The Curious Case of the Missing Programs

“Let me tell you, my dear Watson, about one of my most curious and vexing cases,” said Holmes. “I call it, ‘The Case of the Missing Programs’. A school superintendent from America sent me a letter.  It appears that whenever she looks in the What Works Clearinghouse to find a program her district wants to use, nine times out of ten there is nothing there!”

Watson was astonished. “But surely there has to be something. Perhaps the missing programs did not meet WWC standards, or did not have positive effects!”

“Not meeting standards or having disappointing outcomes would be something,” responded Holmes, “but the WWC often says nothing at all about a program. Users are apparently confused. They don’t know what to conclude.”

“The missing programs must make the whole WWC less useful and reliable,” mused Watson.

“Just so, my friend,” said Holmes, “and so we must take a trip to America to get to the bottom of this!”

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While Holmes and Watson are arranging steamship transportation to America, let me fill you in on this very curious case.

In the course of our work on Evidence for ESSA (www.evidenceforessa.org), we are occasionally asked by school district leaders why there is nothing in our website about a given program, text, or software. Whenever this happens, our staff immediately checks to see if there is any evidence we’ve missed. If we are pretty sure that there are no studies of the missing program that meet our standards, we add the program to our website, with a brief indication that there are no qualifying studies. If any studies do meet our standards, we review them as soon as possible and add them as meeting or not meeting ESSA standards.

Sometimes, districts or states send us their entire list of approved texts and software, and we check them all to see that all are included.

From having done this for more than a year, we now have an entry on most of the reading and math programs any district would come up with, though we keep getting more all the time.

All of this seems to us to be obviously essential. If users of Evidence for ESSA look up their favorite programs, or ones they are thinking of adopting, and find that there is no entry, they begin losing confidence in the whole enterprise. They cannot know whether the program they seek was ignored or missed for some reason, or has no evidence of effectiveness, or perhaps has been proven effective but has not been reviewed.

Recently, a large district sent me their list of 98 approved and supplementary texts, software, and other programs in reading and math. They had marked each according to the ratings given by the What Works Clearinghouse and Evidence for ESSA. At the time (a few weeks ago), Evidence for ESSA had listings for 67% of the programs. Today, of course, it has 100%, because we immediately set to work researching and adding in all the programs we’d missed.

What I found astonishing, however, is how few of the district’s programs were mentioned at all in the What Works Clearinghouse. Only 15% of the reading and math programs were in the WWC.

I’ve written previously about how far behind the WWC is in reviewing programs. But the problem with the district list was not just a question of slowness. Many of the programs the WWC missed have been around for some time.

I’m not sure how the WWC decides what to review, but they do not seem to be trying for completeness. I think this is counterproductive. Users of the WWC should expect to be able to find out about programs that meet standards for positive outcomes, those that have an evidence base that meets evidence standards but do not have positive outcomes, those that have evidence not meeting standards, and those that have no evidence at all. Yet it seems clear that the largest category in the WWC is “none of the above.” Most programs a user would be interested in do not appear at all in the WWC. Most often, a lack of a listing means a lack of evidence, but this is not always the case, especially when evidence is recent. One way or another, finding big gaps in any compendium undermines faith in the whole effort. It’s difficult to expect educational leaders to get into the habit of looking for evidence if most of the programs they consider are not listed.

Imagine, for example, that a telephone book was missing a significant fraction of the people who live in a given city. Users would be frustrated about not being able to find their friends, and the gaps would soon undermine confidence in the whole phone book.

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When Holmes and Watson arrived in the U.S., they spoke with many educators who’d tried to find programs in the WWC, and they heard tales of frustration and impatience. Many former users said they no longer bothered to consult the WWC and had lost faith in evidence in their field. Fortunately, Holmes and Watson got a meeting with U.S. Department of Education officials, who immediately understood the problem and set to work to find the evidence base (or lack of evidence) for every reading and math program in America. Usage of the WWC soared, and support for evidence-based reform in education increased.

Of course, this outcome is fictional. But it need not remain fictional. The problem is real, and the solution is simple. Or as Holmes would say, “Elementary and secondary, my dear Watson!”

Photo credit: By Rumensz [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

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

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More Chinese Dragons: How the WWC Could Accelerate Its Pace

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A few months ago, I wrote a blog entitled “The Mystery of the Chinese Dragon: Why Isn’t the WWC Up to Date?” It really had nothing to do with dragons, but compared the timeliness of the What Works Clearinghouse review of research on secondary reading programs and a Baye et al. (2017) review on the same topic. The graph depicting the difference looked a bit like a Chinese dragon with a long tail near the ground and huge jaws. The horizontal axis was the dates accepted studies had appeared, and the vertical axis was the number of studies. Here is the secondary reading graph.

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What the graph showed is that the WWC and the U.S. studies from the Baye et al. (2017) review were similar in coverage of studies appearing from 1987 to 2009, but after that diverged sharply, because the WWC is very slow to add new studies, in comparison to reviews using similar methods.

In the time since the Chinese Dragon for secondary reading studies appeared on my blog, my colleagues and I have completed two more reviews, one on programs for struggling readers by Inns et al. (2018) and one on programs for elementary math by Pellegrini et al. (2018). We made new Chinese Dragon graphs for each, which appear below.*

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*Note: In the reading graph, the line for “Inns et al.” added numbers of studies from the Inns et al. (2018) review of programs for struggling readers to additional studies of programs for all elementary students in an unfinished report.

The new dragons look remarkably like the first. Again, what matters is the similar pattern of accepted studies before 2009, (the “tail”), and the sharply diverging rates in more recent years (the “jaws”).

There are two phenomena that cause the dragons’ “jaws” to be so wide open. The upper jaw, especially in secondary reading and elementary math, indicate that many high-quality rigorous evaluations are appearing in recent years. Both the WWC inclusion standards and those of the Best Evidence Encyclopedia (BEE; www.bestevidence.org) require control groups, clustered analysis for clustered designs, samples that are well-matched at pretest and have similar attrition by posttest, and other features indicating methodological rigor, of the kind expected by the ESSA evidence standards, for example.

The upper jaw of each dragon is increasing so rapidly because rigorous research is increasing rapidly in the U.S. (it is also increasing rapidly in the U.K., but the WWC does not include non-U.S. studies, and non-U.S. studies are removed from the graph for comparability). This increase is due to U. S. Department of Education funding of many rigorous studies in each topic area, through its Institute for Education Sciences (IES) and Investing in Innovation (i3) programs, and special purpose funding such as Striving Readers and Preschool Curriculum Education Research. These recent studies are not only uniformly rigorous, they are also of great importance to educators, as they evaluate current programs being actively disseminated today. Many of the older programs whose evaluations appear on the dragons’ tails no longer exist, as a practical matter. If educators wanted to adopt them, the programs would have to be revised or reinvented. For example, Daisy Quest, still in the WWC, was evaluated on TRS-80 computers not manufactured since the 1980s. Yet exciting new programs with rigorous evaluations, highlighted in the BEE reviews, do not appear at all in the WWC.

I do not understand why the WWC is so slow to add new evaluations, but I suspect that the answer lies in the painstaking procedures any government has to follow to do . . ., well, anything. Perhaps there are very good reasons for this stately pace of progress. However, the result is clear. The graph below shows the publication dates of every study in every subject and grade level accepted by the WWC and entered on its database. This “half-dragon” graph shows that only 26 studies published or made available after 2013 appear on the entire WWC database. Of these, only two have appeared after 2015.

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The slow pace of the WWC is of particular concern in light of the appearance of the ESSA evidence standards. More educators than ever before must be consulting the WWC, and many must be wondering why programs they know to exist are not listed there, or why recent studies do not appear.

Assuming that there are good reasons for the slow pace of the WWC, or that for whatever reason the pace cannot be greatly accelerated, what can be done to bring the WWC up to date? I have a suggestion.

Imagine that the WWC commissioned someone to do rapid updating of all topics reviewed on the WWC website. The reviews would follow WWC guidelines, but would appear very soon after studies were published or issued. It’s clear that this is possible, because we do it for Evidence for ESSA (www.evidenceforessa.org). Also, the WWC has a number of “quick reviews,” “single study reports,” and so on, scattered around on its site, but not integrated with its main “Find What Works” reviews of various programs. These could be readily integrated with “Find What Works.”

The recent studies identified in this accelerated process might be identified as “provisionally reviewed,” much as the U. S. Patent Office has “patent pending” before inventions are fully patented. Users would have an option to look only at program reports containing fully reviewed studies, or could decide to look at reviews containing both fully and provisionally reviewed studies. If a more time consuming full review of a study found results different from those of the provisional review, the study report and the program report in which it was contained would be revised, of course.

A process of this kind could bring the WWC up to date and keep it up to date, providing useful, actionable evidence in a timely fashion, while maintaining the current slower process, if there is a rationale for it.

The Chinese dragons we are finding in every subject we have examined indicate the rapid growth and improving quality of evidence on programs for schools and students. The U. S. Department of Education and our whole field should be proud of this, and should make it a beacon on a hill, not hide our light under a bushel. The WWC has the capacity and the responsibility to highlight current, high-quality studies as soon as they appear. When this happens, the Chinese dragons will retire to their caves, and all of us, government, researchers, educators, and students, will benefit.

References

Baye, A., Lake, C., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (2017). Effective reading programs for secondary students. Manuscript submitted for publication. Also see Baye, A., Lake, C., Inns, A. & Slavin, R. E. (2017, August). Effective reading programs for secondary students. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, Center for Research and Reform in Education.

Inns, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2018). Effective programs for struggling readers: A best-evidence synthesis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington, DC.

Pellegrini, M., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (2018). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington, DC.

Photo credit: J Bar [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

The Mystery of the Chinese Dragon: Why Isn’t the WWC Up to Date?

As evidence becomes more important in educational practice and policy, it is increasingly critical that it be up-to-date. This sounds obvious. Of course we’d prefer evidence from recent studies, which are more likely to have been done under social and political conditions like those that exist today, using standards like those prevailing today.

However, there are reasons that up-to-date evidence is especially important in today’s policy environment. Up-to-date evidence is critical because it is far more likely than earlier research to meet very high methodological standards. Because of substantial investments by the U.S. Department of Education and others, there has been an outpouring of top-quality, randomized, usually third-party evaluations of programs for all subjects and grade levels, published from 2012 to the present.

The reason this matters in practice is that to satisfy ESSA evidence standards, many educators are using the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) to identify proven programs. And the What Works Clearinghouse is very slow in reviewing studies, and therefore does not contain many of the latest, and therefore highest-quality studies.

The graph below illustrates the problem. It compares all secondary literacy (grades 6-12) studies reported by the WWC as of fall, 2017, on the orange line. The blue line represents a review of research on the same topic by Baye et al. (2017; see www.bestevidence.org). I think the graph resembles a Chinese dragon, with its jaws wide open and a long tail. The sort of dragon you see in Chinese New Year’s parades.

 

 

What the graph shows is that while the number of studies published up to 2009 were about equal for Baye et al. and WWC, they diverged sharply in 2010 (thus the huge open jaws). Baye et al. reported on 58 studies published in 2010 to 2017. WWC reported on only 6, and none at all from 2016 or 2017.

The same patterns are apparent throughout the WWC. Across every topic and grade level, the WWC has only 7 accepted studies from 2014, 7 from 2015, zero from 2016, and zero from 2017.

It is likely that every one of the Baye et al. studies would meet WWC standards. Yet the WWC has just not gotten to them.

It’s important to note that the What Works Clearinghouse is plenty busy. Recent studies are often included in Quick Reviews, Single Study Reviews, Grant Competition Reports, and Practice Guides. However, an educator going to the WWC for guidance on what works will go to Find What Works and click on one of the 12 topic areas, which will list programs. They then may filter their search and go to intervention reports.

These intervention reports are not integrated with Quick Reviews, Single Study Reviews, Grant Competition Reports, or Practice Guides, so the user has no easy way to find out about more recent evaluations, if they in fact appear anywhere in any of these reports. Even if users did somehow find additional information on a program in one of these supplemental reports, the information may be incomplete. In many cases, the supplemental report only notes whether a study meets WWC standards, but does not provide any information about what the outcome was.

The slow pace of the WWC reviews is problematic for many reasons. In addition to missing out on the strongest and most recent studies, the WWC does not register changes in the evidence base for programs already in its database. New programs may not appear at all, leaving readers to wonder why.

Any website developer knows that if users go to a website and are unable to find what they expect to find, they are unlikely to come back. The WWC is a website, and it cannot expect many users to check back every few months to see if programs that interest them, which they know to exist, have been added lately.

In the context of the ESSA evidence standards, the slow pace of the WWC is particularly disturbing. Although the WWC has chosen not to align itself with ESSA standards, many educators use the WWC as a guide to which programs are likely to meet ESSA standards. Failing to keep the WWC up to date may convince many users seeking ESSA information that there are few programs meeting either WWC or ESSA standards.

Educators need accurate, up-to-date information to make informed choices for their students. I hope the WWC will move quickly to provide its readers with essential, useful data on today’s evidence supporting today’s programs. It’s going to have to catch up with the Chinese dragon, or be left to watch the parade going by.