has come.

It’s May.  The weather is gorgeous on the Chesapeake, the weather is getting warm, the air is delicious, the flowers are blooming.  From a slight distance, everything seems so normal.   But up close, nothing is normal.  People have settled into patterns of behavior that would be completely bizarre in normal times.  They are wearing masks everywhere as though they have always done so.  Neighbors  are  being as friendly as they can be without getting too close.   Not far away, we know there is chaos and catastrophe, and we all do what we can.  But every day, there is life to be lived, jobs to be done, children to cherish and nurture.

The school year is coming to an end.  In some places, schools have already closed weeks early.   Educators have gotten through the challenges of trying to operate schools when there are no schools to operate.  They have had to use stopgaps, such as distance learning, because there were gaps to stop.  But now we are entering a new phase: Recovery 2020.

Part of Recovery 2020 will be a struggle to open schools while minimizing health risks.  Schools may not even open in September, or may only partially open.  But whenever they fully open, the challenge we face as educators will be to create schools ready to provide extraordinary education to every student, however long they have been out of school and whatever they have experienced in the interim.

In a series of blogs over recent weeks (here, here, and here), I’ve proposed a number of actions schools should take to put students on a new trajectory toward success, engagement, self-esteem, health, and safety.  In this blog, I want to get more specific about some ideas I’d propose to make Recovery 2020 more than a return to the status quo.  More like Status: Go!

  1. Strengthen the Core

First, we have to make sure that the  core of the schooling enterprise, teachers, principals, and administrators, are supported, and their jobs are safe.  There will be a recession, but it cannot be allowed to do the damage the last recession did, when schools could not focus and innovate because they were scrambling to hold on to their staff, just to cover classes.  Federal and state funding must be used to ensure that school staffs can focus on their work, not on managing shortage-induced chaos.  Current school staff should also be able to receive top-quality professional development to enable them to use proven, effective teaching methods in the subjects and grade levels they teach, so they can enhance and accelerate their students’ progress.  School nurses, counselors, and other specialists in whole-child development need to be in every school.

  1. Train and Deploy Thousands of Tutors in Every State and District

blog_5-12-20_tutorcollage_333x500In fall, 2020, schools will open into a recession, yet they will have to make more of a difference in their students’ development than ever before.  Securing the jobs and professional support of school staffs is essential, but not enough.  Students will need personalized, effective support, so they can achieve greater success in school than they have ever had.

If there is a recession, many people will struggle to keep their jobs or to find new ones.  But as always, those who suffer most in a recession are people who are entering the labor market.  There will be millions of college graduates and others ready to work who will find enormous barriers to entering the labor market, which will be overwhelmed keeping experienced workers employed.  This is a huge problem, but also potentially a huge opportunity.  Schools will need help in accelerating student achievement to make up for losses due to school closures and then to continue beyond making up losses to growing gains.  An army of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young people will be eager to get involved serving children.  Government will have to provide relief to these and other unemployed people, so why not have them make a difference in children’s education, rather than just receiving  emergency support?

The solution I am proposing is for government to create a fund, a Marshall Plan for education, to recruit, train, and deploy thousands of tutors in schools across America.  The tutors would be trained, coached, and supervised by experts to deliver proven small-group tutoring models, focused in particular on reading and math, in elementary and middle schools.  They would be paid as teacher assistants, but equipped with specific skills and supports to work with students who are behind in reading or mathematics in elementary or middle schools.  Schools would receive a number of tutors depending on their size and levels of disadvantage and achievement deficits, up to five or more tutors per school.  The tutors would work with struggling students in small groups, using tutoring models proven in rigorous research to be particularly effective.  These models are known to be able to add five or more months of gain to students’ usual yearly progress each year, more than making up the losses most students have experienced.  As time goes on, students who need more tutoring can receive it, so that they can continue to make more than one year’s gain each year, until they reach grade level.

While tutoring is worthwhile in itself, it will also serve a purpose in introducing promising young people to teaching.  School leaders should be enabled to identify especially capable young people who show promise as teachers.  Someone who has been a great tutor will probably become a great teacher.  These people should then be given opportunities to participate in accelerated teacher training leading to certification.  The quality and commitment the tutors show in their daily work will help school leaders identify an extraordinary group of potential teachers to enter classrooms eager and prepared to make a difference.

  1. Train and Deploy School Health Aides

Especially in schools serving many disadvantaged children, there are many children who are achieving below their potential just because they need eyeglasses, or suffer from chronic diseases such as asthma.  Trained health aides can be deployed to make sure that students receive needed eyeglasses, regularly take medication for asthma, and otherwise solve health problems that interfere with success in school.  Working with school nurses, health aides will also be needed to manage ongoing protections against Covid-19 and other threats to health.

After a harsh winter, spring has come.  The wise farmer celebrates, but then he plants.  In the same way, America’s education leaders should celebrate that we have somehow made it this far.  But celebration is not enough.  We have to plan, and to plant, anticipating the opportunity this fall not just to get back to normal, but to create a new normal, better than the one we had, in which we use our nation’s strengths to heal and to build.

Recovery 2020 will take efforts and expenditures beyond just returning schools and students to normal.  But this is essential, and the short- and long-term benefits to our children and our society are clear.  If we are are wise, we will start this process now, to prepare to mobilize resources and energies to open in the fall the best schools we ever had.

Photo credit: Collage photos 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

September, 2020: Opening School Doors to New Opportunities for Universal Success

“Now is the time for all good schools to come to the aid of their country.”

In times of great danger, nations have always called upon their citizens to volunteer to do what is necessary to solve their most pressing problems. Today, our most immediate crisis is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. This time, the heroes who have come forward are health care providers, who risk their lives to save the lives of others. The many people who work in essential services, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, also subject themselves to risks so that others can survive. Teachers across the country are working day and night to prepare online lessons, as well as helping get food to hungry students.  Behind the scenes, scientists are working to find cures, expand testing, and determine when it will be safe for our society to return to normal.

In a few months, we will face a new emergency. Schools will open. Hopefully, school opening will not pose major health threats to students and staff, assuming that the danger of infection has passed. But we will without any doubt face a new set of challenges in the education of the more than 50 million children in elementary and secondary schools in the U.S., as well as the billion students in the world as a whole.

blog_5-7-20_backtoschool500x333 2In the U.S., children re-entering our schools will have been out of school since March. Some may have kept up with their school work online, but most will have had little formal schooling for six months. This will be most serious, of course, among the students most at risk. By next September, 2020, millions of children will not only have missed out on schooling, but many will also be traumatized by what they have experienced since they were last in school. Many will have experienced the disease or death of a close relative. Many will have parents who have lost their jobs, and may have lived in fear of lacking food or safety.

This is a predictable crisis. No one can expect that schools and students will just pick up and carry on when schools re-open, as though they’ve just had a few snow days.  No teacher is going to say on Day 1, “Please open your textbook to the page where we left off last March.”

As educators and policy makers, it would be irresponsible to wait until schools re-open and only then take action to solve the entirely predictable problems. Instead, we need to prepare, starting today, to create the schools students will need in September, 2020, or whenever it is deemed safe for schools to open.

Here are a few ideas I would propose to address the problems students are likely to have.

  1. Bring all students up to grade level in reading and mathematics.

In two recent blogs (here and here) I discussed one aspect of this problem, the fact that many students will have fallen behind in basic skills because of their long absence from face-to-face school. I proposed a Marshall Plan for education, including mobilization of tens of thousands of recent college graduates, and others eager to help, to serve as paid tutors to students who are struggling in reading and/or mathematics.  As I noted, research overwhelmingly points to tutoring as the most effective strategy to accelerate the achievement of students who are performing below their capabilities.  According to the evidence, several one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring models can routinely increase student achievement by an effect size of +0.40 in a year (almost equivalent to the difference between middle class and disadvantaged students). But what if students received effective tutoring for two years, or longer? What if their classroom teachers used teaching methods proven to be effective, contributing further to student success? What if schools could provide services to students with problems with their vision or hearing, or chronic health problems such as asthma? Based on what we already know how to do, a goal of steadily increasing the percentage of students performing at today’s definition of “at grade level” could increase each year, until virtually all students could expect that level of performance.

  1. Schools need to welcome back every child.

When students return to school after the long delay and trauma they may have endured, they need to be welcomed back with enthusiasm by all school staff. The return will create a psychological opportunity.  Students will always remember what happened on the first day, the first weeks, the first months. A big party to welcome students back is a good start, but students will need constant and sincere affirmations of their value and importance to the adults in the school. They need to be told, one at a time and by name, how much they were missed, and how glad everyone is that they are back, safe and healthy. I think the theme of each school should be “a once-in-a-lifetime chance to connect with the school,” not “at last, everything is back to normal.”

  1.  Schools need social emotional and health solutions

In addition to using proven academic approaches, schools need to implement proven social-emotional and health promotion strategies to help all students reconnect and thrive.  Strategies to build self-concept, positive relations with peers, concern for the well-being of others, and a commitment to banish violence and bullying will be especially important.  Cooperative learning can help to build friendships, acceptance, and engagement, in addition to improving achievement.

In light of all that has happened, schools need to enthusiastically welcome their students back, and then provide them the success, respect, and love that they deserve.  They need to give them every reason to believe that they have a new opportunity to achieve success.  Students, parents, and educators alike need to have well-founded confidence that out of the destruction caused by the pandemic, there will come triumph.

 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

Marshall Plan II: Heal the Damage, But Build for the Future

At the end of World War II, Western Europe was devastated. Factories, housing, transportation, everything was destroyed. Millions were homeless, millions were refugees. The U.S. led an international effort to help countries rebuild. The U.S. Marshall Plan (1947-1951) was a massive gift to restart Western European economies and societies.

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“Berlin Emergency Program with Marshall Plan Help” National Archives at College Park / Public domain

There was so much that obviously had to be done in the short term. Yet the leaders of the shattered countries were not just thinking short term. Each of them used a significant portion of the Marshall Plan funding to establish national health systems. One irony never mentioned in the debate about trying European-style universal health care in the U.S. is that U.S. funds were used to create these very plans.

Today we face the COVID-19 crisis. Schools have closed, and are unlikely to re-open until September, at best. There has been a lot of discussion of how to use distance education to help students now, but only recently has there been much talk about what to do when schools re-open to make up the losses. I wrote a recent blog suggesting schools accelerate the achievement of students who have lost ground in basic skills, as well as those who had problems before schools closed and are now in greater difficulty. I suggested providing well-trained teacher assistants with college degrees to use proven tutoring approaches to accelerate student achievement in reading and mathematics. According to evidence, experience, and common sense, large scale, small group tutoring programs, and other proven methods, should enable struggling students to make substantial gains, erasing deficits from the COVID-19 closures.

But why should we stop there? If it is indeed possible to make a big difference in the performance levels of whole schools using proven cost-effective methods, why should we stop?

Time-limited solutions to the educational damage done by the COVID-19 school closures will not make the difference that needs to be made. Getting back to the status quo is not sufficient. Proven strategies capable of rapidly bringing students back to where they were will also demonstrate how schools can produce gains that go far beyond healing the specific damage due to the crisis.

The Marshall Plan helped Western Europe overcome its losses, but also to establish sustainable systems that continue to ensure the health of their populations 75 years later. In the same way, our solution to the educational impacts of the COVID-19 crisis could help establish a new basis for success for millions of children. Seventy-five years from now, wouldn’t it be wonderful if people recalled that in 2020, a worldwide pandemic finally shocked American education into solving its fundamental problems?

 This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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

A Marshall Plan for Post-COVID-19 Recovery

In World War II, my father was in the U.S. Navy.  In 1945, he was serving on a specially outfitted destroyer preparing for the invasion of Japan.  He always claimed that had the invasion gone forward, he would have been doomed.  He was in charge of his ship’s “radio-radar countermeasures,” new technology that would have been able to blind the radio and radar of the Japanese Navy so that there would have been only one ship they could detect: his.  Fortunately, the Japanese surrendered on October 14, before the invasion was set to begin.

I’m sure you’ve seen the famous picture of jubilant crowds in New York celebrating the surrender.  My father’s experience was different.  He was landed in Tokyo as part of the occupation forces.  He described Tokyo as a city whose former industrial and military areas had not one stone standing on another.  Many others have described similar scenes in Europe and Asia.  Like all servicemen, he was relieved that the war had ended, that he had survived.  But the extent of the destruction was horrifying, even to the victors.  How could a normal country grow back from this desert?

But it did.  Even the countries that suffered the greatest destruction were able, with American and other help, to rebuild, and ultimately to prosper.  The U.S. Marshall Plan, in particular, was a far-sighted investment in reconstruction that led the way in enabling destroyed countries to rebuild their societies and their economies.

Now we face another challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic.  I write from Baltimore at the point of inflection, when new cases of the disease have started to decline.  But it will still take a long time for everything to return to normal.  Compared to the death and destruction of World War II, COVID-19 is far less of a challenge, but day to day, it does not feel that way.  And unlike VJ Day, there will not be a day when it all ends, when everyone knows they are safe.

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For Americans, World War II was awful, but it was far away.  Life went on.  Schools and universities were open.  COVID-19 is different, because it profoundly affects the daily life of every American.  Most relevant to the readers of this blog, COVID-19 is severely interrupting the education of a generation.  This is a particular problem, of course, for disadvantaged students, whose parents are more likely to get the virus, who are less likely to have technology at home, and who were often already having difficulties in school.  How will we rebuild?  How will we help students regain the learning and the sense of security they once had?  And can we use this sobering experience to make lasting improvements in education?

Educational leaders are starting to think about what comes next.  Most are overwhelmed with the present, trying to figure out how, for example, to use distance learning to substitute for in-person school.  But anyone who has a child, or knows a child, or has ever been a child or parent, knows that distance education is not going to be enough, certainly not for most children, even in areas where students have plenty of computers, access to the Internet, excellent support from teachers teaching online, and parents who are willing and able to fill in to make sure that students are taking full advantage of whatever the school is providing their children. There will be happy exceptions, but there is a reason that homeschooling is rare.  When the schools open, hopefully next September, there will be a huge job to be done to repair the damage COVID-19 will have done to the educational futures of the 50 million U.S. children in grades PK to 12, as well as hundreds of millions more throughout the world.

One thing that seems highly likely is that when schools do open, they will open into an economic recession.  Currently, there is much concern for people who have lost their jobs, and initial efforts by the federal government have focused on propping up businesses and helping people who were employed, but happened to work for companies that had to close due to the pandemic.  This is essential, of course.  However, there is another problem that also needs attention: people who are just entering the workforce.  Since the Great Depression, economists have known how to respond to such crises: invest massively in people, to jump start the economy.

I would propose a solution that could help both with the schools and the recession. Schools should hire, train, and deploy large numbers of recent (and not so recent) college graduates as tutors, and in other essential roles in schools.

There is no intervention known that has an impact larger than that of tutoring.  One-to- one is most effective, but one-to-small group can also make a substantial difference in reading and mathematics performance in elementary and middle schools, and reaches many more students at a much lower cost per student.  Our recent research reviews (Baye et al., 2019; Neitzel et al., 2020; Pellegrini et al., 2020) tell us that teaching assistants, with proven materials and expert professional development, can obtain outcomes as good as those obtained by certified teachers working as tutors.

Imagine that every school could receive up to five well-trained, well-supported teaching assistant tutors, with the number of tutors determined by the school’s needs. This tutor corps could work with the students who are struggling in reading and/or mathematics, for as long as they need the assistance.  Our experience with small-group tutoring of this kind suggests that the cost per student tutored would be around $600 per year (Madden & Slavin, 2017).  Title I schools, especially those serving the most disadvantaged students, should be first in line for this assistance.  $600 per pupil per year is serious money, but well worth it in light of the need.  (Note: there are people suggesting that all students who missed school should repeat their most recent grade.  At an average per-pupil cost of $12,000 to do this, $600 per year sounds awfully reasonable as an alternative).   There are tutoring programs operating right now that can routinely obtain effect sizes of 0.40, or roughly 5 additional months of learning.  This  could go a very long way to not only solve the problems of students whose progress was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also help the many students who had problems before, which now need to be urgently addressed).

College graduates could also be trained as health aides, to use proven strategies to ensure that students who need them receive and use eyeglasses, or receive needed medications for asthma and other chronic illnesses that affect children’s school success as well as their long-term health).  They might also be trained and deployed to work with parents on issues such as attendance, social-emotional development, and mental health.

The problems of schools after the COVID-19 health crisis has passed must be addressed, with sufficient power and intensity to ensure that they get solved.  A return to normal is not sufficient.

We may never have a V-COVID Day, as we did a V-J Day after World War II.  But we must have a Marshall Plan for schools.  Universal access to tutoring and other essential services for students who need them would be a feasible, cost-effective start to a plan to reconstruct our schools.

Photo: National Archives at College Park / Public domain

References

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

Madden, N. A., & Slavin, R. E. (2017). Evaluations of technology-assisted small-group tutoring for struggling readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 1-8.

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., 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.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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

Cherry Picking? Or Making Better Trees?

Everyone knows that cherry picking is bad. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. Cherry picking means showing non-representative examples to give a false impression of the quality of a product, an argument, or a scientific finding. In educational research, for example, cherry picking might mean a publisher or software developer showing off a school using their product that is getting great results, without saying anything about all the other schools using their product that are getting mediocre results, or worse. Very bad, and very common. The existence of cherry picking is one major reason that educational leaders should always look at valid research involving many schools to evaluate the likely impact of a program. The existence of cherry picking also explains why preregistration of experiments is so important, to make it difficult for developers to do many experiments and then publicize only the ones that got the best results, ignoring the others.

However, something that looks a bit like cherry picking can be entirely appropriate, and is in fact an important way to improve educational programs and outcomes. This is when there are variations in outcomes among various programs of a given type. The average across all programs of that type is unimpressive, but some individual programs have done very well, and have replicated their findings in multiple studies.

As an analogy, let’s move from cherries to apples. The first delicious apple was grown by a farmer in Iowa in 1880. He happened to notice that fruit from one particular branch or one tree had a beautiful shape and a terrific flavor. The Stark Seed Company was looking for new apple varieties, and they bought his tree They grafted the branch on an ordinary rootstock, and (as apples are wont to do), every apple on the grafted tree looked and tasted like the ones from that one unusual branch.

blog_4-16-20_applepicking_333x500 Had the farmer been hoping to sell his whole orchard, and had he taken potential buyers to see this one tree, and offered potential buyers picked apples from this particular branch, then that would be gross cherry-picking. However, he knew (and the Stark Seed Company knew) all about grafting, so instead of using his exceptional branch to fool anyone (note that I am resisting the urge to mention “graft and corruption”), the farmer and Stark could replicate that amazing branch. The key here is the word “replicate.” If it were impossible to replicate the amazing branch, the farmer would have had a local curiosity at most, or perhaps just a delicious occasional snack. But with replication, this one branch transformed the eating apple for a century.

Now let’s get back to education. Imagine that there were a category of educational programs that generally had mediocre results in rigorous experiments. There is always variation in educational outcomes, so the developers of each program would know of individual schools using their program and getting fantastic results. This would be useful for marketing, but if the program developers are honest, they would make all studies of their program available, rather than claiming that the unusual super-duper schools represent what an average school that adopts their program is likely to obtain.

However, imagine that there is a program that resembles others in its category in most ways, yet time and again gets results far beyond those obtained by similar programs of the same type. Perhaps there is a “secret sauce,” some specific factor that explains the exceptional outcomes, or perhaps the organization that created and/or disseminates the program is exceptionally capable. Either way, any potential user would be missing something if they selected a program based on the mediocre average achievement outcomes for its category. If the outcomes for one or more programs are outstanding (and assuming costs and implementation characteristics are similar), then the average achievement effects for the category should no longer be particularly relevant, because any educator who cares about evidence should be looking for the most effective programs, since no one would want to implement an entire category.

I was thinking about apples and cherries because of our group’s work reviewing research on various tutoring programs (Neitzel et al., 2020). As is typical of reviews, we were computing average effect sizes for achievement impacts of categories. Yet these average impacts were much less than the replicated impacts for particular programs. For example, the mean effect size for one-to-small group tutoring was +0.20. Yet various individual programs had mean effect sizes of +0.31, +0.39, +0.42, +0.43, +0.46, and +0.64. In light of these findings, is the practical impact of small group tutoring truly +0.20, or is it somewhere in the range of +0.31 to +0.64? If educators chose programs based on evidence, they would be looking a lot harder at the programs with the larger impacts, not at the mean of all small-group tutoring approaches

Educational programs cannot be replicated (grafted) as easily as apple trees can. But just as the value to the Stark Seed Company of the Iowa farmer’s orchard could not be determined by averaging ratings of a sampling of all of his apples, the value of a category of educational programs cannot be determined by its average effects on achievement. Rather, the value of the category should depend on the effectiveness of its best, replicated, and replicable examples.

At least, you have to admit it’s a delicious idea!

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 blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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

 

Science of Reading: Can We Get Beyond Our 30-Year Pillar Fight?

How is it possible that the “reading wars” are back on? The reading wars primarily revolve around what are often called the five pillars of early reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency. Actually, there is little debate about the importance of comprehension, vocabulary, or fluency, so the reading wars are mainly about phonemic awareness and phonics. Diehard anti-phonics advocates exist, but in all of educational research, there are few issues that have been more convincingly settled by high-quality evidence. The National Reading Panel (2000), the source of the five pillars, has been widely cited as conclusive evidence that success in the early stages of reading depends on ensuring that students are all successful in phonemic awareness, phonics, and the other pillars. I was invited to serve on that panel, but declined, because I thought it was redundant. Just a short time earlier, the National Research Council’s Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) had covered essentially the same ground and came to essentially the same conclusion, as had Marilyn Adams’ (1990) Beginning to Read, and many individual studies. To my knowledge, there is little credible evidence to the contrary. Certainly, then and now there have been many students who learn to read successfully with or without a focus on phonemic awareness and phonics. However, I do not think there are many students who could succeed with non-phonetic approaches but cannot learn to read with phonics-emphasis methods. In other words, there is little if any evidence that phonemic awareness or phonics cause harm, but a great deal of evidence that for perhaps more than half of students, effective instruction emphasizing phonemic awareness and phonics are essential.  Since it is impossible to know in advance which students will need phonics and which will not, it just makes sense to teach using methods likely to maximize the chances that all children (those who need phonics and those who would succeed with or without them) will succeed in reading.

However…

The importance of the five pillars of the National Reading Panel (NRP) catechism are not in doubt among people who believe in rigorous evidence, as far as I know. The reading wars ended in the 2000s and the five pillars won. However, this does not mean that knowing all about these pillars and the evidence behind them is sufficient to solve America’s reading problems. The NRP pillars describe essential elements of curriculum, but not of instruction.

blog_3-19-20_readinggroup_333x500Improving reading outcomes for all children requires the five pillars, but they are not enough. The five pillars could be extensively and accurately taught in every school of education, and this would surely help, but it would not solve the problem. State and district standards could emphasize the five pillars and this would help, but would not solve the problem. Reading textbooks, software, and professional development could emphasize the five pillars and this would help, but it would not solve the problem.

The reason that such necessary policies would still not be sufficient is that teaching effectiveness does not just depend on getting curriculum right. It also depends on the nature of instruction, classroom management, grouping, and other factors. Teaching reading without teaching phonics is surely harmful to large numbers of students, but teaching phonics does not guarantee success.

As one example, consider grouping. For a very long time, most reading teachers have used homogeneous reading groups. For example, the “Stars” might contain the highest-performing readers, the “Rockets” the middle readers, and the “Planets” the lowest readers. The teacher calls up groups one at a time. No problem there, but what are the students doing back at their desks? Mostly worksheets, on paper or computers. The problem is that if there are three groups, each student spends two thirds of reading class time doing, well, not much of value. Worse, the students are sitting for long periods of time, with not much to do, and the teacher is fully occupied elsewhere. Does anyone see the potential for idle hands to become the devil’s playground? The kids do.

There are alternatives to reading groups, such as the Joplin Plan (cross-grade grouping by reading level), forms of whole-class instruction, or forms of cooperative learning. These provide active teaching to all students all period. There is good evidence for these alternatives (Slavin, 1994, 2017). My main point is that a reading strategy that follows NRP guidelines 100% may still succeed or fail based on its grouping strategy. The same could be true of the use of proven classroom management strategies or motivational strategies during reading periods.

To make the point most strongly, imagine that a district’s teachers have all thoroughly mastered all five pillars of science of reading, which (we’ll assume) are strongly supported by their district and state. In an experiment, 40 teachers of grades 1 to 3 are selected, and 20 of these are chosen at random to receive sufficient tutors to work with their lowest-achieving 33% of students in groups of four, using a proven model based on science of reading principles. The other 20 schools just use their usual materials and methods, also emphasizing science of reading curricula and methods.

The evidence from many studies of tutoring (Inns et al., 2020), as well as common sense, tell us what would happen. The teachers supported by tutors would produce far greater achievement among their lowest readers than would the other equally science-of-reading-oriented teachers in the control group.

None of these examples diminish the importance of science of reading. But they illustrate that knowing science of reading is not enough.

At www.evidenceforessa.org, you can find 65 elementary reading programs of all kinds that meet high standards of effectiveness. Almost all of these use approaches that emphasize the five pillars. Yet Evidence for ESSA also lists many programs that equally emphasize the five pillars and yet have not found positive impacts. Rather than re-starting our thirty-year-old pillar fight, don’t you think we might move on to advocating programs that not only use the right curricula, but are also proven to get excellent results for kids?

References

Adams, M.J. (1990).  Beginning to read:  Thinking and learning about print.  Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press.

Inns, 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.

National Reading Panel (2000).  Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction.  Rockville, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Slavin, R. E. (1994). School and classroom organization in beginning reading:  Class size, aides, and instructional grouping. In R. E. Slavin, N. L. Karweit, and B. A. Wasik (Eds.), Preventing early school failure. Boston:  Allyn and Bacon.

Slavin, R. E. (2017). Instruction based on cooperative learning. In R. Mayer & P. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of research on learning and instruction. New York: Routledge.

Snow, C.E., Burns, S.M., & Griffin, P. (Eds.) (1998).  Preventing reading difficulties in young children.  Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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

 

How Tutoring Works (Cooking With The Grandkids)

My wife, Nancy, and I have three grandkids: Adaya (4 ½), Leo (3 ½), and Ava (8 months). They all live in Baltimore, so we see quite a lot of them, which is wonderful.

As with most grandparents and grandkids, one of our favorite activities with Adaya and Leo is cooking. We have two folding stepladders in the kitchen, which the kids work from. They help make pancakes, scrambled eggs, spaghetti, and other family classics. We start off giving the kids easy and safe tasks, like measuring and pouring ingredients into bowls and mixing, and as they become proficient, we let them pour ingredients into hot pans, scramble eggs on the stove, and so on. They love every bit of this, and are so proud of their accomplishments.

So here is my question. What are we making when we cook with the grandkids? If you say pancakes and eggs, that’s not wrong, but perhaps these are the least important things we are doing.

blog_1-30-20_kidcooking_500x333

What we are really doing is building the thrill of mastery in a loving and supportive context. All children are born into a confusing world. They want to understand their world and to learn to operate effectively in it. They want to do what the big people do. They also want to be loved and valued.

Now consider children who need tutoring because they are behind in reading. These kids are in very big trouble, and they know it. All of them understand what the purpose of school is. It is to learn to read. Yet they know they are not succeeding.

The solution, I believe, is a lot like cooking with people who love you. In other words, it’s tutoring, in small groups or one-to-one.

The effectiveness of tutoring is very well established in rigorous research, as I’ve noted more than once in this series of blogs. No surprise there. But what is surprising is that well-trained, caring tutors without teaching certificates using well-structured materials get outcomes just as good as those obtained by certified teachers. How can this be? If tutoring works primarily because it enables teachers to adapt instruction to meet the learning needs of individual students, then you’d expect that students who receive tutoring from certified, experienced teachers would get much better outcomes than those tutored by teaching assistants. But they don’t, on average. Further, a U.K. study of one-to-one tutoring over the internet found an effect size of zero. These and other unexpected findings support a conclusion that while the ability to individualize instruction is important in tutoring, it is not enough. The additional factor that explains much of the powerful impacts of tutoring, I believe, is love. Most tutors, with or without teaching certificates, love the children they tutor in a way that a teacher with 25 or 30 students usually cannot. A tutor with one or just a few children at a time is certain to get to know those children, and to care about them deeply. From the perspective of struggling children, their tutor is not just a teacher. She or he is a lifeline, a new chance to achieve the mastery they crave. Someone who knows and cares about then and will stick with them until they can read.

This is why individual or small-group tutoring is a bit like cooking with your grandparents. In both settings, children receive the two things they need and value the most: love and mastery.

My point here is not sentimental or idealistic. It is deadly practical. We already know a lot about how to use tutoring effectively and cost-effectively. Yet there is a great deal more we need to learn to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs of effective tutoring. We need to find out how to extend positive effects to larger numbers of students, to learn how to maintain and build on initial successes in the early grades, how to successfully tutor upper-elementary and secondary students, and how to reach students who still do not succeed despite small-group tutoring. We need to experiment with adaptations of tutoring for English learners.

We know that tutoring is powerful, but we need to make it more cost-effective without reducing its impact, so that many more children can experience the thrill of mastery. To do that, we have a lot of work to do. Let’s get cooking!

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.